When I was invited to prepare a post for this blog, I started sketching out ideas; the result was several pages of random notes that could have filled a book if each was fully developed. It became clear I needed to focus, so I decided to zero in on what has been occupying my thoughts most recently – my new CD release Mike Holober & The Gotham Jazz Orchestra: Hiding Out. Beyond the (admittedly) self-serving goal of promoting the record, this will provide a convenient framework for discussing some of the ideas that have shaped my approach to jazz orchestra writing over the years.
I first got hooked on writing for jazz orchestra in the 1980s, when I was teaching at Binghamton University, which had a very good big band. The hook was further set at the Eastman Arrangers Festival during the summer of 1986, where I spent several priceless weeks with Manny Albam and Ray Wright (I remain friends with many of the people I met at the workshop that summer). When I moved to New York City in the early 90’s I enrolled in the BMI Jazz Composer’s Workshop (with Manny Albam, Jim McNeely, and Roger Kellaway at the helm), and I realized that writing was going to be a big part of my musical life (though I had not anticipated that it would take over completely at times!). I decided that I should form my own big band, and The Gotham Jazz Orchestra was born. We had a good run: we released our first CD in 2004 (Thought Trains) and a second in 2009 (Quake). However, sustaining a 17-piece jazz orchestra takes a lot of focus, and other opportunities started to take precedence.
In 2007, I was invited to serve as artistic director of the Westchester Jazz Orchestra, a position I held until 2013. This was an exciting opportunity, and a valuable learning experience. Under my tenure, we commissioned over 140 new arrangements for jazz orchestra (almost 50 of them mine), which we performed to sell-out crowds at our home theater in Irvington New York. We also released a critically acclaimed recording titled Maiden Voyage Suite, featuring newly commissioned arrangements of the tunes from Herbie Hancock’s seminal recording, formatted as a seamless set-length work. It remains one of my favorite projects with WJO.
Despite the organization’s success, WJO came to an end when it faced staffing difficulties (as not-for-profit organizations often do), but by this time I had already begun working with the German radio big bands (hr-Bigband in Frankfurt, and WDR Big Band in Cologne), which kept my pencil busy for many years. I had also started working as Associate Director of the BMI Jazz Composer’s Workshop with Jim McNeely, which gave me an opportunity to read through hundreds of charts by some very gifted writers, which was as much a learning experience for me as it was for them.
In his recent post, Jim McNeely wrote that the best way to learn big band writing is to write, listen, evaluate, and repeat – and I really got a chance to practice this method during this period! I like to tell my own students when they are about to dive into their first jazz orchestra piece that the learning curve is steep – they should really write two, because they will learn so much from the first one. I remember that my first chart (written in a euphoric-rush-of-inexperienced-adolescent-writer-frenzy) ended up in the circular file; the second one, an arrangement of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” actually worked. Write, listen, evaluate, and repeat – wise advice indeed.
The sheer volume of commissions I was working on during this period (often full-length concerts) forced me to hone my craft, while the challenge of working with such a diverse range of musical personalities and temperaments also taught me a great deal about the role of the arranger and conductor as artistic collaborator, diplomat, and psychologist, all rolled into one!
When arranging someone else’s music, it is necessary to maintain a balance between the voice of the composer, the arranger, and the performing artist. But I also believe that for an arrangement to be really good, it should sound as if it was originally written for that exact instrumentation – and sometimes this means that the original composition must “grow” some new music (intro, interlude, tag anyone?). Of course, this depends on the original material; when writing for Miguel Zenon, for example, some of his quartet lead sheets were very detailed in form (already approaching 300 measures), making me less inclined to add new music. But for others (such as Al Foster, or Eli Degibri), their shorter forms invited a deeper collaboration, allowing the arranger’s voice to assert itself in a way that complimented the original intent, enhancing the message of the tune. When an arrangement is completed, I strive to hear from the composer: “I love what you did with my music.”
