Artist Blog

Aaron Wolf & James Miley: The Power of the Song – a Conversation with Ron Miles

Forward by James Miley:

Having already been a fan of his music for nearly a decade at the time, I finally had the chance to invite Ron Miles to appear as a guest artist at the Cuesta College Jazz Festival in 2004. His brilliant teaching and playing, combined with an immense generosity and instant connection with our students that weekend led to Aaron (who played saxophone in the big band at the time) reaching out to Ron a few years later as part of a project for one of his graduate composition courses at the University of Nevada, Reno. Upon hearing the tragic news of Ron’s passing, Aaron and I reconnected and he sent me a transcript of this wonderful conversation from 2006. I was reminded upon reading it of just how much Ron’s profound musical insight, wisdom, joy, enthusiasm, and openness both to music and to the world have influenced my own growth as a composer (and as a human being) over the years. Aaron and I have edited the interview for easier reading and are excited to share Ron’s thoughts with the ISJAC community—his truly original, band-centered and forward-thinking approach to writing and playing is on full display here, and his words are as relevant and impactful now as they were sixteen years ago.

Forward by Aaron Wolf:

At this moment, more than ever, I am acutely aware of the honor I had in having the following conversation with composer, trumpeter, improviser, and educator Ron Miles, the gentle genius who left this world at the age of 58, just this month.

 Ron’s sage voice stood out in every setting. As a composer, he was as equally sensitive as he was fearless. On the bandstand he performed with profound clarity, fire, beauty, intent, and honesty, all while perceptively improvising with the musicians around him. With a unique depth in trumpet/cornet timbre, along with his extraordinary lyricism, Ron was able to tell a vivid story with every single phrase. It was his unapologetic and visceral presentations of pop and folk soundscapes that guided me as a young composer who also grew up with that music always playing on the stereo at home.

Back in 2006, when my graduate composition class assigned a project to present an influential composer, I immediately thought of Ron. I reached out to him inquiring about the possibility of an interview, with the full understanding that his busy teaching and touring schedule might make such a conversation impossible. Yet his response to me was immediate, and with tremendous enthusiasm he engaged me in a phone conversation brimming with an energy and generosity as striking as his insights. Immediately after that call, I listened back to the recording and transcribed every word. I’ve read that transcript many times since, learning something new each time. 

After receiving the devastating news of Ron’s passing, I revisited this interview and realized just how important a connection it was at the time, and how profoundly influential Ron’s words and music have been for me over the years. I hope that this condensed version of the interview can offer something special to you as well.

 

A.W.  One of our final projects in my composition class is to research an influential composer. Rather than focusing on a composer of the past, I wanted to focus on a composer of today, and I immediately thought of you.   

R.M.  It’s so wild because school is so balanced towards history, of course, but I think it’s good to keep some ties to now, because that’s why we study history—to contribute to where we are. That is really cool. I am honored that you would think of me.  

A.W.  An album of yours that we listen to non-stop in my house is Heaven.

R.M.  Oh, with Bill! Gosh, I think of that album as like, taking a picture with Tyra Banks and people say, “Wow, you two look wonderful!” Playing duo with Bill Frisell is like that. He is so good that you can’t not sound good, too. It’s such a joy to play with him.

A.W.  I like the album so much because it feels like you are one person, as if you two became a singer-songwriter-guitarist-in-one.  

R.M.  There’s a new recording (ed. note: Stone/Blossom, released in 2006 on Sterling Circle Records), with more of a band, and that’s the comment that a couple people have had: “It sounds like a singer songwriter record,” which is something they didn’t like about it. But I really like songs. This goes for improvising too—the song is not just an excuse to blow (which, yes, is fun to do, too). I like the idea of continuing the song by improvising something as strong as the song itself.  

When you think about songs, a lot of them don’t have running eighth notes. They have whole notes, half notes, and spaces, and all sorts of different rhythms, instead. So, to see if you can communicate over a long period of time without always resorting to pyrotechnics—that approach can convey energy really nicely. That’s a lot of what we were trying to do with that record, and still trying to do.

A.W.  The album is so beautiful and lyrical. I hear words and poetry in those songs, even though there aren’t any. Is that something that we’ve maybe lost in the way we compose and improvise in jazz?

R.M.  In some ways I think so. But when we think about the past masters, Charlie Parker’s songs sound like the way that he improvised, Thelonious Monk’s songs sound like the way he improvised, and the same with Jelly Roll Morton. I think that we are still trying to apply old models to new songs, and this is one of the reasons we haven’t seen jazz go towards contemporary pop material. If you can embrace the spirit of what contemporary songs are like, you’ll find a way to improvise that works with that music. You can’t just say, “Ok, I am going to do this new song and apply Charlie Parker’s language to it.” As songwriters, the more we can generate a book of material, and then put a band together to play that material, the more it will generate a way of playing that works with those songs.  

A.W.  It’s been a challenge in recent years to find jazz bands who are truly together as a band. Has Jazz moved too much towards individuals just thrown together, and we’re missing bands who are a collective unit as a result?

R.M.  Well, I do think bands have been making a comeback, recently. And it’s really bands that have moved the music forward throughout history, as much as the history books would like to say it’s the individuals: You know, Charlie Parker did this and that… which he did, of course. But there were a lot of other folks who created the environment that allowed that music to work. In America, sometimes we are so star-centered; like in sports, it’s “Michael Jordan.” Yes, but there are also five people playing out there at any given time! I think it’s the same thing in music—everybody contributes to the band working.

A.W.  Can you mention a few of the performers, composers, or even songwriters who have most influenced your compositional development?

R.M.  In some ways they all go together, playing-wise and composition-wise. I really like musicians who play inside of the band, not on top of the band. A good example of that is Duke’s Money Jungle, my favorite trio record. There is such depth to the way they play together. I love Wayne’s (Shorter’s) current band so much because nobody really solos. Maybe for a minute somebody will solo, but not like an extended solo. That means anything can happen. When you set up the hierarchy of soloist and rhythm section, in a way you’re limiting possibilities. There is a soloist, and that person is on top, and you just have to work with that. But in Wayne’s band, anybody can be on top. Also, Wayne is such a great improviser—nobody else can play that way, the way he just can move in and out of the texture.             

