Artist Blog

Meg Okura: STRING THINGS – Basic Bow Marking Tips to Maximize Your Budget and Get Better Results

I have been a part of over 100 recordings in the last two decades in New York as a violinist-albums, jingles, and soundtracks of all sizes and budgets. Moreover, I worked as a music librarian in an orchestra to copy the bow markings onto each string part. My work-study gig at Juilliard was being the first violinist for the conductor’s lab string quartet- I got paid to criticize conductors. Today, I wanted to share tips on bow markings so you can maximize your studio time!

Disclaimer: This article was written from just one composer and violinist’s perspective, and this doesn’t represent the opinions of all string players or composers.

We string players tend to discuss, write, erase and re-write the bowings on your studio time. One of the unique issues we face is that our bowings require uniformity as a section. And this process is rather time-consuming. It also doesn’t help that we use slurs to indicate both bowings and phrase markings. Whether a slur is a bow marking depends on the context and interpretation, and sometimes, they are the same. So it isn’t obvious even for the string players themselves.

As composers, we know how critical detailed markings on each part are—the more precise the markings, the more efficient rehearsal, thus better result. I have noticed composers’ concerned looks, thinking about how many more tunes to get through while string players sort out their bowings. Have you ever thought to yourself, “I should have put more bow markings”? Composers who play some violin would painstakingly put many specific bow markings. So, should a composer start writing more bow markings, up-bow on this note down-bow on that one, with meticulously precise articulation with many mini-slurs under phrase markings? 

The truth is that no matter what you mark on the page, string players will always keep figuring out bowings as the rehearsal progresses, and this sometimes continues until we are already on stage. This is true for classical music, too. The most subtle tempo changes, balance with other instruments, micing, and monitoring situations could affect the bowings. 

Mistake No. 1 – Putting “up” and “down” bow signs in ink on the parts

String players will want to change your bow markings, and when you put it in ink, the parts will start to look very messy, which will make it harder to read. Instead, leave the bow choreography to the section leaders!

It is also slightly annoying to the players. These up-bow down-bow signs remind us of repertoires for “student” players. As a principle, string players should know how to make the same sound whether they use an up or down bow. So it shouldn’t be a composer’s business to dictate which directions violinists should move their arms, even if the composer knows how to play the violin. 

Another way to get the most out of your studio time is to leave the bowings to individual players – which we call “free bow.” Free bow lets individual players use whatever bowing they want to use. Each player will choose the bowing that will allow them to produce the best result using what is most comfortable and convenient to that individual. We use this method when we determine that benefit of “free bow” outweighs the benefit of beautifully uniformed bowing. This is an excellent way to go when you only need audio and no video. The free bow will cut down a significant amount of time, allowing more time to rehearse the music and giving players more mental space to pay attention to other things such as pitch and rhythm. (But unless you or the section leader declares “free bow,” string players will always want to know specific bowings.) Moreover, this is a great way to stagger bow changes to smooth out phrases.

But wait, does this mean we don’t have to put any slurs? As mentioned earlier, slurs are both bowings and phrase markings. What if we don’t put any slurs and let the players figure it out on their own? 

Mistake No. 2 – Leaving out slurs when you want legato

A well-established jazz pianist and a producer for a record label once told me how shocked he was when the string quartet he hired played each quarter note like a military march on a slow bossa. When my jazz composer friend was still in school and instructed not to put any bowings for her string quartet piece, she took all of the slurs out, including a graceful sixteenth-note run on a ballad. To her horror, the string quartet bowed each note!! You might say, “I put ‘legato’ at the top!” or “but it’s a ballad!” The problem is that when you put “legato” at the top, it directly contradicts what’s on the staves. 

We jazz musicians are used to reading lead sheets, which we use as merely a guide for what the music could sound like. But for classical string players, our job is to faithfully play what’s written on the page and refrain from individual interpretations. When string players see notes without slurs, we ARE supposed to play them with separation. You can put “legato” or “ballad,” but we will still play them like a military march if there are no slurs! 

I have also seen young composers putting tenutos instead of slurs, or in addition to slurs, expecting the notes to be sound longer, thus connected. After hearing us play the notes se-per-ra-ted, their faces get red, and they scream, “tenutos mean ‘FULL VALUES!'”

Mistake No. 3 – Putting tenutos, expecting notes to be played connected

Unfortunately, if you put tenutos under a slur, these notes will be what we call “hooked” into a bow- the notes will be separated by lifting the bow while moving in the same direction. So you will never get the “full value” of the notes, and instead, you will get precisely the opposite.

Well, I hope these tips are helpful for when you work with the best string players in your town next time so you can get what you want from string players. 

But here is the bonus tip (mistake), which will cancel out all three tips above.

 

Mistake No.4 – Getting so-called the “best players” instead of the “right” players

Over 15 years ago, I had the chance to tour with the Michael Brecker Quindectet led by Gil Goldstein. Initially, the group planned to perform with the very best local string players in each city. However, after the first tour of Europe, Mike and Gil both concluded that it was not going to work. The “best string players” were not keeping up with the rest of the band, resulting in compromised music. Hence, I got the call. 

It is more important to get the “right” players than the “best” players for the best result for jazz compositions. Many of my classmates from Juilliard play in major orchestras, and they “should” be the best players ever. (At least they think they are!) But believe me. I have worked with many players who cannot keep up with Afro-Cuban rhythms. You would think you can explain and help them “get” it, but it is nearly impossible because their sense of time differs from those who grew up playing non-classical music. I grew up playing only Classical music, and I used to struggle with these rhythms myself. Though I don’t play in a major orchestra, I have had the tremendous opportunities to work with various bands and composers whom I learned so much on the job: from John Zorn to Vince Giordano, singer-songwriters to a Cuban Jewish Band, Steve Swallow to some of our contemporaries such as J.C. Sanford, Emilio Solla, and Erica Seguine. My on-the-job experiences, however embarrassing it was by turning around the beats, can never be replaced. 

So be careful hiring players in major symphonies “just because” – they may not do the job well. But when you get the “right players,” they will give you much more than what you put on the page and make everything sound right- and nobody will ever know that your markings were less than perfect.

That’s it for today. If you find this topic helpful, please come see me at ISJAC symposium in Austin, Texas, where I will be sharing “10 More Mistakes To Avoid!” with a live demonstration and Q & A. 

If you have any questions or would like me to demonstrate any segments of your composition, please email them to me so I can address them in Austin! MegOkuraViolin [at] gmail.com

 


About the Author:

“grandiloquent beauty that transitions easily from grooves to big cascades to buoyant swing.”
– Giovanni Russonello, New York Times

Jazz composer and violinist Meg Okura uses the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble to negotiate her conflicting identities: a Japanese immigrant Jew by choice, and a mother of a black Jew, and a violinist in jazz.

Since its founding in 2006, the ensemble has performed in its hometown of New York at Birdland Jazz Club, Blue Note, Knitting Factory, Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola at Jazz At Lincoln Center. The ensemble has been presented at t Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., Winter Jazz Fest as well as K.L. Jazz Festival in Malaysia. Okura has released six albums under her name since and two more albums in the works this year.

Her recent honors as a composer include Copland Residency Awards, Chamber Music America New Jazz Works, Jazz Road Creative Residencies Award, and NYC Women’s Fund.

Her works have been performed by BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra, New York Symphonic Ensemble, Sirius Quartet, and other jazz and chamber music groups.

Native of Tokyo and formerly a concert violinist, Okura toured Asia as the soloist and concertmaster of the Asian Youth Orchestra as a teen. She moved to the U.S. in 1992 and made her solo concerto debut at Kennedy Center with the late Alexander Schneider’s New York String Orchestra. She then earned B.M. and M.M. degrees from the Juilliard School as a classical violinist, only to make a difficult shift to becoming a jazz musician. As a violinist, she has appeared at Carnegie Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Barbican Hall in the U.K., Madison Square Garden, Village Vanguard, Blue Note Tokyo, Hollywood Bowl, and numerous jazz and Jewish music festivals worldwide.

Okura’s credit appears on over 100 albums/films/live videos, including David Bowie, Michael Brecker, Lee Konitz, Steve Swallow, Diane Reeves, Tom Harrell, Vince Giordano, Jeremy Pelt, Sam Newsome, and Grammy-nominated album by Emilio Solla y La Inestable de Brooklyn.

Artist Blog

Jason Palmer: Getting a Foot in the Door of the House of Composition

Thank you to the ISJAC for inviting me to contribute to the blog.  I didn’t know about this resource before the invitation, and I’ve learned a ton since diving into the archives.  I’d like to offer up a commentary on my journey through the world of composing creative music in a small group setting with the hope of inspiring those who are wanting to jump into the process but may not know a path to take.

I’ve been afforded the opportunity to present clinics on improvisation, composition, and everything in between over the past 20 years in places near and far.  One of the proverbial questions that always arises is, “So how did you approach composing original music?” So here are a few ideas that I have been relaying to musicians getting their pens/keyboards wet in the composition game:

Composition as Improvisational Language

When I arrived in Boston in 1997 to attend my undergrad, I met Darren Barrett, the great trumpeter/composer who was just finishing his studies at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at the New England Conservatory of Music.  I asked him about the idea of composing and how he approached it.  He told me, “You know, when you’re composing, you’re documenting what springs from your improvising mind.  It’s all improvisational language.”  This idea initially sent me for a loop, but eventually made sense and settled in nicely.  Darren later relayed a relating idea of writing out solos to tunes that you’ve been working on just to have something in front of you that you can play variations on.  I started to really work on this and that’s when the idea of composing for small groups (what I was into at the time, and still am) started to take shape.

Contrafacts are our Friends

I took the idea “composing in real time” and locked myself in a practice room with a tape recorder, a pair of headphones, and my CD Discman.  I brought recordings of songs that I really dug at the time on cd with me, put on headphones and started playing along with them (in many ways, that’s a lot hipper than playing with an Aebersold or iRealPro), while at the same time recording myself practicing in those sessions.  I then listened back to the practice sessions and transcribed anything from my playing that I thought could become a composition.  What I later realized was that by doing this, I was able to “creep” into the habit of writing out melodies that were already attached to a particular chord progression.  Below are a few examples of contrafacts that I’ve recorded:

Found It (an original based on Myron Walden’s Like a Flower Seeking the Sun)

3rd Shift (an original based on Wayne Shorter’s Night Dreamer)

Learning Songs to Write Songs

As I began to write contrafacts, I did my best to become more mindful of making a stronger effort to learn about the art of composing interesting harmonic progressions for improvisers.  At the time, I didn’t know many songs but I was attending a weekly jam session at Wally’s Jazz Café in Boston, where tunes that I didn’t know were being called left and right.  I made it a point to go to the local record stores (there were about 5 really good ones in Boston/Cambridge at the time) and spend all of my work study money on records that had the quintessential versions of the songs that I had to learn on them.  I then transcribed the song(s) on the record along with all of the other songs on the record, which built my repertoire immensely.  It was there that I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the foundations of consonant/dissonant harmonic functions in this music.  This gave me the ability to compose without relying on chord changes from other tunes and only returning to that idea when I feel the itch!  I always tell my students that you don’t have to give up the idea of learning more standards if you want to start to compose original material and vice versa.

