For a long time I have been fascinated by the various approaches to long-form jazz composition. I love the creative possibilities sparked by a “big idea” that is broken down into multiple parts. The individual pieces can often function like chapters in a story, creating a linear narrative. In other cases, they can serve as vignettes – pieces that could stand alone, but usually are tied together by some unifying theme. Among the most obvious and best examples that immediately come to mind are the suites composed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.
I am going to share my approach to the conception and construction of my Fertile Soil Suite, written for the Iowa Jazz Composers Orchestra.
The idea for the suite came about after I had accepted a job at the University of Northern Iowa, and I found myself settling back in my home state. I began to reflect on what makes this place feel the way it does – what are the things that make it unique? What makes it feel like home?
Before writing a single note, here were some of my goals:
- To work with themes that will be relatable for Iowans (and understandable/interesting to non-Iowans as well) while also expressing some of my personal thoughts and feelings about this place
- For each piece to have a distinct vibe, resulting in some variety in terms of style, tempo, etc.
- To feature the unique musical personalities of the individual players in the group, creating environments in which they can thrive and express themselves
What emerged was a four-part suite, with the following titles/inspirations:
- Battleground – Inspired by Iowa’s unique position as the first state to caucus in the U.S. Presidential primary season, and all of the chaos and tension that comes with that
- Ioway – Created with themes taken from field recordings of Native American Siouxan people
- Hog Heaven – Playing on the fact that nearly one-third of the nation’s hogs are raised in Iowa
- Flyover – Exploring feelings associated with often being overlooked, ignored, or underestimated as a state in the middle of the country
Rather than attempting to give a measure-by-measure breakdown of the entire suite, I’ll highlight some of the most prominent features of each part, sharing the elements I used to try to give each piece its character.
Part I: Battleground
Hear me talk about the vibe I was aiming to capture with “Battleground”:
Elements of tension
- The primary harmony in this piece is a Maj7(#5) chord a half-step above the bass note, which relates to the 2nd mode of melodic minor (I refer to it as Phrygian nat. 6). The combination of the lowered 2nd and the raised 6th creates an unsettling coexistence of dark and bright, which I believe suits the character of the piece.
- I explored the general idea of stretching toward a breaking point, almost like a rubber band, using contrary motion between the outer voices to create the feeling of something pulling apart.
- I also employed what could be described as “special effects” to heighten the feelings of tension and chaos throughout the piece.
- Overlapping trombone glisses – see mm. 9-12, 21-24, etc.
- Half-step clusters – see mm. 89-96, etc.
- Trills/tremelos – see mm. 14-16 (trumpets), mm. 30-32 (saxes), etc.
- Collective improvisation – see mm. 51-56, 181-184, 220-224
- I also employed what could be described as “special effects” to heighten the feelings of tension and chaos throughout the piece.
Fans of Maria Schneider’s music will notice some similarities to one of her well-known pieces from Evanescence (the bari sax in unison with the bass at the beginning, some of the dissonant effects, slash chords, etc.) – hopefully not too similar to the point of feeling derivative, because that was certainly not what I was going for!
The relatively fast tempo, and the indication in the solo section to play “Angy New York Jazz,” also contribute to the white-knuckle feeling of the piece.
Together, I think all of these elements make a piece that communicates the vibe I was trying to create. “Battleground” serves as an energetic (and perhaps unexpected, seemingly un-Iowan?) opener to the suite, setting up a dramatic contrast with what follows.
Listen to “Battleground” here:
Part II: Ioway
Hear me talk about the inspiration for “Ioway”:
- More pastoral feeling; “chamber music”
- Atypical doubles: violin, bassoon (as well as typical doubles: flute, clarinet)
- Brass in bucket mutes
Native American Melodies
I transcribed and transposed a Siouxan “Funeral Song” from a recording archived in the Library of Congress. This became the primary melody which is stated by the violin near the beginning of the piece. It recurs a few times in different contexts.
Subsequently, this melody is used in canon with the violin, bassoon, and alto saxophone.
Later in the piece, a different Native American melody that I transcribed (also from the Sioux tribe) is passed back and forth between the flugelhorn soloist and the alto saxophone soloist. Interestingly, this “Ritual of the Maize” melody metrically works out to a 13-beat cycle. If you’re curious, you can find the field recordings of these melodies in a collection called “The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America.”