That is a lot to me: composers who write and play that way, like Jelly Roll Morton, and Duke, and Mingus, Ornette, Albert Ayler, Wayne, and Bill, of course. Singer-songwriters like Prince, he’s huge, and such an amazing musician! Public Enemy had a big influence on me. Elliott Smith, Lennon and McCartney, Bad Brains, Nirvana. So much of that music has had a big impact on me—just the power of those songs.  

In jazz we tend to overplay and overwrite sometimes. I think we overplay just to keep our place in the music. But if we can get to a place where we are familiar enough with the forms that we don’t have to do that, then it immediately reduces the amount of stuff we play. If we play less, it allows others to play more. It allows us to hear more, too, because we aren’t playing all the time.  

I also think that we overplay and overwrite to prove something: to show that we can play over the changes a certain way, or that we can play a lot of notes fast. In pop music, especially with bands like Nirvana and other punk groups, they don’t try to prove anything. That’s not part of their vision. They’re presenting these songs, and you can either get with it or not get with it. I think that (as jazz musicians and composers) the more we can get away from that desire to prove something, the more we can really get to something.  

A.W.  So for the jazz setting, do you have a sense that we can connect to audiences in a bigger picture? 

R.M.  I think that is a very important question to be asking ourselves. There is a really good book by John Szwed on Sun Ra where he talks about the fact that musicians sometimes act like audiences are supposed to give it up to us, simply because we’re so good. But he says that the audience should never have to give it up to you for any reason. You can’t just say “I’m good,” you have to give them something. And that is so powerful, and scary too, because we hide behind, “Hey man, I’m practicing! They just don’t get it… I am doing all the right stuff.”  

We forget that the right stuff is only the right stuff if it helps to get something out there, something really valid, that really touches people. A smart audience recognizes that. So, practicing eight hours a day is good, but only when it leads you to some higher realizations about how practicing will result in some real music.  

A.W.  Can you recall a time where something clicked for you, in your awareness and process, that changed your development as a composer?

R.M.  When I went to Manhattan School of Music, I was in a combo with Bob Mintzer. He was a person who I had a lot of respect for. And, he really liked my songs, and encouraged me to do something with them. I had never really thought about being a songwriter before that. It made me get deeper into it and it led me down this road.  I left Manhattan to move home and form a band and try to play my own music. From that point on, I just loved playing with folks, and hearing the different ways people approached it all. I am always learning as a composer, like how much to write for folks, and how much not to write, because it really depends on the setting. You start to learn an amazing amount by being in bands and playing the same songs every night. You get a sense for how different people deal with the music, how they communicate.

A.W.  Do you go through periods in life where you seem to be more productive as a composer?          

R.M.  One year my wife took a vacation to visit her mom for a couple weeks. I stayed home, in my pajamas, and I’d just play and write all day, and watch U2’s Rattle and Hum over and over again—I was totally into that movie, and it would get my imagination rolling around.  Most of Woman´s Day was written then. So now, when the house is totally still, that will usually get the ball rolling.  

A.W.  Could you discuss any sort of compositional process that you do? 

R.M.  I sit at the piano, and my four-track usually comes into play after I start hearing things in some orchestrated form. With a lot of my songs, I will make a recorded version with just the trumpet and piano and listen back to it for a while. But with some stuff, for example the guitar-oriented material on Woman’s Day, with the power chords: power chords sound really good on guitar, but they don’t sound good on the piano. So, I’ll record guitar, bass, and drums on those myself and see if that does something for them. Then I drive around in the car and listen, to see if it holds my interest. Does hearing that chord progression one more time bug me? If there’s going to be blowing, then does it need a new set of chords? Does it need a new part in there? Does the super-chorus need to happen after the chorus and the verse? All that stuff.

A.W.  Does it help to play those other instruments in the writing process?  

R.M.  Yeah, it does a few things for me. For one, it allows me to hear it. But it also allows me to be in that person’s spot and get a sense about how it would be to play that part: Would it be fun and rewarding, or would it be a drag? Is this too much or not enough information? Imagining yourself in their spot— especially with the different personalities of improvisers—you want to give people information, but not lock them in. I think particularly of pianists in this regard. Too many voicings makes them too restricted with what they can do if the improvisation goes a certain way. But what if something is not really any kind of chord? It’s just this stuff. Bill does this all the time. He has lots of minor ninths in his music, and sometimes major and minor thirds and major and minor sevenths altogether. And he will just write that, and not say it’s any chord, because it’s really not. Playing all those parts on various instruments helps me figure that stuff out a bit.  

A.W.  Do your compositions develop in lots of different ways?  

R.M.  Yes, sometimes. But almost always, I will start with just a melody, and no bar lines. I usually write melodies that change meter over the course of the song, and I like the freedom to not think I am writing something in four, or that I am writing a waltz. I just write what it is, and if an extra beat or a lesser beat shows up, then I figure out how to bar it to make it work. Then, we have to learn how to play over it!  I try to never go into a song thinking that it is this feel, or that thing. It’s just a melody, and it starts to come together with the chords and the motion and the meter changes and whatever else.          

A.W.  I never would have thought of that.

R.M.  A big thing that reinforced that approach for me was starting to play with Bill and listening to a lot of “Old Timey Music” like the Carter Family, and also Robert Johnson and other blues folks. When you hear those records, the words dictate the meter. There are all sorts of 3/4 and 7/4 bars. All sorts of stuff shows up in there because the words demand it. So, I thought, “Gee, we play melody. Why not let the melody reinforce that for us too?” So, I started writing songs like that. At first I would write these complicated songs, and we would just make the blowing open to make it easier to play. Then I started playing with a bass player who suggested we blow over the actual form. And man, it was so hard! So we practiced and practiced until we could play over those forms, and that is how it is now.   

