Pivotal Arc (Whirlwind Recordings), coming out in a few days, features my evolving language composing for string instruments. It explores the connection between classical and jazz idioms with a Violin Concerto, written for soloist Nathalie Bonin, and a String Quartet written for the Molinari String Quartet. The Concerto was developed over a decade, working closely with the soloist, whereas the Quartet was composed right before the recording session, meeting the performers for the first time at rehearsal. A common thread between them is a focus on imaginative musical risks and finding connections between genres.
Near where I grew up in Toronto, Canada, there was a great reference library that had a large vinyl collection of music covering a diverse range of genres and styles. In high school I was getting turned on to so much music by taking out twenty records (the library checkout limit) every few weeks and listening to something new nearly every night. As a budding saxophonist, I was getting clued in to John Coltrane’s music, the 60’s quartet and beyond, thanks to my private teacher, Alex Dean. I had picked up the complete Bartok String Quartets by the Emerson Quartet at the library around the same time. Even though the instrumentation and approach was very different, in many ways I heard a deep connection between them: the intensity, vibrancy, immediacy, melodic elements, rhythmic development and some of the harmonic approaches. Even though Bartok’s music was fully notated, it still has a feeling of improvisation and spontaneity. And even though Trane’s music was highly improvised, it has a deliberate sense of development and form. They both have a vibrant blend of intellect and emotion.
This inspiration from these two sources grew into two of my first albums. Magic Numbers (Songlines), recorded in 2004, incorporates a String Quartet led by Nathalie Bonin with saxophone trio of bassist Mark Helias, drummer Jim Black and myself on tenor and soprano sax. Horizons Ensemble (Musictronic), recorded in 2005, was with pianist John Taylor, improvising cellist Ernst Reijseger and violinists Nathalie Bonin and Parmela Attariwala. For both of these albums, I wanted the strings to be another voice within the ensemble, interjecting and steering the conversation, not always, or even often, in a background role.
In preparation for composing, I dove into the Bartok scores, and also found the Debussy and Ravel String Quartets really helpful. I highly recommend them, in particular for composers coming from a jazz background, as the harmonic language is familiar and the writing and development is quite clear. You get a good sense of the ranges of the instruments and combinations of the four voices. From there I found it easier to then go back to Beethoven Quartets and move ahead to Shostakovich Quartets and beyond.
By digging into the literature, doing the homework, listening and checking out scores I learned a lot, but this is only one key element. As Jim McNeely (via Bob Brookmeyer) mentions in his recent blog post, doing it is also critical. By writing the music and then having the opportunity to hear how the players responded to it, how the registers sounded in real life and how the overtones interacted and resonated, helped immensely to focus and clarify my imagination: so what I was hearing in my mind would better match reality. (I had the good fortune to study with Jim on and off for several years: a great learning experience from one of the best.) This crucial element comes into play later in the story. From these experiences, I was able to take what was effective and discard what was not.
To the Present
Nathalie had been integral to both of those early albums. She had a strong classical background, but was also interested in improvising and worked in a wide cross-section of styles and ensembles. After a performance, we started tossing the idea around of writing her a concerto that would showcase some of her diverse interests. The commission came about in 2008, thanks to the Canada Council for the Arts. Writing for a specific person and working with her to develop the language was a growing experience. I knew some musical settings she was really good at that I wanted to showcase, such as the abstracted Tango of the first Movement, the moody ballad of the second, with room for her to improvise a cadenza into the third movement. But I also wanted to push her and challenge her with some new directions (it is a Concerto after all!) For example, by incorporating some of my own improvised language coming from the perspective of a jazz saxophonist, or some of my own interests at the time, including exploring Balkan music which manifested in the beginning of the third movement. The Concerto was completed in 2013, demoed in NYC in 2014 and recorded in 2018 in Montreal. (Raising funds to record large ensemble works is no small feat as I am sure many readers here can understand.)
In contrast to the Violin Concerto, which was developed in collaboration with the soloist over several years in addition to a long working relationship, the String Quartet was composed over a short period of time. I had not worked with the Molinari String Quartet before and did not know any of them personally. We were supposed to workshop some of the material together, but because of unexpected delays, the final score was delivered four weeks before the downbeat and I did not have the opportunity to hear any of it before our first rehearsal. Everything needed to work, as there would not be time to revise parts or rewrite sections. I had checked out the Quartet’s previous recordings that included works by Kurtág, Schnittke, R. Murray Schafer, Gubaidulina and knew they were working on an upcoming album of John Zorn’s music. I was confident that they were comfortable dealing with a complex notated language. They are not improvisers, so this would be a fully notated work. This would be a companion piece to the Violin Concerto, so to maintain some unity, I decided each movement would be a mini-concerto for one of the four players, in this order: Violin II for Movement I, Viola for Movement II, Cello for Movement III and Violin I to close out the work.