In spite of my busy schedule as an arranger, I did manage to continue working on my own compositions — and this is the work that is the focus of my new CD Mike Holober & The Gotham Jazz Orchestra: Hiding Out (ZOHO, 2019). The two featured works, Hiding Out and Flow, are in extended form, with multiple movements. Perhaps my classical background was in my thoughts, or maybe I was just trying to get away from the idea of stand-alone medium length works — but I found myself thinking in large form multi-movement works, with no agenda about length, radio air-play, or jazz club suitability versus concert setting.
I was also very fortunate to have what I refer to as a “perfect storm” of compositional opportunity to write these pieces. This means a commission for an excellent ensemble, an artist colony residency where I could focus on the creation of the work, and a suitable premiere setting.
Hiding Out was commissioned for The Gotham Jazz Orchestra by The Philadelphia Museum of Art (funded by the Pew Foundation), and was first performed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was composed during a residency at the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming (my cabin was called “Jesse’s Hide Out”), and was inspired by the beauty of its setting. Flow was commissioned by the Westchester Jazz Orchestra (with funding from a NYSCA Grant), and was premiered by WJO in an Americana-themed concert at Irvington Town Hall. It was composed at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where I stayed in the cabin that Aaron Copland worked on Appalachian Spring, and Leonard Bernstein worked on his Mass. The ghosts of these two great American composers no doubt influenced the resulting composition.
To demonstrate some of the ideas that have shaped my writing process, I have selected the opening passage of “Tear of the Clouds,” from the first movement of Flow, as an example. I will focus my comments on two basic elements: motivic development, and orchestration. Igor Stravinsky said “Good composers borrow, great ones steal,” and I hope this analysis will give readers something worth stealing.
When I first started to compose I was familiar with the concept of motivic development, but I didn’t take it seriously enough. Now I can’t get enough of it. There are so many compositional devices that can be used to develop a motif (transposition, re-harmonization, augmentation, inversion, retrograde), that the possibilities are endless. This not only provides a constant source of material, but also gives a composition structural logic.
Orchestration plays vital role in motivic development. Ravel refers to orchestration as a device for revealing form (nowhere is this more obvious than in his Bolero). The way a composer assigns notes to an instrument is integral to the development of the work. I often think about orchestration as being like a painter’s palette – mixing colors, blending edges. This applies especially to a woodwind and mutes passage (as in the sample I analyze below): As you add instruments and colors on the top of the harmony (the melody?), it doesn’t double in volume, but instead becomes slightly more colored and pronounced. If there is a Bb (a 7th above middle C), and it is orchestrated for a unison of flute, cup-muted trumpet, and clarinet, it is easily balanced by single voices underneath; add guitar, and it becomes a little warmer; add flugelhorn and it smooths it out — or 1 harmon-muted trumpet to put a little buzz on it, or piano 8va to light it up or pop it out; or even add all of these at once – it’s barely getting louder – you are just using your palette to color the top and influence the expression of the music.
In my arranging classes, I often tell students to exercise their minds by making an “orchestration structures” list, designed to help them think about the range of their timbral palette. Saxes unison with brass hits — that’s the idea! Now make a quick list of 30 different combinations! Keep in mind that only some of them should have everyone playing. Would the voices be balanced if they all play the same dynamic — in other words is there a registration balance? What is the natural or organic “power” of each voice in the range it is written?
Now let’s look at the excerpts!
#1 M 37 – M 44
This is the entire main theme. Here, in its first presentation it is 8 bars. The first two bars are so strongly suggestive of the theme that this fragment alone is all that is needed to be obvious about the source material. Once this is “programmed” into the listener’s ear, even just a strong rhythm such as that of bar 38 is enough to suggest the main theme. This is the essence of motivic development.
The piccolo is very evocative — of isolation, peace, youth, simplicity, innocence — and its unique sonic imprint in the low register is easily recognizable. When it returns much later in the work, the timbral recognition gives clarity to a very long and formally sinuous movement. The listener knows where they have ended up after being taken on a long journey.
The harmony here is in shifting minor modes – natural, harmonic, and melodic – with the 6th and 7th becoming variable. The success of this shifting modality is perhaps related to the “classical” difference in the ascending and descending melodic minor. M 37 is in B minor; view the F natural in the piano as a “blue” note with little harmonic meaning, especially since the root is not present.