 


About the Artist

Ron Miles was a songwriter and cornet and trumpet player based in Denver, Colorado. He was born in Indianapolis in 1963 and moved to Colorado with his family in 1974. He recorded as a leader for Prolific, Capri, Gramavision, Sterling Circle, Enja/yellowbird, and became a Blue Note Records Artist in 2020. One of the finest improvisers and composers of his generation, he was revered by his fellow musicians and heralded by critics around the world. In addition to leading his own bands, Ron Miles performed in the ensembles of Bill Frisell, Mercer Ellington, Don Byron, Wayne Horvitz, Ginger Baker, Myra Melford, Joe Henry, Madeleine Peyroux, Jason Moran, Matt Wilson, Jenny Scheinman, The Bad Plus, Harriet Tubman, Ben Goldberg, and Joshua Redman. Also a gifted and experienced educator, Miles was a music professor at the Denver Metropolitan State University since 1998. Following his trio releases with Bill Frisell and Brian Blade, Quiver (2012) and Circuit Rider (2014), his recent quintet recordings, I AM A MAN (2017) and his Blue Note debut RAINBOW SIGN (2020), feature again Frisell and Blade, along with pianist Jason Moran and bassist Thomas Morgan.

 

About the Interviewer

Aaron Wolf is a Music Educator, Composer, and Performer, from California.  He received a BA in Performance from Berklee College of Music (’04), and MA in Performance from University Nevada, Reno (’07).  He was a faculty member at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, CA (’08-’14), and BASIS Independent Silicon Valley in San Jose, CA (’14-’21).  He has performed and recorded across the US, and currently resides in Quebec City, Canada, with his wife and children.

 

 

About the Editor

PIANIST/COMPOSER James Miley is a recipient of the IAJE/Gil Evans Fellowship in Jazz Composition and Professor of Music at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, where he coordinates the jazz and improvised music program and teaches classes in composition, improvisation, music theory, and music technology. He is a founding member of the Radiohead Jazz Project, and his music for big band has been performed in Europe and Asia, as well as by many of the top high school and university big bands throughout the United States. As a pianist, Miley can be heard with the jazz chamber group Bug (featuring saxophonist Peter Epstein), the Hashem Assadullahi Sextet with Ron Miles, and Dan Cavanagh’s Jazz Emporium Big Band on Origin Records. His most recent recording is with the free jazz collective Trio Untold, featuring Mike Nord (guitar/electronics) and Ryan Biesack (drums/percussion), available on PJCE Records. Future projects include an album of original music with pianist Dan Cavanagh and drummer John Hollenbeck, available late Spring, 2022.

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

Bob Mintzer: The Ever Evolving Writing Process

My first experiences as a composer/arranger probably began when I was somewhere in the vicinity of 8 years old. I would sit at a piano for countless hours on end, experimenting with combinations of notes, chords, sounds, rhythms, and things resembling songs I might have heard on the radio, television, or an LP. Through trial and error I would stumble onto a chord progression and perhaps a corresponding melody that fit with that chord progression, playing it for a long time in wonderment. These early explorations were quite naive and not particularly well informed. Yet that spark of interest and drive to find nice combinations of notes was the catalyst that has pushed me to listen/learn/compose with great enthusiasm to this very day.

Our influences as composers/arrangers are, to my way of thinking, environmental. The music we grew up listening to, the bands we played in, the tunes that coincide with profound life experiences all help to shape our individual sound in our writing. This is somewhat like a recipe we’ve made many times, ever evolving as we alter the ingredients a little at a time.

I’ve always spent a good deal of time trying to recreate music that moves me on the piano, sometimes on the guitar, and ultimately on the saxophone. I would try for emulating as much detail as possible. Being that I was very curious as to how the “whole picture” worked, I would inevitably pay careful attention to what each individual instrument was doing; piano voicings, piano comping, bass lines, drum patterns, and some understanding of how the whole band fit their individual parts together. To me it seemed like an incredible puzzle that beckoned one to take apart and re-assemble.

Playing through the great american songbook on the piano was another integral part of developing a compositional vocabulary for me. This inevitably led to expanding upon traditional versions of these great tunes through expansion of form, some reharmonization, and integrating various rhythmical side trips within the form. Becoming comfortable with playing tunes on the piano ultimately led to an ability to conceptualize the instrument without actually having to physically access the piano during the writing process.

My first large ensemble writing experience happened on the Buddy Rich band. I had the incredible opportunity to write my first 6 big band pieces for this great band, to record them and play them every night. On Buddy’s band I had the good and bad aspects in each pieces staring me in the face on a nightly basis, and was able to adjust my approach with each subsequent venture. What a crazy great situation! I hadn’t had the time to study arranging up to that point, being that arranging for big band was not yet on my radar. Little did I know which way the road would turn.

In hindsight I realize that if an aspiring arranger spent time playing piano, learning the jazz language, going on from there to explore various voicings, combinations of notes, rhythm possibilities, and melodic development, and then sat in a big band for an extended period of time, they would have much of the machinery in place to fashion a decent big band arrangement. Without knowing it, I constructed a piece that had development, variety, and shape, qualities that I had been exposed to via playing the great arrangements in the Buddy Rich book. Being confronted with the opportunity to write that first big band piece forced me to consider the various musical qualities associated with any compelling piece of music: a story line, form, motion, variety, and texture. While my orchestrational abilities were in the beginning stages, I never the less could access the sound of the big band that was in my head, melding

this sound with ideas that I had found on the piano earlier. Also inherent in this initial experience was the thinking of what Buddy would like to hear, and how I might create an environment in which I would enjoy playing with him. These first few big band attempts were just that: attempts. But they definitely framed what lied ahead in terms of developing a sound and process.

I went on to write some for Mel Lewis, the Sam Jones Tom Harrell small big band, did some orchestrating for television (not really for me) and in 1983 put my first big band together. Hard to believe that in the last 34 years we’ve recorded 20 big band projects. Between these projects and various european radio band experiences, I’ve written close to 500 arrangements. I still feel like there is plenty to learn and plenty of avenues to explore. What all this writing has afforded me is a certain level of fluidity and confidence.