In writing the piece I still wanted to push myself and take musical risks, but calculated ones. At the first rehearsal, after only hearing the first few measures, I was very happy, and extremely relieved (!), to discover that all of the effects/extended techniques I imagined worked! Theoretically I knew these all should work and imagined what they would sound like, but sometimes in practice the dynamic balance does not quite work or executing a concept can be technically problematic. Thanks to earlier experiences of writing and working with strings my internal imagination was now much more matched with reality. While listening to the quartet play, I became fascinated with how much liberty each player would take in their featured movement. Each time we ran through it in rehearsal or did a take in the studio, they would subtly change the emphasis or push and pull the time in a different way – keeping it really fresh and with a sense of improvisation.
Translating the Thought Process
Rather than settling on a single element, I will discuss one short section from each movement of the Concerto and String Quartet, drawing some parallels to my background as a jazz saxophonist or revealing some of my thought processes.
Violin Concerto – Movement I – Opening Violin Cadenza
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As a saxophonist, playing standards in a solo format or in duet with drums is an important part of our practice. (Think Trane and Elvin Jones!) With this in mind, for the beginning of the Concerto I wanted the violin to set the form and tone of the movement. It is a Tango, but the clave has been expanded to a 3-bar structure. One of the string instrument effects that I asked her to use was grind where she applies extreme bow pressure to get an uglier, crunchy sound for rhythmic effect. As well, some standard string effects were used: sul pont. (sul ponticello), where the bow is kept near the bridge to bring out the higher harmonics, producing a strident, nasal quality and sul tasto, where the bow is kept over the fingerboard to produce a softer, thinner tone. There is also some fancy finger work where she plays one note and plucks other notes with her left hand: the +s in m23 for example.
Violin Concerto – Movement II – Ending Transitional Cadenza
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At the end of the second movement I gave the violinist the start of a written cadenza to use as a launching point for her improvisation that would connect to the third movement. I have found this can be quite an effective strategy for combining composed and improvised material. It helps to set the tone and direction of an improvisation while still allowing the soloist to freely express and personalize it.
The final measures that launch into the cadenza incorporate double and triple stops, where a string player will use a different note on each of their strings to play 2, 3 or 4 notes at the same time. To have a better understanding of these, I learned to play some mandolin, as it has the same open strings as the violin. This way I was not just intellectually figuring out what could work but got to feel it in my fingers, albeit at a snail’s pace.
Violin Concerto – Movement III Excerpt
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Another standard effect for strings are artificial harmonics, where the player will finger a note and then lightly touch the same string farther away with a different finger to play a higher harmonic instead of the fingered note. ‘Touch four’, touching a fourth away from the depressed note, produces a note two octaves higher than the depressed note.
This excerpt is from the final movement, near the end of the piece. At this point in a traditional concerto the soloist usually displays all of their most flashy, virtuosic work. I had already explored this direction extensively, so I decided to go for a contrast. There are several exchanges between soloist and orchestra, where instead of bravura from the soloist, everything drops out, the time becomes more floating and the violin is melodic, intimate and whisper-like high in the stratosphere. In some aspects this is even more demanding, needing to maintain a tremendous level of focus and control. The double stop harmonic at [OO] is particularly challenging and delicate as one false move and the notes will not speak properly.
String Quartet – Movement I Excerpt
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The first movement features Violin II as the more prominent voice. At the beginning I incorporate a lot of glissandi and some quartertones to embellish the melodies. As jazz musicians, the blues is a fundamental element. It has a lot of microtones, gliding and ornaments that inform how we interpret melodies and express ourselves. (I was tuned into this idea at a master class with James Newton.) I was also inspired here by how Johnny Hodges would interpret melodies in Ellington’s band: a lot of gliding around the melody, but for powerful emotional effect.
The first violin is in their own universe at the beginning, gliding quietly in the stratosphere, creating some ambient sound so that they can appear suddenly at [A].
String Quartet – Movement II and Movement III Excerpt
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On the saxophone, practicing harmonics is a fundamental part of developing a mature sound, as well as being used in improvising as effects or coloration, from Lester Young to Michael Brecker. We practice all kinds of torturous exercises to get more and more control over the upper partials (often sounding like a Wookiee in the early attempts!) Stringed instruments are also very capable of producing beautiful harmonics and effects. At the end of the second movement I have the cello and viola in counterpoint in controlled harmonics, creating an ethereal texture to which the two violins have their own contrasting commentary.
The third movement is a showcase for the cellist. At the beginning of the movement, the bow is set aside and the player digs into solo pizzicato material that is reminiscent of a jazz bass solo, with some gentle accompaniment from the other players.
String Quartet – Movement IV Excerpt
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One of the themes returns at [AA]. At m380 (and again at [BB]) I am using quartertones for a different goal, to make the response to the theme sound transfigured, twisted and abstracted. Integrating quartertones into my saxophone improvising has been a focus over the past several years. My aim with this, and similarly how I approach extended string techniques, is to weave them seamlessly into the language of what I am expressing musically. I find it most interesting to integrate effects into the flow of the pieces, often coexisting with more traditional writing. This lets me explore contrasts and commonalities.
Given the setting for this article, I have focused more on how my jazz background has influenced my string writing, but in reality everything is much more fluid. A working relationship with an individual performer over time comes with many rewards, allowing you to grow together. However, developing the skills to work with new collaborators is equally important. If you are inspired to write more for strings, do your homework, study scores and try to gain experience by doing it with real musicians. Look for common threads or connections between elements, either literal or abstract. I encourage you to take calculated risks, as it is how we best learn to develop our own language and realize what we are hearing in our imaginations!