To me, the perfect 5th is the interval that best captures the earthy quality I was going for. By stacking five pitches in perfect 5ths, a simple major 6/9 sound is achieved. By stacking a couple more on top of that, the lydian scale is fully realized. Throughout the piece, especially at the beginning and the end, I use these sounds and play around with stacking additional perfect 5ths to stretch things harmonically. In the piano intro, the stack of perfect 5ths (with one octave displacement) in mm. 5-6 covers all 12 chromatic pitches.
A stack of perfect 5ths can be condensed to a stack of 3rds, resulting in a polychord consisting of two major 7 chords whose roots are related by wholestep. This structure is planed chromatically as an eerie and disorienting way of harmonizing the “Funeral Song” melody just prior to the alto saxophone solo.
I was intrigued by the relationship between these quintal harmonies and the pentatonic scale used in the Native American melodies. The alto saxophone solo explores this harmonic landscape. The first few lines of that solo section are shown (in Eb transposition) below.
The form of “Ioway” is far removed from the typical head-solos-head structure. It instead plays out in a more episodic way:
- Brief intro – piano (quintal) → ensemble (quintal)
- Violin “Funeral Song” melody with ensemble accompaniment
- Bassoon, violin, alto saxophone canon
- Brief flute solo – picked up piano
- Brass “Funeral Song” melody in parallel polychords
- Alto saxophone solo over quintal rhythm section accompaniment
- Alto saxophone and flugelhorn trading, using “Ritual of the Maze” melody – 13-beat cycle
- Extended piano solo – rubato transition
- Jazz waltz ala Coltrane quartet – collective improvisation, building to a climax
- quintal harmonies are inverted to quartal harmonies in this section
- Piano transition which returns to quintal structures
- Ending – recapitulation of intro/primary melodic material (transposed down a whole step)
Listen to “Ioway” here:
Part III: Hog Heaven
Hear me talk about the childhood memory that inspired “Hog Heaven”:
In addition to all of the more artistic considerations for the suite, there were practical considerations, like “how am I going to create space to adequately feature all of the great soloists in this band?” One solution was to build some trading into part 3. I wanted to lean into the fun and humor of this piece by opening it up with solo plunger trombone, and having the three trombone soloists participate in some trading. (Trombonists, after all, are often the butt of the joke!)
In the first half of the piece, the key changes each time a new soloist is introduced. The key areas are a major 3rd apart (Bb, D, and Gb), making an otherwise simple, bluesy chord progression somewhat more interesting.
Phrasing and compression
During the tenor saxophone solo, the modulations by major 3rd are preserved, but 8-bar phrases are now compressed to become 7-bar phrases, creating both a slightly off-kilter feeling and a sense of forward motion.
Compression is also utilized when it comes to the spacing of the brass plunger “waps” leading from the tenor solo to the shout section. Beginning at letter M, each set of three quarter notes is rhythmically displaced so that the figure starts a beat earlier each time. This gesture then gets compressed from three short bursts to one longer “waaap” (see letter N).
In addition to the harmony, which suggests a blues tonality (dominant chords abound), a simple, bluesy melody is introduced, initially as a brief transition between trombone solos. It highlights scale degrees b3 and b7 – both blue notes – and is harmonized with descending perfect 4ths. This has a tie-in to the transitional material in “Battleground” which was harmonized with ascending perfect 4ths (see “Battleground” mm. 97-104, shown in example 2).
This melody returns (transposed to Gb) for a shout chorus, with dissonant brass voicings ala mid-60s Brookmeyer. My apologies for the mixture of sharps and flats… there was just no good/clean way to do this.
Finally, I just wanted this piece to serve as a fun swinger – a big stylistic contrast to the other pieces. On a macro level, one could say that “Hog Heaven” fills the role of the light-hearted scherzo in a prototypical four-movement symphonic form.
Listen to “Hog Heaven” here:
Part IV: Flyover
Hear me talk about feelings that “Flyover” is meant to communicate:
The title is a reference to the fact that the Midwest is sometimes called “flyover country” by people traveling from coast to coast.
This one begins as essentially an arrangement of an AABA tune, shown below in lead sheet form.
I knew I wanted to have three soloists on this composition, and it would not be very satisfying or interesting to have all of them blow over the same song form. I decided that each solo would serve a different function in the structure/narrative of the piece.