One of the most critical components of fashioning a big band or other large ensemble arrangement is having a set of parameters already in place. I generally think about who I am writing for, what kind of groove may be appropriate, what key best fits the intent of the piece, and sometimes a particular scenario that the music might underscore. Also to be considered is what kind of form may be utilized. What then follows is a sketch of the piece where I establish much of the above mentioned. I usually start with framing the form by inputting primary themes and perhaps some harmonic information. If various orchestrational devices occur to me I may write a description in words of what that orchestration might look like, and keep moving. (unison trumpets-tutti saxophones) If I can sketch out most of the piece it gives me a good head start on the writing. Often times I will program a drum loop in Sibelius and then add a bass part and then piano/guitar parts. This creates a nice bed to set horn parts on top of. With each subsequent pass through the piece, I add a little more detail, usually leaving the major voicings and detailed orchestrational devices for last.

Since I am generally writing for a recording project or some sort of production that involves 8-12 tunes I wind up working simultaneously on all the pieces. It makes things go more smoothly when I toggle between pieces, and things are less likely to stall in this scenario. The mantra is “keep moving”. The other plus with working on multiple pieces simultaneously is that you get a sense of how the full program of tunes will work together.

Frequently I have heard a piece of music that inspires me, and manages to spark a sound in my head that borrows from the groove or some aspect of the harmony or melody of the piece. If you take one of the three as a foundation (rhythm, harmony, melody) and then build on top of that, more ofter than not you wind up with something that sounds nothing like the original inspiration. I think the primary effect in these cases is that the excitement of hearing a moving piece of music gets the creative juices flowing, and makes you want to write something.

A great way to get a new piece started (on top of listening to all kinds of music) is to sit quietly and imagine what the piece you are going to write sounds like. You might hear general shapes of sound that translate nicely into a sketch, one that can be developed later in terms of detail. I frequently hear a sound, a rhythm or bass line or melody when I am walking. Something about that form of rhythmical bodily movement inspires musical ideas to emerge. If the initial idea comes from something other than you playing an instrument, as in your imagination, you are far more free to hear something well beyond what you might play.

Another approach for me is to improvise freely on either piano or saxophone, and wait for something compelling to emerge. Once I detect something of interest, I play the idea repeatedly, elaborating on the initial idea a little at a time. Once it seems like a fairly complete sentence I move on the perhaps a complimentary section with a new melody or progression. Little by little a composition emerges. Some of the better compositions come quickly and are not terribly complicated. Simple is allowed! With simplicity there winds up being room for complexity used in a strategic manor to create tension/release and a general sense of variety.

Aside from grabbing ideas from pre existing pieces of music, there is a lot you can do in terms of moving things around at the piano. Take a 1-4-5 three note voicing and move it around in a variety of ways, whole steps or minor thirds apart, for example. Try different bass notes against this voicing. Have the top note of the voicing form a melodic shape while simultaneously having the bass line create a melodic shape of it’s own. Utilize contrary motion between bass line and chord voicing. Take a 1-4-5 voicing and move it diatonically through a variety of scale qualities (1/2-w diminished, altered dominant for example). There are an infinite number of devices of this kind that can spin off into a potential composition. And seemingly if you start to operate this way the ideas manage to come more quickly, where one shape leads to an offshoot of that shape, and onward from there. Patterns are a great device for planting a seed for a new composition.

There is far more to discuss as far as process. Being a self taught arranger much of my process involves “making it up as you go”. There is definitely an improvisatory thing at play when writing and arranging, where one idea leads you to the next. I generally have no shortage of ideas. Being fairly active in the music scene usually primes the pump as far as generating ideas go. Once the idea emerges, then the real hard work begins. Fashioning a well constructed, compelling piece of music involves much editing, re arranging, and refining. This part of the process never seems to end. I can always find ways to improve, or at least update anything I have written. Small tweaking of articulation, voicings, and melodic lines are all part of the journey to arriving at a good piece of music. That journey is why I get up in the morning.

The final piece of the puzzle of composition/arranging is getting you music performed, hopefully by a group of great musicians of your choosing. This is the wild card that inevitably takes the music to places you never thought existed. Hence it is critical to leave lots of room for the personal input of each player, where every member of the ensemble contributes to the musical conversation in their own particular way. This is the basic premise of jazz music. As a composer/arranger it is my roll to stay out of the way of the conversation by way of leaving room in the writing for interplay and conversation.

So much more to learn, so much more to write. So many gems in the classical repertoire to draw upon. Many interesting rhythms and textures in indigenous music from all corners of the globe. Keep searching, keep putting the puzzle together. Stay current as far as what young players/writers are up to. Write yourself into the picture as a player, an instigator, an orator. Keep moving!

Mintzer Big Band examples

Get Up!  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5UwWXVH0Lg

Truth Spoken Here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ioc2voPbkM8&index=6&list=PLZkh-aQshNIPQBNEKW9PwoTGmEaZ1NWYU

Civil War https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4UemgTly–U&list=PLZkh-aQshNIPQBNEKW9PwoTGmEaZ1NWYU&index=15

These three tunes from the MCG Jazz cd “Get Up”

Please visit bobmintzer.com for more examples.


About the Author:

Bob Mintzer, born January 27, 1953 and a native of New Rochelle, New York is what’s known as a triple threat musician. He is equally active in the areas of performance, composing/arranging, and music education. While touring with the Yellowjackets or his own quartet, or big band, Bob is busy writing music for big band, various small bands, saxophone quartets, orchestral and concert band music.

Bob is also on the faculty of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles along with long-time cohorts Peter Erskine, Alan Pasqua, Vince Mendoza, and fellow Yellowjacket Russell Ferrante. where he teaches jazz composition,, saxophone, directs the Thornton Jazz Orchestra, and conducts a jazz workshop class for incoming freshmen and sophomore jazz students. He also does workshops all over the globe, writes books on a variety of musical subjects, plays on countless recordings every year, and is summoned to be guest conductor and soloist with large and small bands all over the world.