About the Author:
Photo by Evan Shay
NYC-based saxophonist and composer Quinsin Nachoff has earned a reputation making “pure, bracing, thought-provoking music” that is “cliché-and convention-free” (Ottawa Citizen). His music moves fluidly between jazz and classical worlds and is soul-stirring yet intricately cerebral. His passions reach into both arts and sciences, with physics or astronomy concepts sparking inspiration for exhilarating compositions.
A state of constant unpredictability is vividly captured in Nachoff’s group Flux, which features the talents of saxophonist David Binney, keyboardist Matt Mitchell, and drummers Kenny Wollesen and Nate Wood. The band has earned critical acclaim during performances throughout Canada and the US. Their JUNO-nominated second release, Path of Totality, thrives in the spaces between genres, styles and inspirations, and garnered numerous yearend best-of lists including DownBeat’s The Year’s Top Rated Albums (4.5 stars): “Path of Totality is a stunning, deep dive of an album, the sort of music in which one could spend hours submersed.”
Nachoff was already blurring the lines between composition and improvisation on his 2006 debut, Magic Numbers, which paired a jazz rhythm section with a string quartet. Since that time he has found success in both worlds. In November 2018 he premiered a Violin Concerto, his first String Quartet (commissioned by Quebec’s Molinari String Quartet) and a large ensemble piece, Pivotal Arc, in Montreal. These are the latest additions to a growing catalogue of compositions for a variety of diverse ensembles. At the 2017 Vancouver International Jazz Festival he premiered his Saxophone Concerto with the Turning Point Ensemble, while his piece Stars and Constellations: Scorpio was a commission from the Penderecki String Quartet that incorporated bassist Mark Helias and drummer Dan Weiss of Nachoff’s Ethereal Trio.
From the time I became the principal director of the WDR Big Band in the fall of 1994, I started thinking about the possibility of composing a multi-movement concerto for jazz orchestra specifically for that band. I decided that, if it was to be for a jazz orchestra, it should be written expressly for the special qualities of the particular musicians in the band and should also showcase the skills of the individual sections as well as the full ensemble. However, it wasn’t long before my interest in the immediate projects at hand and the excitement of writing for a wide range of internationally known guest soloists kept my creative imagination occupied and the idea of the concerto was forgotten. For some unknown reason, my attention returned to it during the spring of 1999, while looking forward to a good deal of free time in the summer months just ahead. It seemed like the time was right, and I planned to compose the piece in time for one of the band’s fall programs.
The idea of a concerto for jazz orchestra was initially inspired Bela Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, one of my favorite pieces of music since my college days in the mid and late 1960s. In terms of overall dimensions, Bartók’s scheme of five movements also appealed to me. It seemed to me that five movements could more completely display the exceptional ensemble and solo skills of the WDR Big Band and also allow for maximum range of tempos, expressive moods and orchestral colors. I eventually decided that the outer movements would be relatively fast swing in 4/4, with the slow movement in the middle, also in 4/4. For contrast, the second movement would be a medium tempo jazz waltz and the fourth would be a toccata of sorts, in 12/8, with even eighth notes and an Afro-Cuban character.
As I began to think about melodic and rhythmic ideas, I found myself coming back to the thought of organizing a twelve-tone row, primarily for melodic material. My first twelve-tone jazz piece was a blues called Blues for Anton, inspired by the symmetrical rows of Anton Webern during my undergraduate years as a classical piano and composition double major at Kent State University. At that time I was very impressed by George Russell’s writing that featured pianist Bill Evans, and was fascinated by John Carisi’s use of a twelve-tone row in his composition Moon Taj, from the Gil Evans recording Into the Hot. The ability of these composers to employ chromatic and polytonal concepts to jazz compositions and arrangements without abandoning either the swing rhythmic feeling or the spirit of the blues really inspired my own search in composing, arranging and improvising.
During the 1980s I was invited to compose an original piece for a recording project of trombonist Jim Pugh and bass trombonist Dave Taylor (The Pugh/Taylor Project), involving an instrumentation of two saxes with woodwind doubles, two violas, two cellos, rhythm section and the two trombonists. I took that opportunity to write a more ambitious piece in which a twelve-tone row was used as the main source for the thematic material and some of the harmonic structures, while returning to the blues form for the main themes and solo choruses. The piece was entitled Still the Blues (After All These Years), reflecting my enduring conviction that some connection to the feeling of the blues is an essential element of all great jazz.
From this earlier experience working with twelve-tone techniques, I felt that the use of a row as a source for thematic content could provide a self-imposed limitation that would enable my strongest musical influences to come through in a personal manner, while also providing an important unifying melodic element throughout the five movements. One of the final aspects of the large-scale structure of the piece was the decision to organize the five movements in keys that symmetrically divide the octave. Since there were to be five movements, it seemed that minor third relationships would be best suited. I decided that the outer movements would be in the key of C, with the inner movements in the keys of Eb, F# and A, respectively. I left the decision about major or minor modality to the more specific organization and development of each movement, with the assumption that all movements would have some connection to the blues, whether in actual form, melodically, harmonically, or simply expressively.