Have a Band/Gig?  Write Flexibly for It!

I was lucky to have a steady gig on the weekends leading my own band for over 15 years in Boston at Wally’s Jazz Café.  It was really an incubator for compositional experimentation for me.  It was unique to me because I was able to test out new material constantly (with no artistic constraints whatsoever) for an audience that didn’t necessarily come to hear us play.  While I found that to be a welcomed challenge, I also faced the challenge of writing music for great musical bandmates that juggled busy life/school schedules, therefore limiting available time to rehearse.  There was also the aspect of hiring subs, which always altered the repertoire for any given night.  I started to compose and organize older compositions of mine into 3 graded categories that I found to be useful.  Examples are at the below the description:

Grade 1:  Songs that are easily sight-readable by any competent musician, needing no rehearsal.  Fun songs to improvise on (“blowing tunes”) that make the band sound like “a rehearsed band”.

 

Grade 2:  Songs that would need to be looked at ahead of time for most competent musicians, but don’t necessarily need to be rehearsed beforehand.  These songs strengthened the idea of what a “band” sounds like to novice listeners.  These songs have unconventional song forms, challenging harmonic progressions, and melodies that need shedding before hitting the stage.

Grade 3:  Songs that need a thorough rehearsing with the band.  These songs are written to push and advance my technique and challenge my bandmates as well as the audience.

After you’ve composed pieces and considered what level of musicianship is required to have the songs come to life in a way that you’ve hoped for, considering organizing them into separate books that can be easily pulled out to match the appropriate personnel in your band for any given gig.

It’s my sincere hope that at least one person finds something helpful from post.  I invite everyone reading this to take any or all of the information and run with it!

Sent with LOVE,

Jason Palmer


About the Author:

Jason Palmer was recently named to the inaugural class of the Boston Artist in Residence Fellowship for Music Composition.  He also received a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works for 2019.  In 2011 and 2017, he was named a Fellow in Music Composition by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. In 2014, Jason was honored as a recipient of the French American Cultural Exchange Jazz Fellowship where he collaborated with French pianist Cedric Hanriot, collaboration on an album and touring the United States and Europe. Jason won 1st Place in the 2009 Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition and was cited in the June 2007 issue of Downbeat Magazine as one of the “Top 25 trumpeters of the Future”.   

In addition to performing on over forty albums as a sideman, Jason has recorded thirteen albums under his own name on labels Ayva, Steeplechase, Whirlwind, Newvelle, and most recently with Giant Step Arts. Four of his recordings were reviewed by Downbeat Magazine, all receiving 4 stars or better. Jason has toured in over 30 countries with saxophonists Mark Turner, Greg Osby, Grace Kelly, and Matana Roberts, and has been a featured guest artist on multiple projects in Portugal, Mexico, Canada and Russia. 

In addition to a heavy performing schedule, Jason Palmer offers his passion for improvised music as an Assistant Professor of Ensembles and Brass at Berklee College of Music. Jason has also served as an Assistant Professor at Harvard University and at New England Conservatory. He has also served on the faculty at the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City.

Artist Blog

An Interview with John Clayton

NOTE: Interview conducted by Paul Read on Jan 10, 2018 at 2:30 PST.

ISJAC: Hey, John. Thanks for doing this.

JC: Happy to do it

ISJAC: Where are you at the moment, Los Angeles?

JC: Yes, I am in Los Angeles. I actually was born and raised here and finished school at Indiana University… hit the road for four years and then moved to Holland to be with my, then, girlfriend, now my wife, and played in a symphony orchestra for five years.1The Amsterdam Philharmonic.

ISJAC: You were with the Basie band before you went to Amsterdam?

JC: Yes. After I finished school I went on the road with Monty Alexander and Jeff Hamilton for two years. And I missed out on my dream to play with Duke Ellington – he died while I was still in college – and one of my other dreams was to play with Count Basie. I was studying with Ray Brown and I knew that Ray knew Count Basie very well. So I asked him if he could look into helping me get in touch with him. He said, “Sure” and the next day I was talking to Count Basie [laughter]. He called me and said, “Young man, I hear you would like to play in my orchestra.” and I said, “Yes, sir, Mr. Basie”. And he said, “Well, I’ll have my manager call you.” and it just so happened that his bass player was leaving in two weeks, so I let Monty Alexander know I had this opportunity and he gave me his blessing. I went with Count Basie and that’s where I really got bit by the writing bug. I’d never studied composition or arranging but I fell in love with that music being able to hear it every night there in real time. I knew how to transpose for instruments and I had some fantasies. So, I asked Mr. Basie if I could write some music, and he said, “sure”. I wrote something that was embarrassingly bad.  [Laughter] I was frustrated, certainly, but I wasn’t put off and I wasn’t discouraged. That’s the best way to put it.  So on one of my breaks I took the recording that Basie had done years before with Neal Hefti of a song called “Splanky.”2Recorded on The Atomic Mr. Basie. (YouTube video posted by Warner Bros.) “Which is “the 6th most critically acclaimed album of 1958, the 25th most acclaimed of the 1950s, and the 837th most acclaimed of all time, based on an aggregation of hundreds of critics’ lists from around the world”. Wikipedia.

ISJAC: Right.

JC: “Splanky” has an amazing shout chorus,3See the Appendix at the end of the article for an score excerpt showing the ‘triple lead’ approach. and I got goose bumps every time we played it, so I wrote a sketch of everything that was happening in that arrangement. The intro, I wrote it in words…you know: piano – Ab pedal in the left hand, drums plays with sticks, bass playing the pedal. Roman numeral two: melody played in unison by the brass with mutes (and I didn’t know which so I wrote cups, buckets, question mark). Sort of walked through it in words like that, and then I went back and I transcribed as many of the notes that I could hear. From that, I noticed that when we got to the shout chorus I could hear on the recording that the lead trumpet note happened to be the same note that the lead trombone player was playing and the same note that the lead alto was playing so I had discovered this ‘triple lead’ concept of writing…

ISJAC: Yeah, I hear that from time to time in your writing…

JC: Yeah, and the thing that it provides is a lot of clarity for the melody.  So I learned that whenever I want that kind of clarity I could use ‘triple lead’ or even ‘double lead’.  Anyway, that was the beginning.

ISJAC: How much music did you write while you were with Basie? Were you producing an arrangement or composition once a week, once a month?

JC: It went from once a month or every three weeks or so…it was never once a week.

ISJAC: Yeah, that’s a lot!! [Laughter]

JC: I also acknowledged that I did not have the chops to write that fast. And, by the way, they paid me for the arrangements.

ISJAC: That’s great of course.

JC: It was kind of shocking that I wrote my first endeavour and I got paid for it. So that was great.  And they not only paid for the chart, they paid for the copying too.

ISJAC: What a tremendous learning experience. To be inside a band like that, to be playing with the band, and hearing all those colours, and the orchestration. Everything is right there for you. As opposed to learning about those things from a purely theoretical standpoint.

JC: I absolutely agree.

ISJAC: Whenever I played saxophone in a big band, I would particularly notice what the trumpets and trombones were doing…. I mean I couldn’t avoid it…they were sitting right behind me [laughs].  But it is a truly amazing story that you started writing while you were in the Basie band!

JC: And, of course, the guys were very helpful. They had excellent writers in the band: Bobby Plater, Eric Dixon, and Dennis Wilson. Dennis was my homey because he was my age. He was a schooled writer because he studied at Berklee, and he would show me things about writing technically. And the other guys in the band would say things to me off the cuff that turned out to be invaluable – things that I think too many writers don’t know or don’t do. For instance, they’d see me working on a score, and that I was frustrated because we just played it and I’d be making some edits and corrections and they’d say, “Hey, what are you doing?” and I’d say, “Oh, this didn’t sound very good and I just want to change this or that”, and they’d say, “Well don’t change that! Just write another one! And the stuff you didn’t like in this one, don’t put it in the new one.”

ISJAC: Great advice.

JC: And that was so spontaneous on their part, but so deep for me and I followed their advice. With their encouragement, I kept writing and writing and writing. Another time, earlier on, one of the writers in the band was looking at a score of mine and he asked, “You write a ‘C’ score?” I replied [hesitating] “Yeah”, and asked me, “Well why?” and I said, “I don’t know” and then he said, “Don’t do that! Write a transposed score.” So I said, “OK” and that was that.

ISJAC: And is that what you do now?

JC: Yes. I write my sketches in C but then I always write transposed scores. Honestly, I’m at the point now where I have an assistant, so I usually write detailed sketches and use shorthand that she understands and can decipher. I’m in a lot of situations now where I have to write very quickly and so having an assistant is very helpful.

Incidentally, when I write a score, I don’t use notation software. I have Sibelius because I thought I should have it but I really don’t use it. I had Finale before that because I thought I might use it, but I have so many shortcuts that the software slows me down. It’s just the way I write.

ISJAC: I totally get that. It’s so much easier to write something on paper rather than have to look on page 135 of the manual to find out how to put something or other on the score for the first time.

JC: Yeah, and also, let’s say I’m writing a more extended piece. I sit at my piano and to my left is my desk and to the left of my desk, are two music stands. Now, I may need to refer to page 12, or 23 and 35 and, if I have to scroll on a computer, and have a couple of screens open, it really slows me down. But I do understand the importance of that technology and all my charts are computer-generated now and it is great to have those files. I do recognize the value of it. Its just that writing-wise, it’s just not the way I work.

ISJAC: And your assistant puts it into the software? Is that what happens?

JC: Yes. She copies them into the software. I’m not the kind of person who writes one line and says, “Here, make this sound like Thad Jones.” [Laughter].  I mean all the notes on the score are my notes.

ISJAC: You mentioned Thad Jones. He was in the Basie band long before you, right?

JC: Yes, long before.

ISJAC: Was he an influence on your writing?

JC: Huge. Yeah, Duke Ellington, Thad Jones, Quincy Jones, Billy Byers, Oliver Nelson and Henry Mancini.  I got to work with him [Mancini] in my early days, so I really got to hear his treatment of orchestra and big band and big band with strings and all that. And – I’m sure I’m leaving somebody out – those are some of the people that really had an influence.

ISJAC: That’s a pretty heavy list. I read a story recently about Thad writing on the band bus. I think the story was in that book that came out last year, “50 Years at the Village Vanguard.”4“50 Years at the Village Vanguard (Thad Jones and Mel Lewis at the Village Vanguard) ” by Dave Lisik and Eric Allen available at www.skydeckmusic.com. Do you know that book?

JC: Yes, I know about that. I don’t have that yet.