Bob has played/recorded with a wide variety of artists ranging from Tito Puente, Buddy Rich, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, James Taylor, The New York Philharmonic,National Symphony, American Saxophone Quartet, Art Blakey, Donald Fagan, Bobby McFerrin, Nancy Wilson, Kurt Elling, to Jaco Pastorius, Mike Manieri, and Randy Brecker.

“Music chose me at a very early age” says Bob. “I was completely taken by the 12 tones, whether hearing music played on the radio, television, recordings, or live concerts around the New York City area. I was not only struck by the emotional outpouring of great musical performance, but also found myself completely consumed with how the music fit together in all its glorious detail. I could spend hours sitting at a piano, trying to replicate the songs I would hear others play.

“Jazzmobile, an organization that sponsored jazz performances around the greater New York metropolitan area, sent a quintet consisting of Dr. Billy Taylor, Grady Tate, Ron Carter, Harold Land, and Blue Mitchell to the New Rochelle High School in 1967. I was a sophomore at the time. I think it was then and there that I decided that music would be my calling. Later that year I was taken to the Village Gate to hear the double bill of the Miles Davis quintet and the Thelonious Monk Quartet. From that point on I went to as many live performances as I could on the budget of a 16-18 year old. During my formative years I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to hear Sonny Rollins, Miles, Monk, Sonny Stitt, Dexter Gordon, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and many of the jazz greats play around New York.

“In 1969 my folks had the foresight to encourage me to audition for the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. I received a scholarship to attend this great school for my senior year of high school. My classmates were Peter Erskine, Danny Brubeck, Elaine Duvas (principal oboist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra), and Tom Hulce (who played Mozart in the film Amadeus). This year provided the inspiration and information that was to establish my practice and training regimen for years to come. I was studying classical clarinet, playing guitar and piano, learning how to play the saxophone and flute,learning songs and writing tunes for the little combos we would put together.”

In 1970 Bob attended the Hartt College of Music in Hartford Connecticut on a classical clarinet scholarship. Jackie McLean had just started a jazz program at Hart, and Bob spent time with Jackie while working on a multitude of skills.

“I was very interested in all kinds of music and was attempting to learn how to play flutes, clarinets, saxophones, piano, work on composition, and get my school work done, Bob explains. “I played clarinet in the orchestra and various chamber music groups. I also played early music in a small group for a while. There were some crazy rhythms in much of early music that paralleled what jazz improvisers were doing as far as playing over the bar line. It was all fantastic! After school I would listen to jazz recordings and go and sit in with local jazz musicians. There was a pretty vibrant scene at that time around Hartford, where one core group of musicians were working 6 nights a week in different joints.”

Jackie eventually pushed Bob to consider moving down to New York City and jump into the jazz community down there. He took the suggestion and transferred to Manhattan School of Music in 1973. At that time there was a lot of playing going on in the lofts, which were commercial spaces newly converted to living quarters, and very affordable.

Bob’s contemporaries during the period were Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman, Steve Grossman, Richie Bierach, John Abercrombie, and countless other musicians. “The musicians I encountered in NYC in the early 70’s were all about the music,” Bob remembers. “Rents were affordable, and guys would get together in the lofts to play and compare ideas. Everyone’s aspiration was to land a gig with a working jazz group. In the interim I paid the rent doing whatever would come along, from subbing in broadway shows, to doing odd recording sessions or club dates.

In 1974 Bob was recommended to Eumir Deodato by a Manhattan School of Music classmate. Bob toured with Deodato for one year, playing large venues all over the world. “Eumir had a hit record with his rendition of the Strauss Zarathustra melody. He was a teriffic arranger! Check out the arrangements he did for Sinatra and Jobim on their duo recording in the 60’s. I met several musicians on that band that took the time to show me things about all kinds of music. Rubens Bassini, former percussionist with Brazil 66 took me under his wing and showed me many things about the rhythms of Brazil.”

During that same year Bob started playing with the Tito Puente Orchestra. This was a steady gig around the New York area. This music had a lasting impact on Bob’s writing and playing for years to come. He later played with Eddie Palmieri and Mongo Santamaria.

In 1975 Bob joined the Buddy Rich Big Band and spent two and a half years playing every night with Buddy, except for a week off at Christmas time. “On Buddy’s band,” Bob explains, “we played in every small town in the U.S. as well as in other countries. I was so thrilled to be playing every night and seeing new places all the time. We would go out after the concerts and find a place to sit in with a local band. If there was no jazz club we would play with whatever band there was. I remember playing with a cowboy band in El PasoTexas one night. I also learned how to write big band arrangements on Buddy’s band. He was very gracious about letting me write for his band.”

While on Buddy’s band Bob also wrote music for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and did a brief stint with the band at the Village Gate in NYC. He also did a tour with Hubert Laws playing a utility reed chair.

Bob left Buddy in 1977 and settled down in New York to work on his writing and playing. He played with Joe Chambers, Ray Mantilla, Tom Harrell, Teramasa Hino, Sam Jones, and began to do some freelance work in the studios, with symphony orchestras, and in Broadway pit orchestras. In 1978 he joined the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band. He also became a member of the band Stone Alliance (Don Alias, Kenny Kirkland, Gene Perla) that year.

In 1981 Bob joined Jaco Pastorius’ Word of Mouth Band with Michael Brecker, Peter Erskine, Don Alias, and Othello Molineaux. He played tenor sax and bass clarinet in that band as well as doing some arranging for the large ensemble version. Three recordings and a video document this music and show Bob to have quite a unique voice on the bass clarinetist. Around this time Bob was also playing with Mike Manieri and Randy Brecker. He also did his first two solo recordings for the Pony Canyon Label in Japan. (Hornmanand The Source)

In 1983 Bob put a big band together to play at the club owned by Mike and Randy Brecker called Seventh Avenue South. In NYC. It was a one-off project initially to showcase the various musicians that had been playing in the club with their own bands. Dave Sanborn, Mike and Randy Brecker, Don Grolnick, Peter Erskine, Lew Soloff, Will Lee, Barry Rogers were all on board. The band became an instant success and did a recording for CBS Sony in Japan called Papa Lips.