# 2 M 18 – M 29
Yes, the excerpts are out of order (I thought it best to show the main theme at M 37 first). One of my favorite techniques is to take a theme and cut it up like a jigsaw puzzle, scatter the pieces over a score, and then assemble them. These theme fragments can also provide material for general use anywhere else in the piece. This is a technique I commonly use to create intros for arrangements of other composers’ music (especially if the music is fairly modern) – a kind of “deconstruction” or “cubist” look at the subject. An example of this is the arrangement I wrote for the hr-Bigband with Kurt Rosenwinkel playing his tune “Star of Jupiter,” in which I use fragments of the bridge to form an intro:
# 3 M 51 – M 52
Here we have the first 2 bars of the theme — the rhythm is the same, but the melody is a slight variation. The soli voicing is in clusters; the melodic palette is in 3 octaves (flute, trumpet in cup, with trumpet in bucket 8vb, and piano 8va). The 8va piano makes it “pop,” and there is enough melodic weight to hear the melody clearly through the density of the cluster.
# 4 M 57 – M 63
Here we have the first 6 bars of the theme, which is then interrupted by “new” material at M 63. The line is in 4-part harmony, in large dissonant intervals, but generated from the same modality. Notice how the instrumentation of this 4-part harmony crosses every section (a note of thanks to Duke Ellington for opening up these possibilities!). The piccolo part could be viewed as a 5th harmony, but I see it as overtone reinforcement of the melody (a technique directly stolen from Ravel!). The melodic palette is flute, and piano, and the trombones comp a little.
# 5 M 63 – M 69
Here there is a drastic shift in modality to Gb harmonic major. Note that in M 65 and M 68 the re-use of the motif immediately ties the new harmonic zone to the main theme. The soloist makes its first entrance as well, laying the sonic/character groundwork for future formal development.
# 6 M 69 – M 76
This time, alto and tenor play the main theme in unison octaves — a more “throaty” and “heroic” statement. This is essentially two saxes in unison, with trombones comping. Here I use one of my pet techniques: instead of the trombones all hitting together, or bass trombone offset against 3 tenor trombones, they do a modified or “linear pyramid,” making the attack harp-like, or like finger-style guitar. Notice that in these “linear pyramids” players rarely attack alone, and all entrances are rhythmically easy. You can see other uses of this technique at M 81 – M 86, and at M 102.
# 7 M 77 – M 81
In this section, the winds and mutes are gone, replaced by saxes and open brass. The power increases, as the orchestration evolves to the saxes and trumpets in soli with the trombones comping. The range here (as everywhere) is integral to the dramatic evolution of the piece.
# 8 M 102 – M 109
Here we have soprano and alto in 3rds (more consonant and tonal), with trombones comping. A huge shift in mood happens, as functional chord changes add to the momentum. The music is no longer modal at this point.
# 9 M 112 – M 119
Tutti! We made it! Real rhythmic unison in M 113 and M 115 – power it up!
[Side note: The common fear that writing full-ensemble soli is challenging and time consuming is a subject for an endless discussion unto itself. However, I’ll take this opportunity to point out that from M 37 – M 151 there is only a total of 12 measures where everyone is playing: M 77 – M 81 and M 112 – M 119.]
After this tutti, it is time to subtly release the tension of the big orchestration and let the solo emerge. Often after a loud passage like this (or a send-off), I’ll reduce the orchestration gradually to let the next section develop organically, rather than have a sudden shift. I think of this as “taping the seams” (as in putting up drywall); then spackle with some rhythmically smooth mid-register writing, and sand with a diminuendo!
Here at M 136 it is finally time to hand the compositional process over to Jason Rigby (the tenor soloist for whom “Tear of the Clouds” was written). Bob Brookmeyer suggests only getting to the solo by composing your way there – developing your information so that the solo occurs as a natural evolution of the composition. In this case it took me 4 and a half minutes to arrive at the solo – about a third of the way into the work.