The twelve-tone row that I constructed strongly suggests blues relationships. The first seven notes of the original form consist of an enharmonic C7 chord with the blue third (Eb), blue fifth (Gb) and lowered ninth (Db). The first seven notes of the inversion form consist of an Ab7 chord with the blue third (Cb), raised eleventh (D) and thirteenth (F). The last five notes of the original and inversion forms consist of a Dm6 chord with the blue fifth (Ab) and an A7 chord with an enharmonic lowered ninth (A#). The first seven notes and the last five notes of both forms contain a diminished seventh chord, which relates to the minor third relationship between the main keys of the five movements of the piece. Of course, numerous harmonic structures that are commonly used in jazz have the notes of a diminished seventh chord within larger combinations of five or more chord tones.
Another final aspect that was decided before any actual themes were written, was that the first and final movements would begin with the same introductory material, primarily introducing the row in it’s prime form and setting the overall emotional tone for the piece. One of my favorite jazz compositions is a three-movement work that Bill Holman wrote for the Australian Jazz Quintet in 1957, Jazz in D Minor. The outer movements begin with the same thirty-measure introduction, which includes all the motivic material to be developed through all three movements. I was awed by Holman’s ability to follow the same thirty measures with two completely different pieces, each of which is equally compelling. Furthermore, having a lengthy introduction at the start of the outer movements, Holman balanced this with a much longer coda to conclude the final movement.
Of course, the work of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Bob Brookmeyer, Clare Fischer and many other jazz composers, as well as that of classical composers from Bach to Shostakovich have informed my own music through the years, and is a constant source of inspiration. The language of chromatic tonality is, arguably, western culture’s most unique musical gift to the world, and it is primarily jazz musicians who continue to use this language, enabling and encouraging its ongoing evolution.
My usual procedure in composing and arranging is to allow my ear and intuition to lead things. I only use techniques and theoretical knowledge in a conscious manner when I get stuck. The concerto opens with a majestic brass choral. The four melodic gestures of the lead trumpet line resulted from trying different rhythms with successive groups of notes in the row. The lead trumpet line in bars 1-9 presents a complete statement of the row, beginning on Eb. Although the first four notes suggest the actual key of the movement (C blues) the bass line and harmonic motion remain ambiguous until bars 15-21, when the progression leads to D7alt. and, eventually, G7alt. in subsequent measures. Although some of the brass voicings are bitonal, the voice leading is convincing as they move to more conventional harmonies at the end of the phrases. Strong voice leading is the most essential skill for achieving clear and colorful harmonic content.
The second statement of the row in the lead trumpet line in bars 10-16 is on A, a tritone lower than the first statement. Although the first two voicings are simply a transposition of the opening statement, the subsequent voicings continue in a contrasting manner as the row is divided into two long phrases, rather than four short phrases. The saxophone responses in unison octaves relate to the lead trumpet line and use some intervallic content from the row, but in a free manner. I simply heard what was suggested by the context of the brass material.
The main theme of the first movement plays with the blue third and blue seventh in a bitonal context of two solo instruments (trumpet and baritone sax, played by Klaus Osterloh and Jens Neufang, respectively) accompanied by bass and drums.While the baritone line clearly suggests the home key of C blues, the imitation by the trumpet is in Ab blues. I like this relationship because the first and fifth scale degrees in C (C and G) suggest the third and seventh scale degrees in Ab, which give the Cb and Gb in the trumpet line a strong blues color.
The first four notes of the baritone melody are the first four notes of the opening choral melody. However, by moving down from Eb to C instead of up, an entirely different melodic meaning is conveyed. When the two horns join each other rhythmically in the pickup to bar 37, the trumpet line clearly takes over the melody from the baritone. The trumpet’s four-note group, G-G#-B-C#, is the retrograde of notes 2 through 5 of the opening choral melody (C-Bb-G-Gb) transposed up a half step. The baritone line here was developed freely, but still uses some intervallic content from the row.
After the opening four bars in C blues, bars 37-44 suggest motion from B7 to Em9, A7 to AbM9+11, C#13sus. and F#9sus., which resolves deceptively to G7+9-9. This leads back to the key of C blues in bar 45, where the content of the small group is presented by the large ensemble.
The large ensemble statement of the main theme is cut short in order to keep the listener’s attention by developing material heard in the small group statement into a ten-bar transition to the second theme. While bars 37-38 are continued in a simple sequence in bars 39-40, bar 51 resolves the B7 chord to EM9-5 instead of Em9. Instead of completing the sequence heard earlier, a new starting point occurs. As a two-chord vamp is set up, the half note in the saxophone melody of bar 49 is lengthened, while the eighth note figure of bars 49-50 is shortened from six notes to five. Once the two-chord vamp has occurred twice, the eighth note line is stretched out by a full measure of eight notes, after which the vamp returns as the harmony moves from Eb7+9 to D7+9 in bar 59. This leads to the short second theme section, which begins with a pentatonic figure (F-Ab-Bb) whose shape is found in the first three notes of the inversion form of the row. The texture of this section is contrapuntal and, although the bass line and some of the melodic content clearly convey G blues, the lines are sometimes in a polytonal relationship.