Around that same time Tom Jung started an audiophile jazz label called DMP Records. After hearing the band play at Seventh Avenue South. Bob and Tom Jung embarked on a recording relationship that lasted for 22 years and produced 13 cd’s with 3 Grammy Nominations(One Music, Departure,Only in New York) and a Grammy win for the Homage to Count Basie CD.

For the rest of the 80’s Bob worked with his big band; playing the Berlin Jazz Festival, playing the Village Vanguard in place of Mel Lewis’ big band when the band was on the road. Kendor Music (the publisher that published the Thad Jones and Gil Evans series) stared the Bob Mintzer series. School and pro bands around the world started playing his music, which had a fresh signature sound and blended the jazz tradition with a variety of other influences. Bob also joined the faculty of the jazz department at Manhattan School of Music, where he resided for the next 25 years.

During the later part of the eighties Bob was doing a fair amount of studio work, playing recordings by Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Queen, James Taylor, and Steve Winwood. He also became a member of the American Saxophone Quartet and performed regularly with the New York Philharmonic, American Ballet Theatre, and American Composers Orchestra. As a composer/arranger Bob wrote for the St Lukes Orchestra, ABC, NBC and the academy Awards show.

Bob recorded several small bad projects in the later 80’s-early 90’s including 2 CDs for Owl records in France (N.Y Jazz QuartetLonging) , two CDs for BMG (I Remember Jaco and Twin Tenors w/ Michael Brecker) , and a cd for the TVT label (Quality Time). His quartet CD, One Music for the DMP label was nominated for a Grammy.

1990 was a pivotal year for Bob He was asked to record with the Yellowjackets on the GRP CD Greenhouse, which was the start of a twenty plus year stint with one of the premier bands in jazz music. The band has received 13 Grammy nominations, has been voted best contemporary jazz group almost every year in the jazz magazine readers polls, and continues to play major jazz venues all over the world.

Yellowjackets is a leaderless band where each member is called upon to write, arrange, play, and make decisions as an equal partner. The band has consistently demonstrated that four people from diverse backgrounds can work together and create an art form where the whole is far greater than the separate parts.

In 2005 Bob began a relationship with the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild (MCG Jazz)resulting in the recording of 3 big band recordings: Live at MCGOld School New Lessons, and Swing Out. Kurt Elling sings on all three of these cd’s. Bob also recorded a quartet CD, In the Moment for Art of Life Records with Phil Markowitz, Jay Anderson, and John Riley.

In 2008 Bob and his family moved to Los Angeles, where Bob joined the faculty of the University of Southern California. He put together a big band in Los Angeles and plays regularly at Vibrato Grill in Bel Air. Bob maintains a busy touring schedule, playing with the Yellowjackets, his quartet, big band, and as a guest conductor/ soloist with college and pro bands.

Bob’s latest small band recording is called Canyon Cove, and is a swingin organ cd with Larry Goldings and Peter Erskine.

bobmintzer.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

Asuka Kakitani: My personal perspective on composing

Although I don’t talk much about the process of composing with my fellow composer friends or anybody, I enjoy reading about other composers’ processes when I get a chance, so I will share mine here hoping someone would enjoy reading it. This is not technical but more of my personal perspective.

I started studying jazz composition at Berklee College of Music when I was twenty-six years old. I would imagine many people would start much earlier studying something like that, but I actually wasn’t really interested in composing before I attended Berklee. Soon after I started classes there, I had to compose for some school projects and I quickly fell in love with the freedom of composing. At that time, I was trying to play piano like Bud Powell, and it was struggle for me being constrained by my own idea of how I should sound. On the other hand, composing, it was a discovery of a new playground. I loved to tell my stories through my composition, which I even didn’t know I would enjoy so much. I just felt so free.

Telling stories is an important part of composing for me. Sometimes composing is my tool to tell a story. I almost always have a story in my head before I start writing. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic one; it could be an ordinary day of summer in the garden. Nature is usually a great inspiration for me. I think composing is like taking my camera and going outside to look under a leaf or inside flowers with a macro lens. There are lives and dramas that we cannot see with our naked eye. There are so many details, which are delicate, colorful, and vibrant. That is how I want my music to be, too.

One of my teachers at Berklee, Ted Pease once told me that melody is the most important thing. That stayed with me for a long time, and most of the time, my piece starts taking shape and firming its character with some melodies. I sing (terribly) in the street, on the subway, in the shower, waiting in line, in the woods, or in front of piano to find the magical melodies somewhere in the air. Sometimes I would succeed to catch them and write them down on manuscript paper, but I fail a lot of the time, too. Singing works best for me so far because then I can be free from my hand habits on the piano, I do not play any other instruments, and I do not want to write something that I cannot sing. When I luckily find a succession of notes I’m happy with, I quickly and carefully write them down on paper without key signature or time signature to not have any constraints to shape a melody I found. I would sing and play it on the piano many times until it feels right, and then I figure out the best time signature for the melody. Often times I won’t have enough rehearsal time with a band, so it is crucial to have the clearest and easiest way possible to read. I stopped using key signatures at some point, so I even don’t bother to think about it.

It takes a lot of time. Every time I almost cannot believe when I complete a piece.

Since I had my daughter in 2014, it has been even harder to find time to sit and work. Although parenting is a wonderful and incomparable experience, it is a 24-hour commitment. I suffer from lack of time and sleep and being unfocused. Finding five minutes to sit in front of the piano here and there, staying up late or getting up early, or staying up late AND getting up early depends on her sleeping schedule – scavenging for time to write and stay focused has been a real challenge for me.

Sometimes I cannot write anything for a few weeks. And one day I think I hear something, and write it down, and the next day I think it does not sound as good as I thought yesterday, and after two weeks, I would come back to that melody and feel it is pretty nice. Three days later, I would say, “This is awful!” I would be stressed out, feel miserable for a few days. Then a “good day” comes and I am able to catch a few magical notes in the air. That makes me so happy until I become miserable again, which would be the next day. A “good day” does not come so often. But despite my agony, “bad days” are necessary to endure in order to have a “good day” from time to time. After feeling gloomy from not being able to write any notes for many days, I suddenly find myself lost in the music that I am writing. It starts to grow its own personality and follows me around all the time, and I feel as if I am with someone who is very close to me. I feel a connection with the piece, and we are attached to each other until it changes its mind and starts acting as a stranger again.