ISJAC: I haven’t read all of it yet, it’s pretty comprehensive, but at one point one of the members of the band noted that Thad would be writing a score while riding the band bus and that he was able to shut out everything. Just completely absorbed in what he was doing. Apparently the music was for whatever event they were heading to – a recording session or whatever it was. It takes such great concentration to be able to do that with so much going on around you.  Really amazing.

JC: I think that’s something you learn to do, I mean, if you desire to do it, you figure it out. In fact, I got my chops together doing the exact same thing on the Basie bus. I would sit in the back of the bus and write my scores and then, when we got to the concert hall, or wherever we were going, I’d go to the piano to check things. You know, you do write a little differently when you write away from the piano. It’s not that you write more safely, it’s just that you write things that are a little more familiar to you. And so, yeah, I still write that way. At one point, I had a lesson with Johnny Mandel and he encouraged me to write that way because I played him one of the songs I had composed, and he said, “Mmm, did you write that at the piano?” And I thought about it for a moment, and I said, “Yes I did”, and he said, “Yup, sounds like it. You know people don’t sing chord changes, they sing melodies.” And so, whenever possible I try to write away from the piano. That was a major lesson for me. So to this day I write away from the piano and use the piano it to check what I’ve written.

ISJAC: Do you find yourself singing while you write?

JC: Yes. You know, the musicians have to have a chance to breathe when they play or sing what I’m writing.

ISJAC: I’m curious about something that I think every writer faces as they evolve, and that is developing good judgement or taste. You know, how much you decide to put here or put there. Or when there is enough of a particular idea and its time to move on. I guess I’m referring to the intuitive side of things. Finding rhythmic ideas that feel good, sound good and swing. Do you have any thoughts that would be helpful to students or up and coming composer/arrangers that you might want to share?

JC: I’m big on models. I find training wheels are a really good thing because we’ve all got ideas. We’ve all got fantasies. But if you are in the beginning stages of it, there’s a lot that you don’t know. And if you write from rules, it sounds like you are writing from rules.  To free yourself from that you need to put your feet in the shoes of the masters – the people you are interested in and that have influenced you. When you put your feet in their shoes, you go well beyond the analytical level.  You develop a feel for what they are doing. You develop a feel for the phrases and textures and for the apex of the phrase or the piece – and, of course, that’s really what you want. You don’t merely want to write from an analytical, left brain, point of view. You want to naturally flow the way that the music you enjoy listening to does.

I haven’t had that many composition/arranging students but sometimes I believe sincerely that they kind of don’t want to do what I say. And that’s fine…that’s cool…but if someone was studying with me, I’d would have them work on a three-tiered project. The first part would be to find a piece that they like, that’s close to their level. Don’t focus on a ‘level 25’ piece right now. Focus on something with an  ‘11’ or ‘12’ level of complexity. They are going to have to work hard to get it right,  but because it is close to their level it will be an attainable goal. So, for someone who is just starting out writing, I’m not going to send them to a later Thad chart or later Brookmeyer work. I’m going to send them instead to explore a piece they love. It might be Neal Hefti or early Quincy Jones or something like that where the textures are more at their level.

They would start by describing the piece in some detail using words – including describing the moods. Is it an exciting piece? Is it a romantic piece? What does the mood of this music say to you? Because that’s what we are ultimately doing as writers: we’re expressing ourselves and taking those moods that we want to express and attaching sounds to them.  And they would have to describe the structure of the piece. For example, they would describe the intro, where the melody is, who is playing it, what the textures are…just in words. And then they would have to go back and, as best they can, transcribe the notes of the entire piece. There are some options here if the task is too difficult.  It could be that they don’t transcribe the bass line, or only transcribe a sample of the piano voicings, or not transcribe exactly what the drummer is doing with all of his or her limbs. Then the work is not as daunting as it might seem at first.

So that’s the first tier or part of the project, and then the second tier would be that they would have to write their own piece based on what they just analyzed and transcribed.  Of course they can change things, but they should respect the model they’ve just analyzed. So, instead of an 8 bar intro, they might write a 12 bar intro instead for the new piece. They should note things that were particularly noticeable in the piece they transcribed. For example, they might hear that the trumpets were in a certain register and so, in their piece they would write the trumpets in a similar register. It could be that the composer stuck to tensions like 13s and 9s and maybe just occasional alterations to a certain harmonic structure. Well, they should do the same thing. In other words, if you are going to write something in the style of Mozart, you probably shouldn’t use Ravel-like harmony.

And then, the third part of the project would be to write something that has nothing to do with the first two.  You know, whatever you’re feeling – wherever your fantasies take you. So you don’t feel like you’re becoming a carbon copy of that other music.

And then I would have them go through that whole process three or four times. Then they would have a good 12 pieces that they have have really put their heart and soul into. Some of this is analysis based, and some of it is putting your feet in the shoes of another composer and imitating certain aspects of their writing.  And then finally they do whatever they want to do.

Along with that advice I would address three things that I define as gaps in the skills composers or arrangers that I see today. Number one would be transposing. Become comfortable with writing transposed scores. I can’t tell you how many times, having been instructed by writers in the Basie band to do this has saved my bacon.  I’ve been in so many recording situations or rehearsals when I’m standing in front of an orchestra and a hand goes up, the red light is on, and someone says, “John, can you tell me what my note is in the first bar of letter C?” I look and I see that they are playing French horn, and then I have to do an immediate vertical analysis of the score and figure out what that person’s note has to be changed to. Well, someone else could say that they never write a transposed score and still would be able to answer the French horn player’s question, but then, you don’t know what kind of situations you are going to be in and you may have to conduct someone else’s score and that score might be transposed.

Also, I think that the tendency nowadays in education is to allow students to prepare just enough to get through the gig; just enough to get through the recital; just enough to make it through the lesson; just enough to get through the concert and then move on to the next thing. And that’s kind of the nature of what happens in a lot of schools. But if you look at all the things that you feel good about having done, they reflect, I think, over-learning. You’ve done it so many times you don’t have to think about it. It feels really comfortable. But I think that it is too easy in some instances to be satisfied with doing an adequate job –accepting that that was your best effort and then moving on.

Luckily in my life I’ve had enough people who wouldn’t let me do that. You know, Ray Brown told me, (I can’t tell you how many times – maybe hundreds) – he would say to me, “Here’s what you got to do.” And then he would tell me whatever that was and I’d do it! I trusted him. And if I questioned his advice, I’d kind of put those questions aside for the time being. Often, it would take me a certain amount of time – sometimes years – to look back and say, “Oh, that’s why he had me do that!”

ISJAC: Ha! [Both laugh]

JC:  So Ray Brown, and like I said, the guys in the Basie band would give me that kind of advice. Even Basie. At one time, I was really writing a lot and the band was playing more and more of my stuff, and I said to him, “Chief,”  – we used to call him Chief, “ – would you ever consider allowing me to write an album for the band? It would be an honour for me and I would love to do it.” And he kind of looked at the ceiling and looked around and you know, like he wasn’t quite hearing me. So I sort of slithered out of the room and never brought it up again. Well, years later – because I know he heard me – I’d already left the band and I was living in Holland and I found some cassette tapes of some rehearsals and some things I’d done with band, and I’m listening to them and the light bulb went on. And I thought, oh my god, I wasn’t ready. He knew that I wasn’t ready and he allowed me to discover, at some point in life, that I wasn’t ready. He didn’t say ‘no’ to me and he didn’t say ‘yes’ either. He left it alone and that is one example of those lessons that Basie allowed me to learn.

ISJAC: What a wonderful lesson.  I wanted to mention that I had occasion to play some of your charts many years ago while playing piano in a big band, I think in Vancouver, and there were several guest artists – one of them being Diana Krall. I expected her to play piano for her part of the concert and I started to get up and she said, “No, you play,” so I was in the, what I think was the unusual position of playing piano behind her.  I think some of the charts might have been on the From this Moment On recording that you arranged for her. I can’t remember exactly. But one of the things I noticed while I was playing your music was the economy, that’s the word that comes to mind…there wasn’t a note out of place, and there wasn’t too much of anything. It was just right. Everything was clear and beautiful. And I haven’t forgotten that experience. It was a great lesson for me about writing music to accompany a singer, or any other writing for that matter.

JC: Wow, thank you!

ISJAC: It’s so easy to overwrite (I do it all the time!).

JC: Yes, it truly is. [Laughs]. You’re absolutely right and we learn that by…overwriting! There are no shortcuts, you know. Again, I’ve been so lucky that I’ve been around people that have encouraged me and been patient with me as I developed my writing skills. They saw how eager I was and how much I wanted to do it. Nobody said, “You’re going to have to figure this out on your own.” Or, “I don’t have time for you.” It was never that. And that helped me understand the familial relationship that we musicians have with each other, with this community that we are a part of. But the ‘economy’ thing… the older I get, the simpler I want to write. And the reason I want to write simpler is because I am striving for clarity. Even if I’m writing a piece that has a lot of information in it, and has a lot going on, I want there to be a lot of clarity in the textures and the complexities I’m involving myself in.

Here’s an example: I might have a two-fisted chord with 10 or 11 notes in it…oh I guess there would have to be 10, wouldn’t it? [Laughs] Or I guess it could have 11, but anyway, what I’ll do is play a crunchy, thick, dark chord, and I’ll just start lifting fingers and play the chord again with those fingers lifted and if I still get the effect that I’m going for, then I’ll lift another finger and I’ll think, can I eliminate that? And sometimes I think, no, I need that one, and I’ll put my finger back down.

When you write for a vocalist – and Bill Holman said this – it’s almost like taking candy from a baby. A lot of ‘givens’ are already in place. You already know the length of the piece, you already know the key, and you already know the tempo. You already know the time signature. You already know the melody. You know, there are so many givens and you remember the basic rules: enhance the mood and probably before that, don’t step on the singer. Then continue to do what you can to draw the ear toward the vocalist. So with all those parameters known, it makes it pretty easy to work with them and adapt them to your taste. Versus, if someone says,  “I’d like you to write a composition for me – write whatever you want”. Now I have to come up with virtually everything. And even though we love doing that, it’s definitely going to take more time and thought and effort than doing an arrangement for a vocalist.

ISJAC: You encourage those who you are around because that is what others did for you. And with respect to that, I have a question related to your son, Gerald.  I love his playing and everything he does.

JC: Thanks.

ISJAC: I have a daughter and when she was young I decided not to teach her. It was a difficult decision, but I thought it best to separate the dad part from the teacher part. As I was thinking about interviewing you, I thought I’d ask how you approached that with him as he was growing up. Did you teach him, or just encourage him, or…?