I sometimes like to use classical formal relationships in jazz pieces, both to add another self-imposed limitation to work with and to acknowledge the rich European tradition of chromatic tonal music that many jazz musicians still draw from. In the classical sonata form, the second theme section is often in the key of the dominant, in relation to the main theme. Here, the main theme in a C blues tonality is followed by a second theme in a G blues tonality, established by the D7+9 chord. Note that the saxophone melody note is Db, enharmonically the major seventh, but also a blue note in the new key of G. Duke Ellington clearly heard that blue notes often sound convincing because the ear hears them as “right notes” in blues melodies, even if they are “wrong” notes in relation to the accompanying chords. According to Ellington, “If it sounds good, it’s good music. If it doesn’t, then it’s the other kind.” In this case, the Db recurs in the trumpet line of the second theme, where it is resolved up a half step (where the ear wanted it to go).
The second theme is followed by the closing section of the exposition, with stop time exchanges between the ensemble and the soloists leading to improvised solos by trumpet and baritone. The harmonic form for the solos combines blues and modal harmonies with G7+9 and Eb13+11 lasting for eight bars each. This is followed by a two-bar harmonic rhythm lasting eight measures, with backgrounds recalling the two-bar vamp figure from bars 51-52. At the end of each solo, the stop time exchanges from the end of the exposition return.
I decided to start the recapitulation with the second theme material, but in a higher, more climactic register. This soon descends to a lower register for a bit more contrapuntal development, which gradually builds to a cadence on a highly chromatic G7 chord that announces the return of the main theme. The brief coda features short exchanges between the soloists and the ensemble, ending on a Cm6/9 chord, but with unresolved extension of Gb, Ab and F in the higher instruments.
The opening of the second movement is my variation of the introduction to Stratusphunk by George Russell, as arranged by Gil Evans on the album Out of the Cool. The pyramid is taken from a retrograde of notes 1-7, transposed a minor third lower. It creates an octatonic voicing of Bb7, setting up the tonality of Eb blues. The solo bass trombone’s pickup, Bb-G, adds the eighth tone to complete the Bb half step-whole step octatonic scale. The Gb played on the downbeat of bar 6 clearly sounds like the blue third in the key of Eb.
The two eight-bar phrases from bar 6-21 each begin with the pitches Bb-G-Gb, notes 3-5 of the original form of the row. Each eight bars seems to suggest a harmonic turnaround leading back to Eb, although there is no rhythm section to clarify exactly what the chords are. At first, I tried following Bb, G and Gb with the three notes on either side in the row, Eb, C and Fb. I didn’t like the Fb, but substituting the Db next to it in the row seemed to make the perfect three-note response. From there on, I worked out the bass trombone line by ear until it sounded perfect to me. The two-beat cross rhythm in bars 10-11 and 18-19 definitely add momentum. Using a jazz waltz feel and a rhythmically developed bass trombone solo led the Stratusphunk reference into a totally unexpected direction, paying respect to the roots while creating a personal statement from them.
The second statement of the bass trombone theme is joined by a more active contrapuntal line that is bluesy in a less abstract way. This second line clearly suggests subtle chromatic motion away from the tonal center of Eb, to F# (bars 24-45), Ab (bar 26), Db (bars 27-29), C (bars 30-32) and F# (32-24), before concluding with a feeling of A (35-36). This second line was worked out by ear, although the sequence of intervals in the row was beginning to infuse the material with thematic unity s my ears more fully internalized the sounds.
The second theme of this movement is more romantic than bluesy, mainly to create contrast and balance. From this point until the return of the main theme near the end of the movement, the saxophones all switch to clarinets. Jens, the baritone saxophonist, enjoyed playing the little Eb clarinet, an instrument I was thrilled to be able to incorporate since hearing it in the music of Igor Stravinsky and Clare Fischer. The second tenor saxophonist, Rolf Römer, played Bb bass clarinet and the rest of the section played the normal Bb clarinets. I will come back to this section later on, in order to point out connections between the second themes of the second and fourth movements.
Because the first movement emphasized blues elements so strongly, I decided to develop the chord progression for the solos from the more romantic second theme. However, some elements from the second line of the first theme section return in a dialogue with the second theme. With the exception of the last two movements, the chord progressions for the solos in the concerto are never simply a repeat of progressions we hear earlier, but incorporate some of the same or similar harmonies to create a feeling of development and continuity rather than repetition. While repeating basically the same progression in small groups actually results in a high degree of freedom to alter and embellish that progression and still stay together as a group, the process of playing written music enables composers and arrangers to come up with much more unpredictable multi-layered musical stories with subtle connections and references in relation to different parts of a piece. The featured soloists in this movement are bass trombonist Lucas Schmid, valve trombonist Dave Horler and pianist Frank Chastenier. Dave was the lead trombonist, but loved to play solos on the valve instrument. Material from the second theme is used in further variation for backgrounds and interludes.
