Artist Blog

Ryan Truesdell: Creative growth through self-imposed challenges

When considering a topic for this blog, I came across a Facebook post from Jim McNeely – a compositional North Star for so many of us, and my preeminent DownBeat Magazine Double Blindfold Test sparring partner – reflecting on his experience as Chief Conductor and Composer-In-Residence with the HR Big Band in Frankfurt (congratulations on this monumental chapter of your illustrious career, Jim!). When referencing the sheer mass of music he had written for the band during his tenure, and how the band had evolved under his tutelage, Jim commented, “the way to grow is to meet challenges.” This statement stood out to me because I have recently been thinking about the ways in which we, as composers/arrangers, can challenge ourselves to grow artistically, evolve creatively, and keep striving for the development of our own individual voices.

Unfortunately, in our social media-driven society, our focus has shifted to creating content vs creating art. Quantity over quality. We have become groomed to write for public approval and popularity instead of focusing inwards on the growth and development of our own art. The challenges we now face aren’t artistic or creative, they are, in a sense, logistical, with composing becoming the “easy part.” Raising money, scheduling, documentation, editing, posting, gaining more followers, algorithms, etc. etc. all have taken precedence over creating and overcoming creative challenges. Yes, all that – including social media – is a necessary evil of today’s process of artistic creation. But it’s important not to lose sight of your creative growth, which is why I want to encourage a redirection of focus back to artistically challenging yourself while playing the promotional game.

Creative challenges can take on so many different forms. One I’ve always been personally fascinated by is instrumentation. Many students’ default identifier of achievement is, “I want to write a big band record!” My first response is always, “Why?” I won’t deny that big band writing is an essential part of your development as a jazz composer/arranger, and a skill that all writers need to have in their arsenal, but why is it that big band and its predetermined instrumentation is considered the defining voice of a jazz composer?

Have you ever wondered why 5-4-4-4 is the standard instrumentation for a modern-day big band? If you look back at the early big bands of Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, Paul Whiteman, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Claude Thornhill, etc., each had a unique instrumentation which contributed to the individual sound of their band. This instrumental variety presented composers/arrangers a challenge to explore new ways of writing for each instrumentation, while contributing to the development of each band’s signature sonic identity.

In the mid-60s/early-70s, it was ultimately the music publishing industry that standardized the 5-4-4-4 big band instrumentation. Jazz education was becoming more widely accepted in academic institutions and with it, the need to have easy access to more professional, popular charts to play. Around the same time, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis started their highly influential band at the Village Vanguard and Thad’s music – all written for 5-4-4-4 – began to be published. The influx of jazz education programs and easily accessible professional-grade music spurred a growth in classes and textbooks on how to write for sections derived from the 5-4-4-4 big band. Suddenly, writing for a large ensemble became something that is taught instead of discovered, largely removing the challenge of self-discovery and experimentation that our Swing Era forebears encountered when trying to discover their band’s sonic identity.

One great (and arguably extreme) example of instrumental variety is Gil Evans. Looking at Gil’s discography, there is not one instance where he duplicates an instrumentation from project to project. Albums under his own name, all the albums with Miles, one-off charts written for different musicians – each project had its own, unique instrumentation. Even in his early days of writing for the Thornhill Orchestra, whose instrumentation changed so frequently one can narrow down when an arrangement was written within a matter of months solely based on the chart’s instrumentation, Gil was constantly presented with a new instrumental palette. Through each new instrumentation, Gil challenged himself to find new solutions to voicings, harmony, orchestration, and basic compositional elements, facing a creative necessity to reinvent his compositional approach. With each new project, he continued to creatively challenge himself and develop his singular artistic voice, constantly exploring his life-long desire to achieve new sounds and orchestrational colors.