JC: Yeah, I think that it was more of the latter. My wife and I supported and encouraged, but we never pushed. And his older sisters, they are a year older than he is, and they both were taken to concerts and there was always music around. Actually, I didn’t have a stereo in the house but they heard a lot of music and knew what was going on. Once that I saw that Gerald was interested in going the music route, I just did my best, like most parents, to supply him with things that hopefully would help him move forward. So it was not only taking him to concerts, but also showing him a melody or showing him a chord that he was trying to figure out or, maybe just chiming in, but then stepping back and leaving him alone. I just didn’t want him to feel pressured. But then, often I’d be in the kitchen cooking dinner and Gerald would be in the other room practicing and he’d be playing a tune that I knew and I’d call out, “No, that’s an A-flat!” [Laughter]. So there’d be moments like that, but for the most part I was, as you say, more encouraging.

ISJAC: Thank you for sharing that. I suppose it was a bit of a departure, but I thought I’d ask you about that.

JC: How old is your daughter?

ISJAC: She turned 41 on New Year’s Eve.  She was into music and played piano and flute, but ultimately she became a graphic designer and art director, which, interestingly enough, is what her grandmother did.

JC: Yeah it’s funny. My daughter hasn’t followed in my wife’s footsteps but is aligned more to her way of thinking…and it’s a combination for sure, but I feel a lot more of my wife’s influence in my daughter in direction than I do in Gerald in a lot of ways. We’re a close-knit family.

ISJAC: I’ve always been fascinated by the great musician families. You mentioned the La Barberas: Pat, John and Joe, and the Jones family, Thad, Hank and Elvin, the Heath brothers, and…the Clayton family too.

JC: You never know!

ISJAC: Before I let you go, are there any current projects, performances or recordings you might like to mention?

JC: Before I do that, I’d like to say I thoroughly enjoyed our chat! Thanks for all of the time you’re putting into this.

I guess you could mention to be on the lookout for a few projects this year. There is possibly/probably a duo release with the wonderful (deceased) pianist, Mulgrew Miller. I’m also discussing releasing or rerecording the Monterey Jazz Festival commission I did, “STORIES OF A GROOVE, Conception, Evolution, Celebration.” It’s one of the largest works I’ve done and I’d like to release it in some fashion. That’s all being discussed. So, everything is percolating! Fingers crossed that it all comes together.

ISJAC: Thanks. What a joy to talk to you!

JC: Likewise.

ISJAC: And, thanks for the lesson! I learned a lot.

JC: Yeah, well I was just passing along what was passed along to me.

ISJAC: Thanks, John.


 

APPENDIX A

Shout chorus from “Splanky” composed for the Count Basie Band and is recorded on “The Atomic Mr. Basie”. Demonstrates ‘triple lead’ orchestration. Lead trumpet, alto saxophone and trombone are doubled at the octave.


About John Clayton:

John Clayton is a natural born multitasker. The multiple roles in which he excels — composer, arranger, conductor, producer, educator, and yes, extraordinary bassist — garner him a number of challenging assignments and commissions. With a Grammy on his shelf and eight additional nominations, artists such as Diana Krall, Paul McCartney, Regina Carter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Gladys Knight, Queen Latifah, and Charles Aznavour vie for a spot on his crowded calendar.

He began his bass career in elementary school playing in strings class, junior orchestra, high school jazz band, orchestra, and soul/R&B groups. In 1969, at the age of 16, he enrolled in bassist Ray Brown’s jazz class at UCLA, beginning a close relationship that lasted more than three decades. After graduating from Indiana University’s School of Music with a degree in bass performance in 1975, he toured with the Monty Alexander Trio (1975-77), the Count Basie Orchestra (1977-79), and settled in as principal bassist with the Amsterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in Amsterdam, Netherlands (1980-85). He was also a bass instructor at The Royal Conservatory, The Hague, Holland from 1980-83.

In 1985 he returned to California, co-founded the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra in 1986, rekindled the The Clayton Brothers quintet, and taught part-time bass at Cal State Long Beach, UCLA and USC. In 1988 he joined the faculty of the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music, where he taught until 2009. Now, in addition to individual clinics, workshops, and private students as schedule permits, John also directs the educational components associated with the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, Centrum Festival, and Vail Jazz Party.

Career highlights include arranging the ‘Star Spangled Banner” for Whitney Houston’s performance at Super Bowl 1990 (the recording went platinum), playing bass on Paul McCartney’s CD “Kisses On The Bottom,” arranging and playing bass with Yo-Yo Ma and Friends on “Songs of Joy and Peace,” and arranging playing and conducting the 2009 CD “Charles Aznavour With the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra,” and numerous recordings with Diana Krall, the Clayton Brothers, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz, Orchestra, Milt Jackson, Monty Alexander and many others.

Website: http://www.johnclaytonjazz.com

 

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 The Amsterdam Philharmonic.
2 Recorded on The Atomic Mr. Basie. (YouTube video posted by Warner Bros.) “Which is “the 6th most critically acclaimed album of 1958, the 25th most acclaimed of the 1950s, and the 837th most acclaimed of all time, based on an aggregation of hundreds of critics’ lists from around the world”. Wikipedia.
3 See the Appendix at the end of the article for an score excerpt showing the ‘triple lead’ approach.
4 “50 Years at the Village Vanguard (Thad Jones and Mel Lewis at the Village Vanguard) ” by Dave Lisik and Eric Allen available at www.skydeckmusic.com.
Artist Blog

Michael Phillip Mossman: On Arranging

When I teach arranging at Queens College I like to use lots of analogies, mostly having to do with cooking or architecture. As musicians it’s very easy to get caught up in the technical aspects of the music and lose our connection with the human experience. Everyone eats and everyone needs a place to live so cooking and building make for good points of reference. Particularly, I think of arranging as preparing a meal for friends. If I knew I had a group of vegans coming over for dinner I could buy the choicest cut of meat available and grill it to perfection yet my dinner would be a failure. Similarly, if I had a group of cattle ranchers over, tofu as the main course might disappoint. So before I start a project I like to take some time to think about who will be involved and what would fulfill or exceed our needs. What can I prepare that will bring out the best in all the participants? These include the performers, sometimes a featured guest artist, the audience, the promoters, perhaps a publisher and certainly myself.

In some cases thought alone will get me there but in other cases I need to do significant homework to get to know the participants better. In this way I can create something original yet take into account the particular talents and abilities of the people involved. This is similar to the architect who designs an house based on its setting, the surrounding environment, the needs of the owner and those of the town while still staying true to his/her own standards of design and style.

The homework process isn’t always easy.

My first experiences as a professional arranger came writing for Mario Bauza and his Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. I was the jazz soloist in the trumpet section and was probably one of the least savvy when it came to understanding how to arrange music for a band with an Afro-Cuban rhythm section. I had studied composition with Wendell Logan at Oberlin Conservatory and had taken arranging lessons with Don Sebesky in New York so I had some idea how to write but was way out of my depth when it came to these styles at this level of collective expertise. In addition to the technical issues there were cultural and personal skills to learn as well. We used to rehearse in the basement of Boy’s Harbor, an institution in East Harlem. Everything about these rehearsals was inconvenient. Getting there from Brooklyn was inconvenient. Waiting for everyone to show up was inconvenient. Arguing over the figures and whether they were in clave was inconvenient. Some of the band members were real characters with musical talent but had odd personal traits. There were many egos as well to navigate amongst the musicians, whose approval of the music meant a chart’s adoption or rejection. Inconvenient!

Its much easier to just work everything out in your head and enter the music into a notation or sequencing program and just hope the musicians play their parts right.

But the magic in music is when all these inconvenient individuals bring all their voices and opinions together and we work through difficulties and possibilities together. The wisdom and experience of each musician in that band, along with the opportunity Mario gave to me as a young arranger were among the greatest gifts one can receive. The extended family that was Mario Bauza’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra taught me how to arrange for that band by sharing their knowledge. Bobby Sanabria showed me numerous bell patterns to learn and recordings to listen to. Victor Paz shared his unique philosophy of what makes for good section writing in that context. Patato Valdez reminded me how much deeper the tradition was than could be captured in any chart. Still, when I arranged a melody given me by Mario in a style that was a bit off center from the band’s repertoire, they trusted me.

Example track “Lourdes’ Lullaby” from album 944 Columbus:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLxocqgVJY8

The sharing process is not always pain-free! Once I transcribed a vocorder recording Joe Zawinul gave me to orchestrate for the album “My People.” I didn’t understand the groove under it but was too timid to ask for an explanation. I wrote it out mistaking where the downbeats in the bars were! Yikes! But the experience reminded me never to be either too fearful or pompous to ask questions and seek help from performers. Making and correcting errors, however frustrating and sometime embarrassing is essential for growth and is sometime necessary do arrive at the best work possible for the people involved. I regularly consult with performers about bass lines, piano figures, percussion breaks, section orchestration, etc. In the process I have learn new techniques and also history, language and a greater cultural awareness through these personal interactions. Personality is the essence of style! An orchestra is made up of people, not just instruments.

As I teach my students: “The audience does not hear your chart. They hear people playing your chart.” If the music fits the performers and brings out their best, that’s what the audience hears. (Perhaps the best example I have experienced as a performer is when I have played with Jimmy Heath’s band! Love is in every part in every chart.)

Another part of the homework process is transcription, including transcribing grooves (including bass lines, cymbal patterns and drum, piano voicing styles, particular harmonic languages) and melodic construction. A recent album I did with the WDR bigband with Mohktar Samba and friends as guest artists required a great deal of transcription. The Senegalese and Morrocan grooves we were using were new to me and to learn them meant a massive immersion into listening and transcribing as much as I needed to get the grooves right. As I teach my students: Get ahold of any material you can to learn what you need to get the groove right so what you do with the winds doesn’t crush the groove! In this case Mohktar had a book with examples of the grooves, recordings and video to check out. And I asked him questions, directly, which is by far the best way to learn. A ten-minute conversation with a real artist is worth hours of “Googling” stuff!

Still we had to resolve issues in rehearsals, which involved listening to one another and negotiating solutions. More human stuff! Inconvenient! But the growth offered by such work is enormous and mirrors the very process we need in all forms of human engagement.

Link to example, WDR rehearsal with Mohktar Samba, directed by Michael Philip Mossman:

As terrifying and painful transcribing unfamiliar material can be, the practice leads rewarding artistic growth. The truly terrifying thought for me is churning out the same kind of stuff the rest of my life!

While composing and arranging can be a solitary pursuit, learning to share ideas and collaborate can also lead to larger opportunities such as ballet, Broadway and film scoring. It can be inconvenient sometimes, to bend your ideas to include the needs and opinions of others. But with practice their knowledge and experience can become yours in the process. Here is a clip I scored for the animated film “Chico and Rita,” nominated for an Academy Award in 2012. The director, Fernando Trueba is a walking encyclopedia of Afro-Cuban jazz and its historical context. Working with him was as much a learning experience as a creative one. Music is essential to most movies. Yet the role of the composer/arranger/orchestrator is subject to the needs of the action on screen and succeds or fails on that basis.