Although I love the freedom of composing, and composing makes me feel that I am free to create what I want to, it is very easy to settle in with an idea or phrase that I feel should work. Once I get trapped in the “this is going to be a masterpiece” syndrome, I start circling, and I notice that I stop trying to hear those magical melodies in the air anymore. There are many obstacles to overcome: feeling the need to utilize certain “cool” techniques, not being able to let go of an idea that does not work in context, and the pressure to finish a piece by a deadline. It is a perpetual struggle to escape from all the things that tie me down, and to keep pushing myself to step out from my comfort zone. For me, composing is an endless journey for finding something real. In order to keep pressing on, I would continually tell myself that music does not need to be impressive, but should be completely honest. It might not end up being so great of a piece of music after all, but the experience of writing absolutely honest music is the most precious thing to me. And more times than not, but utilizing this process, the end result is something I’m truly satisfied with, and sometimes even love.


About the Author:

Asuka Kakitani is a composer, arranger, and conductor. She is the founder of the Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra (AKJO). Their 2013 debut album ”Bloom” was selected as one of the best albums on the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll, All About Jazz, Lucid Culture, and DownBeat Magazine. Her awards include the BMI Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Prize, the Manny Albam Commission, and artist grants from the American Music Center, Brooklyn Arts Fund, and the Jerome Fund for New Music from the American Composers Forum.

Artist Blog

Terry Promane: Give Me 5

At the time of this writing, I had just attended an arranging clinic by John La Barbera who was the spring visitor at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto where I teach.  He outlined 5 cornerstones of arranging for our students that were his guide and the basic fundamentals of his pedagogy.  Coincidentally, a week or so before, I was approached by Paul Read who suggested I write an article for the ISJAC Blog discussing my favorite arranging tactics.

Most of these ideas have been compiled over 25 years of teaching at U of T and playing on countless recording sessions and concerts, mostly with Toronto based jazz artists. 

To be specific, I’ll present ideas here that have helped me develop a good sound as well as saving time and aggravation in the studio or preparing music with few rehearsals.  With the ever-changing sensibility of the current music business (meaning, not many players are free to rehearse all day as in days gone by) things need to be correct and clear. 

  1. Give Me More

I’ve had the pleasure of playing with and writing for some serious players. When  the chance presents itself, I will check out other writers’ scores and parts and check the level of detail in not only my part (the trombone part) but also the rhythm parts.  I’ve seen charts with everything possible included and others with virtually nothing.  The most economical example of drum part writing (as VJO drummer John Riley points out) is the 3 bars of crayon from Thad Jones on the original “Little Pixie ll” drum part.  Legend has it that Mel Lewis had a photographic ear and only need a once-through, rarely opening the book.  Others writers like Maria Schneider fill up all the parts with detail. 

For me, too many parts with slashes are a problem.  Over the years I have developed into a control freak needing to dictate as much of the texture as possible.  From years of not getting what I wanted, and then learning how to get exactly what I want, this seems to be the approach best suited to my needs. 

Bass

Bass gets the most slashes, but considerable suggestions are included on the page.  Many of my ideas these days are based around ostinatos and straight 8th grooves in various time signatures, so dictating that information is important.  Straight ahead swing material gets the standard 4 slashes and chord symbols with the occasional push here and there. 

Guitar

In my charts, the guitar rarely sees slashes except for open blowing sections.  Most of the melodic content is backed up by guitar voiced in unison or octaves with other sections.  I’ve heard players comment that they know it’s a chart of mine because of the wall-to-wall guitar cues.

I realize this sounds counter-intuitive considering the clichéd reputation of guitar players as not being able to read well – so I email them copy days ahead of the session.  They are always appreciative.  Thankfully, Toronto is loaded with very talented guitarists who are exceptional readers.

Piano/keys

Years ago, while handing out parts in a rehearsal I put down a typical (swing with slashes) piano part in front of Don Thompson (who loves to play…everything!)  He looked at me and said, “What am I supposed to do with this?” Since then, moving forward, I now include as much material as possible in all of my piano parts.  They are more like 2 stave conductor’s scores including all melodic cues and harmonic rhythms. 

The resulting piano parts are enormous, but the piano player is directly connected to the entire scope of the piece.  In Don Thompson’s mind slashes meant nothing in that situation.  Considering the guitar is often busy with melodic content, the sole role of the keyboardist becomes to intelligently comp in and around the rest of the band.  A detailed piano part helps the keyboard player do this effectively.

A different approach is to give the pianist a master rhythm part. In this situation all the rhythm section players play from the same detailed part.

2.  Caught in the Middle

Middle C was the first note I learned as a 5 year old during my first piano lesson.   Conservatory piano lessons were what the kids in my family did, although I know that this is clearly not everyone’s experience.  Today, with the proliferation of guitarist, bassist, drums and vocalists in most post secondary music institutions, middle C or the grand staff for that matter, may be mysterious concepts for non-keyboard players.

The age old question of why are so many trombonists have become great arrangers and composers remains.  One reason is that trombonists have a firm understanding of that note and how middle C feels and sounds!  (I’ll put piano players on that list as well).

The concept remains quite simple.  Above middle C is where the majority of melody rings and below middle C is where arrangers need to be careful voicing.  I toured extensively with Rob McConnell in the Boss Brass and then, much more frequently, with the Rob McConnell Tentet.  On the rare occasion that Rob would actually talk about writing, he did divulge one secret.  We were on a plane and for whatever reason he was describing his favorite Ab 13 voicing of Duke Ellington – and then out of the blue he says “ you know TP, I rarely voice a tri-tone above middle C, then went on to another topic.  Most likely ordering another bloody Mary!