- The alto saxophone solo is sort of a continuation of the exposition – an opportunity to elaborate on the themes and feelings that have been established.
- The trumpet solo is a departure from what has been established – it’s meant to feel like a journey, including elements of conflict. Many of the primary motives of the piece get developed by the ensemble as part of the underpinning to the solo.
- The guitar solo is more static harmonically, and should convey a feeling of arrival and closure.
In search of harmonies that would convey the emotions that drive this piece, I found that certain slash chords had the right level of complexity, dissonance, and richness. On beat two of the 5th bar of the melody, for example, major 7th intervals are formed against both the melody note and the bass note.
The ensemble material during the trumpet solo is almost entirely derived from material that was already presented by the alto saxophone and the ensemble earlier in the piece. The figure from the 2nd and 3rd bar of the main theme shows up in the piano at letter H. The rhythm and contour match the original motive, so it’s easily recognizable, but two pitches are lowered to signal a new direction in the piece.
This motive recurs a few more times, and is recontextualized by different underlying harmonies. Then, the last three notes of the motive are developed by the saxophones at letter K.
One of the other prominent motives that gets reused in a new context is the bass line from the last four bars of the bridge. It is modified and repeated to add some drive underneath the trumpet solo. When this bass figure shows up again during the recapitulation of the bridge theme, it is further developed and expanded from 2-bars-per-chord to 4-bars-per-chord.
These are just some of the elements in the piece that I thought fellow composers who read this blog may find interesting.
Listen to “Flyover” here:
I hope this gave you a good look into one composer’s approach to multi-movement jazz composition. Again, my intention was that each piece could stand alone, but when taken together as a collection, the four parts of the suite make a more significant musical impact and provide more of a complete picture of the state of Iowa and some of my feelings about it.
Among the many things that weren’t mentioned were the ways that the particular musicians in this band inspired the choices that I made as this work came together. For me, knowing the players, both as people and as musicians, makes the compositional process more enjoyable, and ultimately more successful.
I’d be honored if you took some time to listen to it. The full studio recording is on YouTube, with some interviews (with me and band members) between each piece. And if you’d like to support me and the band, feel free to download the recordings on Bandcamp or on my website.
Please reach out to me (michael.conrad [at] uni.edu) if you’d like me to share PDFs of the full scores with you, or if you have any questions or comments. I’d love to hear from you!
The Fertile Soil Suite project was supported, in part, by the Iowa Arts Council, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
About the Author:
Mike Conrad is a composer, improviser, and teacher from Iowa. He has been recognized for his arranging and composing with four ASCAP Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards and seven DownBeat Awards, as well as awards and commissions from the Contemporary Music Academy in Beijing, the Bundesjazzorchester of Germany, the West Point Army Jazz Knights, and many other organizations. Conrad’s music has been performed all over the world, including a 2017 concert by the Metropole Orkest in the Netherlands, a 2014 Carnegie Hall octet premiere, and a string quartet performance at the US Presidential Inauguration in 2013. Some recent career highlights include winning the SONIC Award from the International Society of Arrangers and Composers for his piece “Flyover,” collaborating on an hour-long recomposition of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony with the incredibly creative Stegreif Orchester of Berlin, and releasing recordings with both the Iowa Jazz Composers Orchestra and the Mike Conrad Trio.
Equally accomplished on both trombone and piano, Conrad truly loves collaborating with other musicians, and always brings his creativity and expressiveness to everything he does. In addition to his own projects as a leader, Conrad regularly performs regionally with Chris Merz’s Quartet, the Bob Washut ‘Emeritet,’ the Max Wellman Big Band, as well as several other groups, and has performed and recorded with musicians such as Louis Hayes, Alexa Tarantino, and Dave Chisholm. Conrad is in high demand as a clinician and guest director for jazz bands, and he continues to come up with fresh and exciting works for a wide variety of ensembles. Many of his compositions and arrangements are published by iJazzMusic, UNC Jazz Press, and his own website, www.mconradmusic.com.
Dr. Conrad earned degrees from the University Northern Iowa (BM and BME), the Eastman School of Music (MM), and the University of Northern Colorado (DA). He is currently serving as Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies & Music Education at the University of Northern Iowa, where he directs Jazz Band Two and teaches courses/lessons in Jazz Improvisation, Jazz Pedagogy, Jazz Methods, Jazz Theory, Jazz Piano, Jazz Composition, and Jazz Arranging.