Between the valve trombone and piano solos the ensemble states a harmonization of the opening bass trombone solo line, scored for 5 flugelhorns, three trombones and bass trombone, followed by a rhythmically altered and melodically embellished variation of the same line harmonized for the clarinet choir. After the piano solo, a transition section for the ensemble leads back to the first theme section and a brief coda. The movement begins with a variation of the opening octatonic pyramid, but now on an Eb7 chord with the bass trombone providing an extra low Eb as a final solo statement.
As the third movement is a ballad, I wanted to feature our lead alto saxophonist, Heiner Wiberny. He is not only a beautiful lead player and consummate soloist, but he has a gorgeous ballad sound that can go more toward Charlie Parker or Johnny Hodges, depending on the repertoire. I was definitely thinking Johnny Hodges here. However, to provide contrast for a truly lush alto melody, I made an extended polytonal bluesy introduction that vacillates between brooding melancholy and dark humor. When the alto solo begins, the sun starts to peek out.
The main theme section of this movement uses extremely chromatic harmony that I first encountered in the music of Clare Fischer, from whom I learned that it is a hallmark of the symphonies and string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich, even in his first symphony that he wrote when he was nineteen years old. Voice leading is especially at the forefront here, and there are frequent nonharmonic tones that create tension, but they all resolved in a manner that is convincing to the ear. The alto melody is an inversion form of the row, transposed down a tritone. This melody is an exact inversion of the lead trumpet line of the chorale at the beginning of the concerto, although some pitches are repeated here for melodic interest and ornamentation. Although the alto line looks like it is in F in the first two measures, the key is actual Gb or F#, and the melody notes are altered tones or extensions.
Notice that, although the bass note in bar 24 is G, as in bar 16, the chord is C#m9-5 with G in the bass rather than a G chord. This begins a sequence of minor II-V progressions, which provide the harmonic content for the second theme. This theme features the expressive solo trumpet playing of Andy Haderer, who plays lead in the section. Most of the melodic content of the second theme is developed from the last two notes of the row used for the alto solo, E and G. Although the entire second theme is not shown here, bars 30-33 are mostly a sequence of bars 26-29, a whole step lower. The solo alto extends the second theme to ten bars with a two-bar extension that leads to the last statement of the main theme in the exposition, which is also extended from eight to ten measures.
At the end of the exposition a short section of the melancholy introduction returns, which is extended to lead to a solo by bassist John Goldsby. To contrast the warm romanticism of the main and second themes, I decided to come up with a chord progression that emphasized tonic minor chord types, which contrasts with the mood of the exposition. This progression returns in the final movement as the harmonic accompaniment to the second theme, and will be shown later in reference to that movement.
At the end of the bass solo a short transition leads to a reprise of the second theme, but now embellished and orchestrated as a brass shout section with octave melodic responses from the saxophones. The solo alto again plays the two-bar extension, now stretched to three bars, leading to the final statement of the main theme. However, the theme is now played in a higher octave by the trumpets and leads to the high point of the movement. The solo alto takes over one last time in the seventh bar.In this final statement of the main theme, which was originally eight bars and then extended to ten, it is stretched to fourteen bars. Introductory material returns with further development and leads to an unaccompanied solo alto phrase that ends on a bittersweet Gb6M7 chord with the blue third in the solo alto.
The drums establish the 12/8 Afro-Cuban groove in the first two bars of the fourth movement. The ensemble then comes in with a flourish, establishing the key of A minor. Although the introduction has little to do with the tone row, the rhythm section’s pickup measure in bar 8 is the retrograde of the same inversion form used for the alto solo in the previous movement. The form is like a rondo, with the feeling of a toccata.
The main theme is heard five times, each with a different orchestration. Where the second movement featured the saxophone section on clarinets, this movement features them on piccolo, flutes and alto flutes. As in a good portion of the second movement, I switched the trumpets to flugelhorns, preferring the darker sound for this movement, to contrast with the trumpets in the final movement. It is the flugelhorns that first state the main theme.
The primary melodic figure, E-D-B-C-A, comes from the retrograde of notes 6-10 of the inversion form of the row, transposed down a perfect fourth. The melody of bars 9-13 is simply rhythmic play with the first five tones of the A minor scale, especially the seven-beat cross rhythm from beat three of bar 10 through beat four of bar 13. The emphasis of the notes B and D moves the melody on to temporary resolution in bar 14. Once I had these first few bars, I eventually heard the rest, including the tonicization of IV in bars 14 -16 and the tonicization of III in bars 17-19. The use of the Ab on the A7 chord in bar 16 creates a pungent blues effect, but resolves convincingly to G before continuing on to the third and root of the D minor chord. The complete retrograde of the inversion form of the row recurs in bar 22, here as a pickup bar to the return of the bass vamp with colorful trombone chords announcing the next statement of the theme. On the repeat of the theme, the trombones contribute some counter lines and harmonic punctuation.
The second theme in this rondo is developed from the second theme of the second movement. The group of tones, C-Db-Bb-Ab-G-E in bars 42-46 of the second movement, and G-Ab-F-Eb-D-B in bars 36-38 of this movement are transpositions of notes 3-8 of the retrograde of the inversion form of the row. I have included chord symbols here to save space, while giving some harmonic and rhythmic context to the use of this common material. The eight bars of harmonized brass content beginning at bar 36 are followed by nine bars of more active melodic development for the flutes and piano (unison octaves) with brass accompaniment, all leading to a flute solo by second tenor saxophonist Rolf Römer. The chord progression is taken from the second theme, with a few small alterations.