Clip from Chico and Rita:

Perhaps not as flashy as film scoring and recording albums is the kind of collaboration I do with my publisher, Hal Leonard (which is really the people who work at Hal Leonard… corporations are made of people!) I have gained an enormous amount of respect for the work publishers do to keep music strong in our schools. To produce work for a school market means listening to the needs of directors and state boards of educators. This can be the most difficult of all for creative artists! Arranging under technical and range restrictions is very challenging. Writing for Jon Faddis and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band was easy in comparison… they could play anything! But answering the needs of a director in rural school district who may or may not have a strong lead trumpeter or who might have a freshman bassist means preparing music that can teach as well as sound good. If there is anything I am proud of its seeing videos of bands across the US playing charts I arranged and learning how to play a Mambo or Partido Alto. Without music in schools we have no public to enjoy hearing jazz in the first place! No question, it is inconvenient to get a score back with 50 questions about articulations, range decisions and rhythmic quantization. But the expertise and experience of editors I have shared has raised my work considerably and has helped me become a better professor of arranging!

So, in summation, we all celebrate creativity and innovation. Individual achievement in the arts is what we strive for. But my long-winded rant has been one of listening and learning from others in the pursuit of a collective result. It’s the Yin and Yang of jazz arranging: We strive for individuality but we depend upon the work of others to realize what we have created. Gaining the full value of the performers and the satisfaction of our audience depends on our level of understanding and respect for their work and needs as well.

About the Author:

 

Michael Philip Mossman has been active on the international scene since the age of 17. And has recorded with his own groups and with a virtual “who’s who” of the music industry.

Michael was nominated for a 2013 Grammy Award for “Best Instrumental Arrangement” for his “Afro-Latin Ellington Suite.” Michael has composed and arranged music for the films “Bossa Nova” and “Chico and Rita,” which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2012. His ballet “Beneath the Mask” was performed by Jon Faddis and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra with the Deeply Rooted Dance Company. His ballet, La Cova do Rey Cintolo was premiered in 2010 in Mondoñedo, Spain.

Mr. Mossman has conducted the Bilbao Symphonic Orchestra in Spain, and has composed and arranged scores for the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Louisiana Philharmonic, the Tri-Cities Symphony, Joe Henderson’s Grammy winning Big Band album, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra, the Count Basie Orchestra, The Charles Mingus Orchestra, Tito Puente, Mario Bauza, Slide Hampton and the Jazz Masters Orchestra, Paquito D’Rivera, the UMO Orchestra of Finland, the NDR Big Band of Hamburg, WDR of Cologne, HR Bigband of Frankfurt, HGM Bigband of Zagreb, Danish Radio Big Band, the Andalucia Latin Jazz Big Band, Heineken Jazz Festival Orchestra in Puerto Rico, Granada Bigband, Sedajazz Latin Jazz Ensemble, and Ray Barretto’s New World Spirit.

Following stints as lead trumpet with the Machito Orchestra, Toshiko Akiyoshi, and with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, Michael became the musical director of Blue Note Record’s “young lion” group, Out of the Blue. He recorded four albums for Blue Note with this group before joining the Horace Silver Quintet. Michael has toured and recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Joe Henderson, McKoy Tyner, Gerry Mulligan, Joe Zawinul, Slide Hampton, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Jon Faddis, George Gruntz, Bob Mintzer, Steve Turre, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Tom Pierson, The Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra, the Charles Mingus Orchestra, Benny Carter, the Gil Evans Orchestra, and the Count Basie Orchestra. Michael has played lead trumpet with the Michel Camilo Bigband, the Jon Faddis Orchestra, the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra and the Jimmy Heath Bigband among many others.

Michael has also been a key performer in Latin Jazz since his days with Machito. Mr. Mossman has performed and recorded with Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Chico O’Farrill, Ray Barretto, Daniel Ponce, Israel “Cachao” Lopez, Paquito D’Rivera, Bebo Valdez and Michel Camilo (including a screen appearance in the motion picture “Two Much”). Michael is featured in director Fernando Trueba’s highly acclaimed documentary on contemporary Latin Jazz, “Calle 54” as both performer and commentator. He also served as arranger and trumpet soloist for the legendary innovator of Latin Jazz, Mario Bauza and his Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra.

Michael is featured as lead trumpet and arranger on the Grammy winning album, “Song for Chico,” by the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra as well as on “Un Noche Inolvidable” and “40 Acres and a Burro.” Solo releases by Michael Philip Mossman include “Springdance,” “Mama Soho,” “The Orisha Suite,” “Missa Afro-Cubana,” “Soul con Timba Live at Bohemian Cavern.”

Michael, a Yamaha Artist, is currently Professor and Director of Jazz Studies at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College in New York City. Michael’s music is published by the Hal Leonard Corporation.

 

 

Artist Blog

Ryan Keberle: Eight Things I’ve Learned About Jazz Composition and Arranging as a Freelance Trombonist

This was a difficult writing assignment for me. As I tried to decide what to write, I kept thinking about the wealth of resources that aspiring jazz arrangers have at their disposal, including the brilliant pedagogical methods books from people like Ray Wright, Don Sebesky, Bill Dobbins, David Berger, etc.  And, as the ISJAC Blog has made readily apparent, there is also a wealth of knowledge possessed by a new generation of jazz composers like Darcy James Argue and Adam Benjamin who are eager to share their knowledge in eloquent and insightful ways. So I asked myself, what do I bring to the world of composition and arranging that perhaps others may not? Although I’ve had many wonderful teachers over the years and have read many insightful books on the subject, the lessons I most frequently refer to in my own compositional and arranging pursuits come from the enormous amount of time I’ve spent playing trombone in a big band, large ensemble, or even in small groups. This brings up an important yet slightly off-topic discussion on why performance experience is even more valuable than most people recognize in the training of educators. But, we’ll have to save that discussion for another time. For now, I’ll focus on lessons learned that may or may not be included in your typical jazz arranging textbook, or concepts that, when experienced playing in an ensemble, might present themselves differently thus allowing for an alternative point of view.

1. Your Music Should be Fun to Play!! (Learned from every great composer and arranger whose music I’ve had the pleasure to play, including Duke, Sy Oliver, Mingus, JJ, Oliver Nelson, Gil Evans, David Berger, Maria Schneider, Pedro Giraudo, Darcy James Argue, Miguel Zenon, Sufjan Stevens, et al.)

This seems like such an easy thing to do and, really, if it’s foremost on your mind throughout the creative process, it can be! However, with so much to think about and to consider while composing and arranging, I find that this lesson, (which in my mind is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING when it comes to creating quality music), is oftentimes the first to get overlooked. It’s important to define what I mean by “fun”. I DON’T mean the music has to be tongue-in-cheek or sound like cartoon soundtracks. Sometimes, by just simply providing eight measures of solo improvisation you can make your music fun and satisfying to one of your performers. Fun music means music that is rewarding to play. And, when writing for a highly trained jazz musician, this means music that challenges yet still allows for a performance of swinging, grooving, beautiful music that sounds easy and natural. I’ve played plenty of music that is extremely challenging yet, even when you and your bandmates nail it, the music that results still doesn’t feel good, and probably doesn’t sound all that good either. This brings up an interesting challenge because the ideal solution I’m suggesting is not to simplify what you’ve written or eliminate the more challenging passages. Instead, this challenge is best addressed by singing or, even better, playing through the passage in question while listening for those moments of uncertainty. Once you’ve identified the problem spot it’s usually pretty easy to find a more natural alternative, and that allows for the preservation of the larger musical idea. Other ways I’ve found to make music more “fun” is to incorporate improvisation in non-soloistic ways (see #3 below); write for each instrument using prototypical techniques and phrases; avoid extended periods of rest for the same person; write music with rhythmic nuance (see #2 below); or write music to be performed at a Halloween party for pet owners and their pets (that is my horrible attempt at a joke and also an actual gig I played once…!)

2. Rhythm is Everything (Also learned from every master jazz composer and arranger.)

Whether its swing, straight 8ths, 80’s pop ballads, or Venezuelan 5/8 merengues, this lesson still holds true. Rhythm should always be first and foremost on your mind. And what about rhythm should one think about? That’s easy. One simple question can be your guide throughout the creative process: Does the rhythm FEEL good? It’s important to note that this question and process relies on the composer possessing a certain baseline level of fluency in the musical language and genre within they’re working. Assuming this is the case, the ability to FEEL a rhythm’s personality is of the utmost importance when performing and composing good music. A few specific compositional techniques that I have found to help in creating a rhythm of quality that feels good are a balance of syncopated and downbeat-oriented rhythms; rhythms that contain unexpected moments of movement or elements of surprise; rhythms that contain patterns, both simple and complex; and rhythms that reflect the rhythmic language of the genre.

Something else I often think about is striving for rhythms that sound like they were improvised or rhythms that have a unique personality. Imagine the way Louis Armstrong or John Coltrane would play the melody of a jazz standard. Almost every phrase will have personalized changes – primarily rhythmic variations – making the final product sound a whole lot different from the way it’s notated in a Real Book. (Oh, Real Books. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them!)

3. Strive for Balance Between the Composed and Improvised (Learned from David Berger)

My definition of a jazz composer is someone who writes music that balances the pre-composed with improvisation in their music. This is something very much on my mind these days given that the more improvisation one organically incorporates into their arrangement the more fun the musicians will have playing it (full circle back to Lesson #1 above!). Here’s something I wrote in 2015 that demonstrates how improvisation can be incorporated into a jazz arrangement in unorthodox and creative ways. I’ll let you figure out how much of this is improvised, but as a hint, I’ll tell you that with the exception of the intro from 0:00 to 1:35 most of what the band plays is improvised (and even this section we now improvise during live gigs). Yet, you’ll notice that there is very little “solo improvisation.”

“I Thought I Knew” – music by Ryan Keberle, lyrics by Mantsa Miro

And now, here is the trumpet part to give you an idea of what was pre-composed and what the brilliant Mike Rodriguez added. (Which is always way more hip than anything I could have come up with!)

  

4. Transitions, Transitions, Transitions (Learned from Maria Schneider)

So much of what we’re taught in jazz education deals with details. How to properly notate a chord, the best scale to use over a certain chord (a chord that lasts for all of one measure!), how to feel a 4 over 3 polyrhythm, etc. As a result of this attention to detail, many jazz musicians are challenged when it comes to really hearing and appreciating those big picture aspects of music. One of those aspects is how a composer/arranger travels in real time from one unique musical moment to the next. A great example of the importance of transitions can be heard in Maria Schneider’s Hang Gliding, perhaps her best-known work. So much time is spent studying Maria’s orchestrational techniques, maybe because these are things that are more easily written and discussed. However, I can tell you first-hand that Maria’s primary focus when work-shopping a new piece are the transitions in her arrangement. And there are many different types of transitions – harmonic, rhythmic, metric, timbral, etc. Below, I’ve highlighted just a few of the magnificent transitional moments from Maria’s Hang Gliding.

