Florian Ross: Quo Vadis Jazz Composition?

It was probably roughly 25 years ago, when I fell in love with the sound of the big band for the first time. At that time, at the age of just under 18, I was one of the a pianists rehearsing with the Youth Jazz Orchestra of Baden-Württemberg (German province/state) and simply enjoyed bathing in that sound... even in the sound of a youth orchestra! And I still love it.

Over the years I have struggled through many ups and downs, learned to deal with the high pressure of being a bandleader, and learned to endure and positively redirect the blunt (and mostly justified) criticism of the orchestra musicians. I have internalized that musicians lend me their talent, bring my music to life - and for that I am always grateful when I'm standing in front of a band.

I have learned the trade. I know how and for whom I have to write so that it sounds like I want it to sound. I write fast and hardly ever out of context. There are little if any surprises when rehearsals begin. Alterations in the pieces are seldom necessary. The notation is legible and playable (although I am still eager to learn), and reality matches my imagination.  In other words, I am happy to have arrived here after many hard lessons and efforts: The Big Band has become a reliable tool for me to awaken my music.

What do you do next when your craft has reached a certain level? One should take care of what was most important even before climbing the base camp of the Ability Mountain: the music! But what is that, exactly? Skills are only tools that help to materialize creativity.

I find music should include aesthetics, surprise, fun, drama, (and architecture, but that's just me). Music that inspires me contains these ingredients. When I listen to music nowadays (any style), it's neither clever time signatures nor interesting voicings or instrumentations that touch me. It's the things that are not so easy to grasp.

As in any art form, I believe, the goal should be to create something that is more than the sum of its parts. I am afraid that the effort to learn and understand any art form can lead to losing oneself in the eagerness of this (craftsmanship) battle. It can happen that you divert your focus from the music to the technicalities of it without even noticing. Losing oneself can happen especially if you have worked your way through academia, which can ultimately lead to a loss of awareness of aesthetics and tensions of the 'whole' – however, in my opinion this is really the core and definition of good music.

Nowadays, a good part of my everyday life consists of passing on this message to the younger generation, be it as a piano teacher or in the field of composition. Especially through the regular encounters with young instrumentalists and composers, it is becoming increasingly clear to me what is all too often forgotten: The return to the core of music creating and music making!

The "skill first, then creativity" approach is just as wrong as the "creativity first, skill not

needed" approach. However, much of young composers' works sound as if they are following either of these two polar positions. Of course, just as it took me decades to understand this, you can't blame the youngsters - but you can blame the old guys!

It should be our task to ask the next generation of Big Band composers’ questions continually:

  • Do you know what you want to achieve with your piece?
  • Which story do you want to tell?
  • Is it the words that interest you or is it the story?
  • When and why do you want to surprise?
  • Are you writing a poem, or just a collection of beautiful words?
  • What's more important? The construct or the content?

These are just a few of the questions that, in my opinion, often fall far short of the mark. As a result, many young composers paint with an abundance of colours, but don't know whether they're painting a portrait or a landscape. I hear many interesting words, sometimes sentences, but few stories - especially not those that are personal and different from other stories. I hear music so overloaded with tension that it becomes boring and superfluous. Yes, even a 10/8 beat and quartertones can be dull.

There's also a lot of stealing going on, which I usually approve of and even encourage my students to do. However, there is nothing worse than cheap stealing – or just stealing gestures instead of story telling.

On the other hand, I also come across stories in which the definitions of words are not clear, grammar is erroneous and punctuation is incorrect - although, this seems to happen less often, nowadays.

One needs both: tools to build and a plan what you'd like to build, and why - only then will one be lucky enough to create something meaningful. It would be a mistake to concentrate on either or the other, especially at a young age. One should always look at the ground and at the sky.

Especially now, when I had assumed that I could relax a bit after many years of struggle with the acquisition of skills, I have to realize that a new mountain appears on the horizon: the recollection of the beauty, the ugliness, love, aggression and drama of music - all that I had always loved. A new, old task that is worth mastering.


About the Author:

Florian Ross Pianist, Composer www.florianross.de

Florian Ross likes travelling unusual paths. Born in 1972, he studied piano and composition in Cologne, London and New York with John Taylor, Joachim Ullrich, Bill Dobbins, Don Friedman and Jim McNeely.

The first of Ross’s numerous albums was released in 1998 under his own name. Ross’s recordings look closely at both the multifaceted jazz tradition and his extraordinary handling of contemporary material. In all formations, from trio to quintet, from string orchestra to brass ensemble, Ross succeeds in reconciling two seemingly different musical forms: improvised and composed. While many of his European colleagues consider it a virtue to distance themselves from the mainstream, another camp makes an effort to continue the American jazz tradition in Europe as authentically as possible.

Florian Ross’s music is a refreshing break from this often embarrassing programmatic context. Ross not only ignores the demarcation line but translates traditional aspects into a language of the present. His lack of interest in the idea of “higher, further, faster“ corresponds to his fondness for deeper sound regions and warmer timbres, as sounds oscillate between blue, orange and terracotta.

This foundation invites inspiration: the architecture is occasionally daring but never cool. Intellect and feeling do not exclude each other; the head listens to the stomach and vice versa. The music radiates balance, something that is often propagated but seldom achieved. The stark and songful does not trigger disquietude within Ross; on no account edgy actionism. He knows that it´s not what you say but how you say it, and that less is (sometimes) more.

It is impossible to simply reduce Florian Ross to a pianist or improviser, or even an arranger and composer, as his work cannot be limited to a single genre or category. He is much too much the pianist to abandon himself solely to the compositional architecture, and much too much the composer to succumb to a mere fascination of the piano. He is a musician who thinks, hears, writes and plays musically.