With my current project, Synthesis: The String Quartet Sessions, I wanted to present a compositional challenge through instrumentation to 13 of my peers/heroes/friends by commissioning them to each write a new work for string quartet. The resulting nearly-three hour, 3-CD recording showcases just how each composer – Joseph Borsellino III, John Clayton, Alan Ferber, Miho Hazama, John Hollenbeck, Christine Jensen, Asuka Kakitani, Oded Lev-Ari, Jim McNeely, Vanessa Perica, Rufus Reid, Dave Rivello, Nathan Parker Smith, and myself (I included a never-before-recorded work of Bob Brookmeyer for string trio, as well) – was able to meet this challenge through re-envisioning our compositional approach. There was no option to bring in trusted trombone voicings, or traditional brass-vs-saxophone orchestration, or a rhythm section to rely on for groove. With only four instruments not found in the typical large ensemble to work with, we were challenged to think outside the box and forced to find new solutions to the compositional obstacle at hand. I was deeply inspired by how the final product demonstrated the diverse influences and variety with which each composer approached the challenge, all while retaining their discernible voice through the lens of this new instrumentation.

While preparing for the album’s release, I was reflecting on the whole project and came to the realization that, in fact, I wasn’t just presenting the composers with a challenge, but everyone else involved with this project as well. Synthesis challenged the instrumentalists’ mastery across myriad genres and required a new approach to rehearsals in order to record 17 new, highly complex string quartets in a span of ten months. It challenges the listener by not only asking them to focus on three hours of new music in an era of 60-second attention spans, but also to explore how these works relate to each composer’s compositional oeuvres. It even presents music journalists with the challenge to approach their reviews differently in order to accurately depict this new collection of music which defies classification of style and genre, and ask how it might fit within the broader string quartet canon.

I am so proud of the challenges this project has inspired, and of all the people that have chosen to stretch themselves and grow creatively through meeting these. I hope it’s clear that my purpose of this blog post was not to dissuade or discourage you from writing for big band. I can assure you that there are many ways in which to creatively challenge yourself by writing for big band, and it goes without saying that I am continually inspired by so many of my compositional heroes who write for this standard instrumentation, and they truly are the reason I decided to dedicate my life to putting little dots on paper. The reason I am writing this is to remind us to devote time out of our days filled with social media, content creation, building fan-bases, horrific world news stories, etc. to ask questions of ourselves and discover new ways to challenge ourselves artistically. When you are brainstorming new project ideas for recordings or even for social media content, make sure they contain creative challenges for you first and foremost. Ask yourself “why?” a lot. Write a string quartet… write for an ensemble of three piccolos, tuba, harp, and bonang… write, and do, anything you want as long as these projects are constantly creating new personal and artistic challenges for yourself. And most importantly, enjoy the process of discovering how to meet these challenges. It will not only help you grow as a creative artist, but it’s also guaranteed to make for much more interesting and engaging Instagram reels.



About the Author:

A world-renowned, GRAMMY® Award-winning producer, composer, arranger, and educator, Ryan Truesdell was voted “Best New Artist” in the 2012 JazzTimes Critic’s Poll and is best known for his award-winning Gil Evans Project. This extensive project to unearth and bring to light some of the lesser-known music of Evans’ has resulted in two critically acclaimed albums: CENTENNIAL: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans and LINES OF COLOR: Live at Jazz Standard. Both albums were unanimously praised by the critics, receiving a total of four GRAMMY® nominations and a posthumous GRAMMY® Award for “Best Instrumental Arrangement” for Evans.

Truesdell’s current project, SYNTHESIS: The String Quartet Sessions, which the Wall Street Journal calls “ingenious,” pairs 15 of today’s leading large ensemble jazz composers with the timeless and venerable instrumentation of the string quartet, culminating in a revolutionary collection of nearly 3 hours of genre-breaking new music commissioned by Truesdell specifically for this project.

In the studio, Truesdell has proven himself an invaluable resource, notably producing the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s albums Concert in the Garden, Sky Blue, The Thompson Fields, and Data Lords, which have received a total of eight GRAMMY® nominations and won two GRAMMY® Awards for “Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album,” with Data Lords also becoming a 2021 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Music. He also served as producer for Owen Broder’s The American Roots Project, Nick Finzer’s Hear & Now and JJ Johnson Centennial projects, Cowboys & Frenchmen, as well as radio broadcasts for the NDR Big Band in Hamburg, Germany with Bob Brookmeyer.

Truesdell is an active clinician and guest conductor and serves on the board of directors of the International Society of Jazz Arrangers & Composers.

Artist and Cover photos by Leo Mascaro.