“Hang Gliding” – Maria Schneider

Transitions occur at 1:05-1:12; 2:38-2:50; 3:36-3:42; 4:10-4:20; 5:48-5:52 and 6:48-7:03 (and that’s just the first half of the piece!). I hope students will spend some time studying how and why these moments are so important in addition to the other brilliant but more quantifiable aspects of Maria’s musical language.

Below is a piece  I recently composed that came to me in one of those magical moments of clarity as an almost fully formed song. The entire piece was written in just one afternoon of improvisation at the piano. However, I found the arranging process to be quite difficult as I struggled with how to turn one chorus of a song into a fully formed arrangement for my band, Catharsis, to perform. It took finding the proper transitional material that allowed for this piece to finally come to life.

“Become the Water” – music by Ryan Keberle, lyrics by Mantsa Miro

5. It’s All About Counterpoint (Learned from Sufjan Stevens and Pedro Giraudo)

This can mean many different things since counterpoint exists in at least three different general forms: melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic. This lesson really made an impact on me, so much so that I formed a band called Catharsis to focus almost exclusively on counterpoint, or on the interaction between individual musicians all playing single-note instruments. While melodic counterpoint is the type most familiar to musicians (thanks to years of academic coursework!), I find that rhythmic counterpoint is equally important when it comes to composing or arranging in a jazz context. The beauty of counterpoint is that it inherently creates a sense of layered complexity which allows the composer to streamline each single idea thus making for music that is more natural and fun to play (see Lesson #1 above). In fact, with counterpoint, sometimes the simplest of ideas can provide enough interest.

Here’s a great example of the power of counterpoint even when using simple musical ideas over a simple chord progression.

“All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands” – Sufjan Stevens

And, here’s another great example of a more traditional Bachian contrapuntal approach in a Latin jazz setting from the brilliant musical mind of Pedro Giraudo.

“Contrapuntren”

6. Create Your Own Language (Learned from Gil Evans)

I think it goes without saying that every definitive composer AND performer, from all genres, possesses a unique voice. This is something for all aspiring composers and performers to be aware of, but it’s also something that can present a clear and present danger when one consciously tries to force the issue, typically leading to unnatural or dishonest music. I hear quite a bit of this nowadays with young musicians thinking they’ve created a unique sound by combining different influences, genres, instruments, etc… I think Mark Twain said it best: “There’s no such thing as a new idea.” But more importantly, quick fixes are rarely, if ever, meaningful and enduring. The most beautiful and astonishingly unique voices in jazz are those who find their language by drawing from the tradition without feeling the need to reinvent the wheel. In my opinion, there is absolutely no arranger with a more definitive voice than that of Gil Evans and yet there is very little he did that hadn’t been done before! Nevertheless, the way in which he takes the tradition and puts his own beautiful magical spin on it all still leaves me breathless. The level of detail; melodic, harmonic, AND rhythmic sophistication; and sheer musical beauty sets Gil’s arrangements apart from all others I’ve played. And as you might expect, the capacity for this music to inspire and impart wisdom seems almost infinite and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. After playing his music a great deal over the past 10 years, it seems to me that it is, in fact, those details that give Gil’s music so much color, so much beauty, integrity, and in the end, such a unique personality.

7. Focus on making your MUSIC good before arranging and orchestrating (from Miguel Zenon)

No matter how great your arranging and orchestration chops, the MUSIC has to stand on its own in order for the final product to delight and satisfy. This might sound obvious when you hear it but it’s such an easy thing to overlook when one begins with the details rather than with the big picture. Before jumping into things like orchestration, instrumentation, mutes, and countermelodies, be sure to remember to focus on how the music makes YOU feel. As the composer, you should feel a deep emotional connection to the music you’ve written. I learned this first-hand when the musical genius,  Miguel Zenon, created a big band a few years ago. Miguel took music that he had composed for his quartet and then arranged those same tunes for big band. Starting with music that he had already perfected –  both on paper and for performance –  allowed for an easy adaptation to big band. He didn’t have to change much of anything when it came to arranging, and simply reorchestrated the music in efficient and smart ways. You can hear one of these songs, Same Flight, first in its original quartet form followed by his big band orchestration below.

Miguel Zenon Quartet, “Same Flight”

Miguel Zenon ‘Identities’ Big Band

8. All Good Music Tells a Story (Learned from Maria Schneider and so many others)

Music can be as simple as a brief moment of tension and release or as complex as a 20-minute Stravinsky masterpiece, but all good music does the same thing that a good poem, novel, movie, dance performance, play, or visual art piece does: It engages the audience in dramatic ways on an emotional level. When you think about common themes between genres or between artistic disciplines you start to notice similar techniques in how quality (versus non-quality) art tells its story. These include memorable beginnings and endings, subtle yet complex characters, thorough yet not over-indulgent character development, moments of surprise, moments of tension and moments of stability. This list could go on and on and I encourage those young aspiring composers and arrangers to focus on learning from other artistic disciplines, including dance, photography, written word, etc.

To exemplify both Lessons #7 and #8, I’ll finish with a music video that my band, Catharsis, recently released. This is our cover of the Bob Dylan protest song, The Times They Are A-Changin. The song has stood the test of time, primarily on it’s lyrical merit, but the melody is infectious and the harmony is simple yet poignant. It is this good music that allowed me, as the arranger, and Catharsis, as the performer, to get creative in our interpretation. It also tells a story not just on a lyrical level but also throughout the development of our arrangement, which mirrors the story that the video director, Claudia Bitran, tells in the moving image.

On a final note, please remember to support recorded and live music in any and all ways you can. There are live music venues, jazz clubs, and performing arts centers around the country, and world, which need support! Not everyone studying jazz in school is going to become a professional musician, and that’s even better because music education is beneficial no matter your path (a topic for another blog post), and creates educated ears and supportive audiences who can decipher between good and great art.   And we need that support now more than ever. Streaming music is not a sustainable model for musicians, and by subscribing to Spotify or Apple Music (and YouTube is even worse) you are hastening the end of musicians’ ability to earn a living by creating music. I hesitated to even offer the above examples on YouTube, given that much of this music is available for purchase in recorded format – so after you get a free taste, go out and buy it! Musicians, artists, and creative individuals play a critical role in fighting the ignorance and greed being spewed from many of our government leaders, most especially from the current administration. The times really are a-changin and we need to do all we can to ensure they change for the better.

“The Times They Are A-Changin” – music by Bob Dylan, arranged by Ryan Keberle

About the Author:

Few musicians have managed to navigate the richly varied avenues of New York City’s abundant music scene with the same passion and adaptability as trombonist and composer Ryan Keberle. Since his arrival in 1999, Keberle’s diverse talents have earned him a place alongside a staggering array of legends, superstars, and up-and-coming innovators.

Leading his pianoless quartet Catharsis or arranging for the little big band setting of his Double Quartet, Keberle draws upon lessons learned playing alongside masters of a multitude of forms, from jazz legends to indie rock ground-breakers, R&B superstars to classical virtuosos. He has toured with the acclaimed indie rock songwriter Sufjan Stevens and with the ground-breaking big bands of Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue; he has accompanied soul hitmakers Alicia Keys and Justin Timberlake as well as jazz legends Rufus Reid and Wynton Marsalis; he’s been heard on movie soundtracks for filmmakers like Woody Allen and in the pit for the Tony-winning Broadway musical “In the Heights.” Keberle’s own music integrates those wide-ranging experiences into a highly personal jazz language that pays heed to tradition while searching out fresh and original pathways. Born and raised in Spokane, Washington, Keberle was surrounded by music from an early age.

Both of his parents were music educators, his father a jazz trumpeter and professor at Spokane’s Whitworth University, his mother a piano teacher and longtime church music director. Keberle started out by studying classical violin and piano before adopting the trombone as his primary instrument; classical music remains one of the many components of his arsenal, as he continues to perform with brass chamber ensembles. He also followed in his mother’s footsteps, serving as music director at a Manhattan Catholic church for several years.

Keberle moved east to study at the Manhattan School of Music, where he came under the tutelage of renowned trombonist Steve Turre, as well as composers Mike Abene and Manny Album. He was the sole member of his graduating class chosen to receive the William H. Borden Aware for musical excellence in jazz. In May 2003 Keberle became a member of Jazz at Juilliard’s first graduating class, having studied with Wycliffe Gordon and David Berger, whose big band he has worked with over the ensuing years.

In 2007 Keberle released the self-titled debut of his Double Quartet, a malleable, brass-heavy octet that showcased his deft composing and arranging skills, The band’s second disc, Heavy Dreaming, was released in 2010 and garnered rave reviews and slots on year-end lists from magazines like JazzTimes and Stereophile.

Early 2012 marked the debut of Keberle’s latest group, the pianoless quartet Catharsis, comprising some of the music’s most compelling young voices: Mike Rodriguez (trumpet), Jorge Roeder (bass), and Eric Daub (drums). Keberle’s writing for the band reveals his more melodic and emotional side on pieces driven by groove, the blues, and Latin jazz, with which all four members have extensive experience. Keberle has worked with the Pedro Giraudo jazz Orchestra and with Brazilian superstar Ivan Lins, and was named Latin jazz trombonist of the year by the Latin Jazz Corner website in 2008 and 2009.

Both his own compositions and his arrangements of works by other composers evidence Keberle’s expansive tastes, which encompass Duke Ellington, The Beatles, Sufjan Stevens, and Ravel, among countless others. His work in the indie rock world, including a world tour with Stevens, has provided the newest fork in what has been an unpredictable career. It has also afforded him the chance to return to the piano, as he has with the singer/songwriter Nedelle Torrisi of the band Cryptacize. But he has also performed with the Saturday Night Live House band and with “Family Guy’ creator Seth MacFarlane. His music has taken him to venues across the globe, throughout Asia, Australia, Europe, and North and South America.

The sum of these eclectic travels is the distinctive, original voice of Ryan Keberle, Whether performing in any one of these vastly different contexts or leading his own band, Keberle continues to evolve into one of the most intriguing and vital musicians of his generation.

Artist Blog

Adam Benjamin: Some Thoughts on Listening

Hello again! Since I wrote one of the first blog posts for ISJAC about a year ago, all sorts of people that are way smarter and more experienced than I am have told you all the real stuff about life and chords and concerti and stuff. So I’m going to steer clear of those areas so as to not embarrass myself. Let’s talk about Listening.

So, there’s this tendency that has is present throughout approximately 100% of human history. This tendency is that as Young people become Middle-Aged people, they tell the new Young people that they’re doing things wrong. This helps Middle-Aged people feel like they are Smart and helps them feel better about not being Young anymore. Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re wrong, but most of the time it’s worth considering what they are saying. Young people, use your own set of values and ethics to determine if they are right or wrong. If they’re wrong, be nice about it, they have enough to worry about already. Someday you, too, will be Middle-Aged person! So be kind.