# 10 M 37 – M 151
For the context of how these nine fragments develop, here is the entire first section of the work in one continuous excerpt, starting from the first appearance of the main theme, and ending a little way into the tenor solo.
If you want to hear more excerpts from Hiding Out (or buy the CD) please visit: https://www.mikeholober.com/hiding-out-cd-page
Happy listening and stealing!
About the Author:
Mike Holober served as Artistic Director/Conductor of the Westchester Jazz Orchestra (WJO) from 2007-2013, and Associate Guest Conductor of the hr-Bigband (Hessischer Rundfunk – Frankfurt, Germany) from 2011-2015. With WJO he has written and conducted for Joe Lovano, Kate McGarry, John Scofield, John Patitucci, Randy Brecker, and Paquito D’Rivera. Projects with the hr-Bigband include writing and conducting for Kurt Rosenwinkel, Billy Cobham, Jane Monheit, Terje Rypdal, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Miguel Zenon, and a concert of the works of Frank Zappa. With the WDR Big Band (WestDeutsche Rundfunk – Cologne, Germany) he has written and conducted projects for Avishai Cohen/Eli Degibri and for legendary drummer Al Foster. He has also recently written a project for Eli Degibri with jazz orchestra and strings that was produced at the Israel National Opera House in Tel Aviv, as well as arrangements for WDR with Joshua Redman, a recent Stockholm Jazz Orchestra recording, and OJM (Portugal) with pianist Fred Hersch.
Mike has recently returned to the helm of his own stellar big band with the release of Mike Holober and the Gotham Jazz Orchestra: Hiding Out (ZOHO, 2019). This double CD features two extended form compositions: Hiding Out, commissioned for The Gotham Jazz Orchestra by The Philadelphia Museum of Art (funded by the Pew Foundation) and Flow, commissioned by The Westchester Jazz Orchestra (funded by a NYSCA Individual Artist’s Grant). The recording also includes an arrangement of Jobim’s “Caminhos Cruzados,” a WJO commission that was written as a feature for trumpet master Marvin Stamm. Other featured artists on Hiding Out include Billy Drewes, Jason Rigby, Scott Wendholt, Adam Kolker, Jon Gordon, Steve Cardenas, and Jesse Lewis.
Mike was a 2017-18 recipient of a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works Grant for Don’t Let Go, which was premiered at Symphony Space (the Leonard Nimoy Thalia) in June 2018. Structured as a song-cycle in the tradition of Robert Schumann, Samuel Barber, and Ralph Vaughn-Williams, Don’t Let Go was written for Mike’s octet Balancing Act, whose eponymous premiere recording was released in 2015 (Palmetto). The recording features Mike’s original compositions and lyrics, with Kate McGarry, Dick Oatts, Jason Rigby, Marvin Stamm, Mark Patterson, John Hebert, and Brian Blade.
In 2017 Mike was named the inaugural Stuart Z. Katz Professor in the Humanities and the Arts at The City College of New York for This Rock We’re On: Imaginary Letters, an extended work in the form of an oratorio for jazz orchestra, voice, cello, and percussion. The work celebrates explorers, conservationists, writers, and photographers whose lives have been inspired by the natural world.
In addition to his 6 records as a leader, Mike can be heard as a sideman on over 70 recordings. He has performed with or had his works performed and recorded by numerous ensembles, including The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, Zagreb JazzOrkestar, The Gotham Wind Symphony (where he is Composer-In-Residence), UMO, RTV Big Band Slovenia, The Airmen of Note, The Army Blues, The Tim Ries Rolling Stones Project, John Patitucci, Jason Rigby, Marvin Stamm, The Prism, American, and NY Saxophone Quartets, and many others.
Mike is a Full Professor at The City College of New York, and is a five-time MacDowell Fellow, Ucross Foundation Fellow and Yaddo Guest. He also teaches composing and arranging at The Manhattan School of Music. From 2007 – 2015 he served as Associate Director of the BMI Jazz Composer’s Workshop, (founded by legendary jazz composers Bob Brookmeyer and Manny Albam), where he taught with Musical Director Jim McNeely.