The flute solo concludes with a brief interlude for brass and rhythm sections that leads to a statement of the theme by the trombones. Here the pickup material heard in bar 22 is played by the brass section, and the flutes and piano play the harmonic material heard in the trombones at bars 23-24. The trombone statement of the theme is followed by a short ensemble interlude that leads to the third theme of this rondo, a funky eight-bar blues form in the key of Ab that starts on the IV chord (Db7). This is, perhaps, the most extreme contrast in the concerto. For the only time in the movement, the feel changes from Afro-Cuban to that of a 4/4 shuffle groove, but still notated in 12/8. Here I decided to have a guitar solo by Paul Shigihara, and state the theme after the solo as a bridge to the next recurrence of the main theme. The melodic content of the blues theme comes from notes 3-5 of the inversion form of the row and notes 2-4 of the original form. The blues theme is played twice before a short ensemble interlude leads to the next statement of the theme. It should be noted that the interludes throughout the movement return to similar material that is reorchestrated or developed differently in each recurrence.
The next statement of the theme is made by the flute choir, with three flutes and two alto flutes. The flugelhorns play a counter line in the middle, and the entire ensemble comes together in a send off for a trombone solo by then second trombonist, Ludwig Nuss (he has been playing lead since Dave’s retirement several years ago). For contrast, I decided to start this solo off with a rhythmically open feel, still in 12/8, and sixteen bars of G#o7/A, which eventually leads to the chord changes of the second theme as heard in the flute solo. The trombone solo is followed by a short interlude that leads to a reprise of the second theme, exactly as heard earlier.
The movement concludes with a full ensemble orchestration of the main theme. Two flutes and two alto flutes double the harmony of four of the five flugelhorns, but an octave above, while a piccolo doubles the lead flugelhorn two octaves above. The trombones play the accompanimental material heard in the opening statement by the flugelhorns. A brief and slightly humorous coda ends with a diminuendo and a final statement by the trombone and rhythm sections of the opening five notes of the main theme: E-D-B-C-A.
The fifth and final movement starts exactly like the first, with the brass choral and saxophone responses. However, when the fast tempo begins, it is a bit faster than in the first movement. Here it initiates dissonant pyramids alternating with eight-bar drum solos. These lead to a polytonal vamp section emphasizing a G pedal, which serves as a second introduction before the opening theme is stated. While the fourth movement made references to material from the second movement, the fifth movement refers back to material from both the first and third movements. Here, the saxes develop a figure from notes 1-5 of the original form of the row, transposed down a major third. This recalls the Ab blues line of the solo trumpet in the main theme of the first movement (Ex. 3), again creating a polytonal texture.
As the saxophone lines develop, the polytonal vamp starts to move up by half steps, with the implied key center of the sax lines moving along with it. This continues to build tension until the vamp reaches a B pedal (the leading tone in the key of C), which sets up a G altered dominant chord that leads to the main theme.
The theme is stated by trumpet and tenor saxophone, as the movement features trumpeter John Marshall and tenor saxophonist Olivier Peters, along with drummer Hans Dekker. The melodic content comes from the baritone melody of the main theme from the first movement (Ex. 3) Here, the twelve bar melody is divided into two six-bar sections, rather than the three four-bar sections of a blues. In the solo section however, the form sounds more like a conventional minor blues, with Ab9+11 substituting for Fm7. This move from tonic minor to the dominant on the lowered sixth degree of the key, and back to the tonic is heard in compositions from Duke Ellington (The Mooche, The Shepherd, etc.) to contemporary jazz composers. The last four bars (90-93) are a variant of bars 37-40 of the main theme from the first movement (Ex. 3).
In the repetition of the theme, the sequence from bars 90 and 91 to bars 92 and 93 is interrupted, recapturing the listener’s attention with the start of an eight-bar stop time transition. This is a variant of the material that started in bar 49 of the first movement (Ex. 4). Here, however, the stop time material continues in regular two-bar phrases, as I wanted to keep the rhythmic momentum going to set up the second theme, which begins in bar 102.
The second theme is based on the chord progression used for the improvised bass solo in the third movement. This eight-bar progression emphasizes tonic minor chords, beginning with A minor. In this movement, going from C minor to A minor brightens things up as we move to a key that takes away flats (or adds sharps) to the tonic scale. Occurring rather suddenly, the key change is also a dramatic gesture. In the slow movement, whose home key was F# or Gb major, the move to A minor has a much different psychological effect.