This tendency is exaggerated in times of great change, like now. So we shouldn’t be surprised that, on the topic of Listening to Music, there is much Kvetching on the part of Middle-Aged people regarding the habits of Young people. I, myself, have Kvetched about this! But, I am one of those Middle-Aged people that still likes to imagine that somehow deep inside I am still Young, so I shall try to mitigate this tendency, and not get too preachy. Here is my attempt at an honest and impartial Listening Guide.

1) Do It

If you are not listening to music at all, that is bad. How much listening to music you should do is up to you. Everyone is different. I can’t listen as much as most people because when I listen to music I am emotionally, cognitively and spiritually overwhelmed approximately 100% of the time. It’s just how I am wired. But I still need to engage, even when it hurts.

2) Listen to Not Music

2a) Have you heard Glenn Gould’s “The Idea Of North”? There’s a part where he makes connections between Bach counterpoint and the multiple simultaneous conversations occurring in a diner. That blew my mind when I was 10, and I still love the idea. Right now I’m in a coffeeshop beside a river and there are people talking, and the whooshing and grinding of coffee machines, and footfalls, and keyboards clicking, and on the stereo, “Summertime” is being played quietly on a soprano sax (well actually, being played loudly but turned far down in the mix) over some generic world percussion sounds. Most of the individual elements are pretty awful actually, but the way all the different sounds in the room blend together is somehow pleasant. Listen to this! 

2b) Think about the physical space you are in, the materials it’s constructed from, and how it changes the sound. Maybe there was an architect or acoustician who even did it on purpose! Really listen, actively listen. I find it useful to imagine a visual meter of the kind you see on mixing boards (back when those were a thing). Frequency is on the X-axis and Amplitude on the Y-axis. What frequencies are present, and missing, in your room / world right now? Which are loudest? How is it changing? If you really want to trip out, add a Z-axis for time and see if you can visualize the patterns (rhythms) in 3 dimensions. Whee!

2c) Also, listen to birds.

3) Feel It

Lost in many discussions about how we, as musicians and composers, should listen to music, is Feeling it. This makes sense because we have to Study music as well as Feel it. We have to take our beautiful lover and Dissect him on a clean and sterile surface, under a bright light. Yuck! But, not Yuck, because we find amazing things in there, and we learn so much, and we can put him back together afterwards. But all this Learning is useless if we become unable to Feel music. So in addition to all the Dissecting we must also be Immersing and Loving and Living. At some points in your life, this is so easy for you, that you don’t even realize it’s a thing. At other points, it must be gently or forcefully rekindled. How to get there is up to you. Listening to something you don’t Understand is a good method. Maybe listening to the things you loved when you were 16. Maybe listening on headphones on top of a mountain.  Maybe you need to be totally alone for like 3 days. Be careful, but do what it takes. If you’re not Feeling, things get out of whack.

4) Don’t Mistake the Information for the Music

This is related to #3. As trained musicians, we can hear what Notes are being played and what Time Signature a song is in and whether the bass player has bad intonation in thumb position. This is fine but it is not Music. Think of everything that has been written about Coltrane, how much that music has been studied. Do we really know its secrets? To be clear, studying music is crucial for performers and composers, and musicology is a beautiful thing. But don’t forget that we are only studying the structural attributes of a force that we deeply, fundamentally, do not understand. This is not a science. Don’t forget this. Our brains are so well-trained to decipher all the different levels of Information, that sometimes we must turn our attention away from the Information, and towards the Music.

5) Listening is Consumption

Remember that if you consume a recording without remunerating the creator(s) of the recording, you are saying that either (1) you will pay them later, (2) someone else will pay them, (3) they have enough money to keep making recordings, or (4) you don’t care if they can keep making recordings. I’m not going to lie — I sometimes use YouTube, and Spotify, and Apple Music, and Tidal, even if I know it’s bad for artists. I think the accessibility of music on the Internet is too wonderful to resist, and is an incredible tool, especially for students and others who simply cannot afford to remunerate the creators. But please, keep in mind that counting on people creating great content for you to consume without you paying them is a bad idea. Maybe we will move towards a patronage system, or greater institutional support, or better deals with the corporate gatekeepers, but none of that is in place now. Please don’t create a future in which only rich kids can make albums.

6) I Am A Middle-Aged Person

6a) From approximately 1951 to approximately 2006, the standard format of a piece of recorded musical art was an “LP”, which usually lasts somewhere between 35 and 72 minutes and is usually divided into somewhere between 4 and 20 parts, or “songs”. There is nothing objective about this format, and it was the direct result of the technological innovations and constraints of its time. But it was the format in which these pieces of recorded musical art were conceived, like chapters of a book, photographs in an exhibition, or movements of a symphony. Playlists are great and singles are great and shuffle is great and remixes are great and outtakes are great. But, please, spend at least some of your listening time experiencing these works in the format in which their creators conceived of them.

6b) Maybe you think you can’t tell the difference between 256k mp3s and 512k MP3s and AIFFs and WAVs and CDs and OGGs and FLACs, but you can! You totally can. Please consult #4. Just because no Information is missing, or the missing Information is deemed to be insignificant by Technology Corporation, does not mean that you don’t Feel the difference. Maybe the part of “A Case of You” that makes you cry is located at 28.5khz and when that gets flattened you don’t cry the same way. Every device sounds different, every format sounds different. Also, the way we experience music depends on our relationship with the device that plays it for us. Do you really want the thing that sends you annoying work emails and depressing eHarmony results also being your source of spiritual sustenance?

6c) Liner notes are so important. They made every album an interdisciplinary work. Don’t trade that in for an indistinct thumbnail image.

6d) Hey! You’re doing too much stuff all the time, too much stuff at once. You’re training your brain to not be at peace, to not be able to focus on something and fully engage it. Think about how often we “check” something — check the news, check our email, check our texts. You don’t need to “check” stuff so much, everything is going to be fine. The part of your brain that was designed to tell you if a bear is going to eat you is being hijacked by Technology Corporation and retrained to obsessively check your Instagram comments. Dude — Technology Corporation is making Hell Of Money! And now you can’t concentrate long enough to read a book. Use your music-listening time as an opportunity to focus 100% on one thing.

7) Context

I’ve noticed that for every little teensy bit I learn about Art, and Film, and Art Theory, and Philosophy, and Literary Theory, and History, and Linguistics, and Mathematics, my ability to understand, enjoy, and access various musics expands tenfold. Don’t shut out the rest of the world, it makes music richer and funner and more beautiful.

8) I Could Go On

There’s so much more to say. I’ve omitted basically everything. I was gonna talk about Paul Motian and Aphex Twin and trees. But I have to walk my dog, and a storm is rolling in. Just remember, the whole point of Art is that is makes people Feel things. That’s approximately 50% job of creator and 50% job of listener. So! Put all the time and love and focus and joy that you put into making music into listening to it, and we should be good. And, stop checking your phone — the bear is not going to eat you.

About the Author:

Adam Benjamin
Adam Benjamin is a Grammy-nominated and critically acclaimed pianist, keyboardist, composer and educator. He is a founding member of the band Kneebody and is the director of the Program for Jazz and Improvised Music at the University of Nevada, Reno. Recognized as a “Rising Star in Jazz” in Downbeat magazine’s critic’s and reader’s polls for seven years running, his unmistakable sound crosses stylistic boundaries and challenges traditional notions of jazz. Adam maintains a humble and humorous approach that connects him with his audiences worldwide.

You can stay up to date with Kneebody at kneebody.com.

Artist Blog

Fred Hersch: A Composition Exercise to Try Today

In 2001, during my second composition residency at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, NH, I was completely stuck with my writing.  I had come to the Colony to work on what I had hoped would be a chamber-opera-type-thing – only to find right before I left that I would not be able to procure the rights to the novel I wanted to adapt. I felt rudderless, taking frequent naps and spending an inordinate amount of time reading novels by the resident fiction writers.

It was also extremely cold – February in New Hampshire is no joke – so I was in my cottage going a bit stir-crazy. Then I got an idea by looking at a baseball cap that I had with me in my studio.  I cut a piece of paper into 12 one-inch squares – each square representing a note of the chromatic scale.  I put the squares into the baseball cap, shook them up, and got a “pitch”.  Then I set a timer I happened to have with me to 45 minutes – this I determined as ideal since it is the length of a typical psychotherapy session.  For example, if the “pitch” was Bb it meant either: Bb major; Bb minor; or starting on the note Bb.  So I had a starting place and turned on the timer.  The challenge was to write a tune (in scribble as no one but me had to read it) and complete it within the 45-minute interval.  So I was composing as close as possible to the speed of improvising – and the deadline meant that I didn’t have forever to wait around for divine inspiration to descend from the heavens.  I just used whatever came first and worked it out from there.

This process over the years has led me to compose many of my best and most durable compositions.  Jazz compositions these days – with computer notation programs and the fluency of younger jazz players in odd time signatures and complex structures – often have too many elements in them. They don’t leave room for the player to interpret them or add their personality and point of view to the theme or the harmonic structure – and many of them are simply not memorable. I was 24 years old and a very experienced jazz pianist who knew hundreds of tunes before I dared to write one of my own.  I figured “what could I write that would be better than Wayne Shorter or Billy Strayhorn or Kenny Wheeler or Ornette or Monk?” – so why bother?  Then I realized that all of these tunes I loved had only a few simple elements – a great progression, a durable melody and a particular rhythm or vibe.  So I didn’t have to re-invent the wheel after all – just write a short-form tune that is memorable and distinctive. (Richard Rodgers did extremely well with just the notes of the diatonic major scale). And, most importantly, simple isn’t easy. Everything that Monk wrote fits on about 100 pages, but each tune has its own beautiful logic and specific world and they are fun and challenging musical problems to solve over and over.

I have a beloved and banged-up kitchen timer that is always by my piano.  When I am stuck, I write a “kitchen timer tune”. Best case, I come out with something I really like – and can tweak later. Worst case, I only wasted 45 minutes. My “batting average” has gotten pretty good over the years when I set my mind to it. Maybe you will give this a try?


About the Author:

Fred Hersch is a 10-time Grammy nominee as jazz pianist and composer; he was the recipient of a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship in Music Composition and was named a 2016 Doris Duke Artist and 2016 Jazz Pianist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association. His memoir Good Things Happen Slowly will be published by Crown Books/Random House in September 2017. www.fredhersch.com

Artist Blog

Rick Lawn: Lessons I’ve Learned

I guess when you begin to see your runway getting a little shorter you think more about the things you’ve learned over many years of teaching and writing. These moments of reflection also prompt you to want to share this information with others and begin to document your findings, conclusions, and lessons learned. I was happy to accept the invitation to contribute to the ISJAC blog and have this opportunity to share just a few of these lessons I’ve learned. Notice that none of these observations and suggestions has much to do with the mechanics of writing e.g. chord voicings, form, orchestration, and so forth, but have more to do with my view of writing from 1000 feet.

Lesson I: Don’t be too eager to compose original music.