The final statement of the main theme in the exposition, which follows the second theme, leads to a variation of the earlier polytonal vamp. This time, however, it emphasizes FmM7 with the third in the bass. The saxophone material from the earlier vamp is further developed here, and eventually leads to a G altered dominant chord that sets up the improvised solo choruses for trumpet and tenor saxophone. In the bridge, or second theme area of the trumpet solo, the piano plays the harmonic accompaniment from the bass solo of the third movement, but in this fast tempo (Ex. 11). In the tenor solo, the same content is orchestrated for the ensemble. Both solos end by returning to the vamp material from the end of the exposition. At the end of the tenor solo, however, the harmony leads to the same vamp material a whole step higher, on GmM7 with the third in the bass. This heightens the tension, which is gradual resolved as the vamp material descends chromatically, returning to the earlier FmM7. The ascending quarter note lead lines at the end of this section emphasize minor thirds and whole steps, as in notes 1-3 of the inversion form of the row. This is followed by exchanges between the drums and the ensemble, with the melodic content coming from different transpositions of notes 1-5 of the inversion form. The ascending sequences build to a resolution on a powerful E altered dominant voicing that leads to a full ensemble statement based on the chord changes of the second theme.
Because there was so much harmonized material in this movement, I decided to orchestrate this ensemble statement as full ensemble unison with bass and drums accompaniment. Although Ellington used this texture effectively throughout his career, it is surprising that it has been used so seldom in recent decades. The melodic vocabulary is that of basic swing and bebop that just felt right as a contrast to the thick ensemble writing and harmonic tension. At the end of this unison passage, the G altered chord is extended for two extra bars in order to draw attention to the final statement of the main theme. The main theme returns in its original small group orchestration, leading again to the vamp on FmM7/Ab with the bluesy saxophone lines on top. A brief extension of this material leads to a powerful full ensemble G altered dominant chord that sets up the coda.
The concluding section begins with a loud descending statement of the first six notes of the original form of the row (Eb-C-Bb-G-F#-E) with high register trumpets and altos in octaves, together with low register trombones, tenor and baritone playing the inversion of the same line starting on C# (C#-E-F#-A-Bb-C). This is followed by exchanges between the drums and low register sax and trombone chords. In the final gesture, a harmonized statement of the retrograde of the original row form gradually ascends to a climactic Cm11 chord. The final descending and ascending gestures heard in the coda seemed like the perfect conclusion to the final movement and to the entire work.
In retrospect, I realize that the creation of this large-scale piece was a summation of my composing experience up to that point. I can hear the influences of all my major jazz and classical composers, brought together for the first time in a single work while being expressed in a personal voice and from a personal point of view. Because of this, I always look back on Concerto for Jazz Orchestra as one of the most satisfying pieces I have written. I’ll always be thankful to Wolfgang Hirschmann, the West German Radio and the WDR Big Band for providing me with the opportunity to direct and write for a world-class jazz orchestra for eight unforgettable years.
Concerto for Jazz Orchestra
Movement 1: Maestoso; Medium Swing
Movement 2: Jazz Waltz
Movement 3: Ballad
Movement 4: Toccata; Latin
Movement 5: Maestoso; Fast Swing
About the Author:
Bill Dobbins is professor of jazz studies at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where he teaches the jazz composing and arranging courses and directs the award winning Eastman Jazz Ensemble and Eastman Studio Orchestra. As a pianist, he has performed with orchestra and chamber ensembles under the direction of Louis Lane, Pierre Boulez, Lukas Foss and Frederick Fennell, and he has performed and recorded with such jazz artists as Clark Terry, Al Cohn, Red Mitchell, Phil Woods, Bill Goodwin, Gary Foster, Dave Liebman, John Goldsby and Peter Erskine. He joined the Eastman faculty in 1973, and was instrumental in designing both the graduate and undergraduate curricula for Eastman’s Jazz Studies and Contemporary Media program. Many of his students have been heard in the big bands of Count Basie, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Chuck Mangione, Maria Schneider, and Bob Brookmeyer’s New Art Orchestra.
From 1994 through 2002 Mr. Dobbins was principal director of the WDR Big Band in Cologne, Germany, and he headed the jazz studies department at the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne from 1998 to 2002. Concert, radio, television and tour projects under his direction with the WDR Big Band included internationally acclaimed soloists Clark Terry, Dave Liebman, Randy Brecker, Gary Bartz, Kevin Mahogany, Art Farmer, Steve Lacy, Paquito D’Rivera, Mark Feldman, Gary Foster, Claire Fischer, Peter Erskine, Nicolas Simion and the Kings Singers. As guest director, he continues to write and direct projects for the WDR Big Band, the Netherlands Metropole Orchestra and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.
Advance Music, Mainz, publishes Mr. Dobbins’ compositions and arrangements for big band, chamber music combinations and solo piano. Jazz education programs worldwide have adopted his volumes of transcriptions of classic jazz piano solos and jazz textbooks for use in their courses. These include Chick Corea: Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, Herbie Hancock: Classic Jazz Compositions and Piano Solos, and Clare Fischer: Alone Together/Just Me, Jazz Arranging and Composing: a Linear Approach, A Creative Approach to Jazz Piano Harmony, and Arranging for the Contemporary Big Band, and a DVD, The Evolution of Solo Jazz Piano. Recent CDs include J.S. Bach: Christmas Oratorio, with the Kings Singers and the WDR Big Band, arranged and conducted by Bill Dobbins (Signum Classics) and Composers Series (solo piano) Volume 1: the Music of Clare Fischer and George Gershwin, and Volume 2: the Music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn (Sons of Sound).