Reflecting back many years to my undergraduate years, I had great teachers. For example I had Joseph Schwantner for beginning orchestration class before he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, and Rayburn Wright for jazz arranging courses and related jazz curriculum. Who could have asked for anything better? They were very open to whatever projects I chose to do, even though they sometimes fell outside the intended guidelines of the assignment. I often preferred to write original music rather than arrangements, though I did write several arrangements as I recall. Years later as a teacher myself I offered the same latitude to my students. But it was many, many years later that I realized how allowing this kind of freedom might have actually been a disservice to my development. For some reason much later in my career I began writing arrangements, carefully analyzing them first, deconstructing them, re-harmonizing, reconsidering style, tempo, key, meter and so forth. In creating a number of arrangements of both jazz classics for my 10-piece band Power of Ten such as “Giant Steps,” “Naima,” and “Bass Face” along with remakes of pop tunes I grew up with, I found that my writing was suddenly moving in new directions. I was learning more from myself and by myself. Perhaps this growth and further maturity in my writing was going to come about anyway as I grew older, wiser and more experienced. But I have to believe that my growth was in part due to working with other composer’s materials and discovering how I could make it my own. As a result, I found that my own compositional efforts were advancing. The lesson here is that arranging with an eye (and ear) towards transforming someone else’s material is a very valuable process in the path towards developing as a well-rounded writer. I learned, for example, that typically the meter dictates the rhythm of the melody.  On the other hand, reversing this relationship by letting the rhythm of the melody dictate the meter, can lead to some interesting outcomes.  Working on assignment from Danny Behr at Walrus Music I had a great deal of fun transforming tired old public domain pieces like “Yellow Rose of Texas” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” I honestly feel that while I continue to compose original music, some of my best work recently has been in the form of arrangements.

Lesson II: Don’t rely too much on the computer to do your creative work.

Computer notation and sequencing software has revolutionized the way we can work. These applications have in some ways provided a new resource in our toolbox, removing some of the guesswork and tedious aspects of writing. But don’t let this tool become a monkey wrench that works against creativity. I learned this lesson the hard way.

I have always been a technology geek so embracing the technology was fun and enticing, especially when the young student writers came to their lessons with their scores on disk. In some ways they made me feel behind the times as I was not using computer sequencing and notation software to the full extent that they were. I decided I needed to catch up and started a new original score, working almost solely at the computer and MIDI keyboard. I brought the new score for reading by the UT Jazz Orchestra and it was the worst piece of music I had ever written. After spending some time with it in rehearsal I asked the band to pass it in and I threw it out. I had never done that before, always keeping things that I had written for possible use at some later date. After doing some soul searching I began to conduct an informal survey of much younger writers who I admired, for example Vince Mendoza and Maria Schneider. I was interested in learning about their creative processes, and particularly how they used computers. Surprise, Surprise…..they didn’t! They still relied to a great extent on using pencil and paper, the piano, and their own instruments. They only introduced computers towards the end of the process or as a means to perhaps check something they had written and could not easily play at a keyboard. This age old approach to creativity hasn’t changed nor has it been improved.

There is something much more linear about having pages of manuscript in front of you, all visible at once that provides a better sense of flow, pacing, musical evolution, and the dramatic aspects of your score. I found that the computer didn’t provide the same essential insight during the initial creative process, and I had let the computer actually replace my own creative muse instead of helping it in the tedious, repetitive aspects of writing.

The computerized musicians inside that box never have to take a breath, never falter or tire, never complain about playing an impossible passage or something at the extreme ends of their ranges. Computers remove the essential need to create space in a score because they can play anything and do anything you ask them to do, but of course this is entirely artificial. I’ll pursue this a bit more in Lesson III that follows.

Computers also tend to diminish the composer/arranger’s need to internalize the sound, range, timbre, special characteristics and technical capabilities of the instruments. Without a personal awareness of these attributes arrangers can find it difficult to develop their own sound and may even create music that tires the listener. I believe it orchestration that defines a significant aspect of an arranger’s identity.

I have found that students can be mislead by computer software which tends to bypass the need to internalize things like instrument ranges, timbre in certain ranges, transpositions, the sound of mutes, instrumental combinations, saxophone sub-tone, and how difficult it might be for a real instrumentalist to execute a particular passage. I decided to help them by creating a software tool that provides a quick easy reference for nearly all the instruments that are typically found in an extended jazz ensemble. I call it The Orchestrators TooKit and it offers aural feedback on nearly every pitch possible by these instruments and it features REAL instruments not samples. It also provides useful information on transpositions, idiosyncrasies, special effects including the sounds of brass mutes, possible instrumental combinations, and so forth.  It is Mac and PC compatible and I’m offering it here exclusively at no charge. Click or copy the link below and paste it into your browser.

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/79etjk2bhr9kaca/AAA1XwSGFsxGL_jVry3ilRXya?dl=0

Download the compressed .zip file of your choice (Windows, Mac or Linux) which will keep the download file size down. Extract the program from the .zip file once you’ve downloaded it to your computer. All I ask in return is to let me know if you find it useful to you or your students and how it might be improved.

Of course the controlled recording studio circumstances make the samples somewhat unreal by comparison to more acoustic, live performance situations, but you still might find it to be a useful tool as some of my students at UT did.

Lesson III: Evaluate your work through the ears of the listener.

As I suggested previously, it is all too easy to over write. I think it was Sammy Nestico that suggested our best friend is the eraser.  While cutting and pasting is easy at the computer, be careful investing too much creative time sitting in front of one. I found that some of my students fell into this trap. I remember an occasion sitting at the piano with one of my graduate students who, some time later, won the Brussels Jazz Orchestra composition contest. We were reviewing a print out of a score he was working on. At one point I asked him if he had any idea how much time had elapsed during a section of the score. He looked at me puzzled and I could tell he had no idea. I then explained the simple formula to compute how much time elapses from one point to the next.  Understanding your music at this basic level helps to determine if you’ve dwelled too long on a section using the same orchestration, or at the same dynamic level, or before something significantly new is introduced. I then explained to him that by multiplying the number of measures times the number of beats per measure and dividing that total by the metronome marking, he could determine how much time had elapsed. For example, 80 bars of ¾ meter times 3 beats per measure equals 240 beats divided by the metronome marking of 100 equals 2.4 minutes or 2 minutes 24 seconds (.4 x 60 = 24). In that way it is easier to begin to disconnect as writer from the score and begin to get a better impression of what the listener hears, helping to avoid ear fatigue or boredom. This is a simple guideline but one that is very easy to overlook.

I found in analyzing some of my favorite ballads, for example, that a good arrangement often featured significant changes every four measures. In that short time something usually changed  orchestrationally, or perhaps in others ways. Four measures isn’t a long time, but it is when the tempo is only 60mm!

Lesson IV: Learn to recognize the appealing “hook” in your music and make the most of it.

While some of you might find it demeaning to use the pop music term “hook,” I find it a useful term to describe that kernel in a score that helps listeners to remember a piece, follow the composition, and want to hear it again. It’s important to remember that unlike other art forms, music is not visual and is quite ephemeral. The hooks become tangible objects that provide listeners with something concrete and reoccurring that guide them through a piece. The hook usually appears multiple times in the score, possibly reoccurring each time with a slightly different variation. If we aren’t careful during the creative process we can easily not see (or hear) a great hook that can be influential as we develop the score. The hook can actually be the initial creation that then spawns the rest of the composition. Hooks can appear in the form of a harmonic progression, a melodic line, and particular rhythmic figure that might have slightly different melodies or harmonizations each time it reappears. Hooks provide a form of gravitational pull or grounding for the listener. They are a target or a goal that helps to provide glue to all of the other aspects of your composition. As small as these kernels might be, they often provide the musical DNA that one associates with a particular writer. We can often successfully guess on first hearing who might have written an unidentified piece based on the hooks we hear.  They can range from relatively simple figures to more complex. Hooks can also provide valuable material when we search for the elusive way to end a piece, or begin it. Many of my favorite contemporary jazz composers use this device to great affect, and it is an ingredient I frequently make use of in my own writing.

You can hear a few examples of how I’ve used hooks in my music on YouTube:


Click here to listen to these tracks on YouTube

Particularly listen to “Hopscotch” for the 4-note melodic/rhythmic gesture that serves as the basis of the A section of this chart. You’ll also hear a hook appear in different ways and for different purposes in “Quiet Please!.” It first can be heard from 1:56-2:18 and it reappears throughout the chart in various ways. Multiple hooks can be heard in “Retrospect.” The first occurs at 00:40-00:42 as a 4 –note phrase that either ascends or descends and is used many times and in different ways throughout the chart. The second hook immediately follows it from 00:54-1:17, occurring several times throughout the chart. Lastly, I used a similar reoccurring device with variations in “Never Too Late.” The first occurrence is heard from 1:03 to 1:13.  I guess I should thank whoever illegally uploaded these tracks to YouTube without my permission as it’s made sharing these examples easy!

I hope these few lessons I’ve learned, having more to do with the process and art of writing than the mechanics, will make sense to you and offer something to consider passing on, or perhaps benefit your own work. The older I get the more I find I have to learn!

 


About the Author:

Richard (Rick) Lawn

Richard (Rick) Lawn has received several significant composition grants from the National Endowment of the Arts and, as a member of the Nova Saxophone Quartet, has recorded on the Musical Heritage Society, Crystal and Equilibrium labels. The Sea Breeze record label issued “Unknown Soldiers,” a CD recorded by the Third Coast Jazz Orchestra that features his compositions and arrangements including his arrangement of “Donna Lee” recorded by Bobby Sanabria’s New York Latin big band on his 2001 Grammy nominated CD. In fall 2011 his Philadelphia based little big band Power of Ten10 released Earth Tones that includes his original compositions and arrangements. The CD received coast-to-coast radio play and favorable reviews.

Kendor Music, CL Barnhouse, Walrus Music, Concept Music, Alfred Music, eJazzlines, Warwick Music, Dorn, LawnWorks Publications and UNC Press among others publish his music. Rick’s books entitled The Jazz Ensemble Directors Manual (in its 4th edition), Jazz Theory and Practice in its 2nd edition (that includes interactive ear training software) and Experiencing Jazz now in its 2nd edition have become staples among jazz educators and students.

Rick’s performing experiences outside his own ensembles include extended engagements with Lionel Hampton, Chuck Mangione, the Rochester Philharmonic, and the Austin Symphony others. He has performed in back-up orchestras for Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Joe Williams, Natalie Cole, Marian McPartland, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Dianne Schuur, Rosemary Clooney, Aretha Franklin and a host of others.

Richard Lawn is the former Dean of the College of Performing Arts at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia where he is now Professor Emeritus and part-time faculty member teaching jazz history online. He also teaches online for VanderCook College of Music in Chicago. Recetly Rick has become involved with the International Society of Arrangers and Composers. Formerly, he was affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin serving as Founding Director of Jazz Studies, Chair of the Department of Music, and Associate Dean for academic affairs. Visit his Web site at: http://www.RickLawn.com.