That was a serious light bulb moment for me and gave me a firm understanding why Rob’s sound was indeed Rob’s sound.  Tri-tone at or below middle C with the melody above middle C supported by a triadic formation that rarely included the 3rd or flat 7!  That is a general statement to say the least, considering all of the ?/V7 variants available, but I’m sure you get my drift!

I show my students a demonstration using 2 hands – in the left, tri-tone and in the right, melody tension, tension (and in many cases, another tension).  With both thumbs on middle C, the arranger can feel where all the action is going to happen – between the hash lines – to use a football example.  In my experience, the close voicing is rare and if used is mostly in cluster voicings or to depict a classic “Supersax” sound.

Understanding middle C will help young writers avoid the pitfalls of writing melody that is too low or too high, and voicing below safe low limits.

Without meaning to linger too long on voicings, I feel that a modicum of “arrangers piano” is required to advance to the next level.  I was certainly guilty of dead voicings until Frank Mantooth gave me a copy of his jazz piano method book, “Voicings”.  This book hammered home principals I still teach today including balanced right/left configurations and what Frank called symmetrical 6/9 Miracle Voicings.

3.  Don’t Forget Your Pencil

As a freelance musician I sadly break the cardinal rule:  Always bring a pencil to rehearsal.  I never have a pencil, but as a writer, I always use a pencil.

I just turned 55 so I started writing in the early 80’s.  We used pencil and score paper and copied parts by hand.  I began writing (as many of you have) analog style, well before digital.  The organic process of putting pencil to paper has become vital to my process – it’s free from, right click, left click, shift/command/M/4….command Z…command S…..

John La Barbara and I both agreed that there was something special about the writing process with a piano.  There is a tactile connection to the sound that stimulates ideas that does not exist while composing at the computer.  Check out a book “Steal Like An Artist” by Austin Kleon.  It’s a fun read by a young writer who supports the idea of stealing from the masters (in a good way – you have to read the book), but also having some separation between the use of the pencil and the computer to stimulate your creative juices.  Most of my ideas are hatched on a lead sheet with melodic variants and chord substitutions.  It’s very remedial looking, but it keeps me on track when I get the computer going.  A double stave rough sheet for elaborate orchestrations is best for me.

Maria Schneider was a distinguished visitor at the University of Toronto a few years ago.  She set up shop in my office for the week complete with a 32 stave score pad on the piano, no bar lines (you’ll know the one if you’re old enough) and sketched ideas with no restrictions to the melody, harmony or meter.  It’s a great format (although I’ve never had enough solid ideas to fill up 2 staves)!

4.  The Long and the Short of it!

From the biggest most elaborate film sessions to the tiniest demo – the one thing that can kill the clock is a lack of attention to detail – specifically articulation.  This also applies to rehearsing new material with professionals who have little time to waste.  Eating up recording or rehearsal time putting in articulations in a killer!  You won’t realize your potential regarding feel and accuracy if you fail to go the extra mile.  My students pay for this as a minus 10% but in professional circumstances you’ll feel it in your pocket book. 

I’ve sat down in studios with charts with no indication of long/short/loud/soft and it’s a signal that things are going to go badly…and it goes real bad, I’ve seen it countless times.

Attention to detail shows the professional player that you know what you’re doing.  From articulations, to formatting parts, correct rehearsal numbers and dynamics is a subconscious signifier that you are on the case.  Without these vital ingredients, there is a good chance the orchestra will give you right back what you deserve.

5.  Make it hip, not hard!

Over the years, I’ve written some pretty unmusical material.  Over time, I’ve realized that there was something to be said for writing music that feels good, sounds good and is easy to play.  Good music that great musicians want to play – it’s a no-brainer.  The tipping point was when I decided to emulate my elders in Toronto.  Here is a quote from the liner notes I composed for the Dave Young/Terry Promane Octet Volume 1.

This CD embodies what many have called “The Toronto Sound.” This is not a conscious effort, although Toronto jazz composers, arrangers and performers have been a part of an unconscious musical movement akin to the Group of Seven painters.  This goes back further than my memory, but Dave Young was on the ground floor with Phil Nimmons, Rob McConnell, Rick Wilkins and Ron Collier, all pillars of the local and our national jazz consciousness.   

The Toronto sound is complicated, but generally relies on a few crucial ingredients; exciting, well crafted and uniquely voiced arrangements, a distinctly Canadian musical sensibility, impeccable tuning, flawless execution and world-class solos.

What I didn’t mention is that Rob McConnell et al really knew how to write great sounding stuff that was easy to play!  Sure there’s going to be some high notes, and some blistering sax work, but it’s not the main event!  It’s all part of the story, the big curve of the piece.  When I started in the McConnell band I couldn’t believe how easy it was…I mean, it was soft, no high notes, great intonation and it swung like hell.

In the end, it’s all in the details.  Pay attention to inventive melodic composition, and harmony and stay away from gimmicks.  Write what you hear and make it accessible to a wide range of abilities and your music will sound great! 

Terry Promane,

Toronto, Ontario CANADA

March, 2017

——————————–

Editor’s note: Please check out one of Terry’s composition, this time for jazz 12tet, “The Icemaker’s Mistress”. This is a track from the CD, “Trillium Falls” which can be found at https://itunes.apple.com/ca/album/trillium-falls/id1210913574

Both full audio and pdf score are included here:

The Icemaker’s Mistress

Click here for the full score

More info about the highly acclaimed University of Toronto Jazz Program along with lists of other recordings, please go to www. uoftjazz.ca


About the Author:

TERRY PROMANE is an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto specializing in jazz trombone, composition, and orchestration. He is a member of many of Toronto’s most prestigious jazz groups including the Dave Young/Terry Promane Octet, the Rob McConnell Tentet, The Boss Brass, the Mike Murley Septet, the John MacLeod Big Band, the Dave Neill Quintet, the Kirk MacDonald Jazz Orchestra, and the Carn/Davidson 9. He was twice named ‘Jazz Trombonist of the Year’ by ‘Jazz Report’ Magazine, and nominated for three consecutive years as the National Jazz Awards’ ‘Trombonist of the Year’ and ‘Arranger of the Year’. As a freelance musician, Promane is a first-call session player who can be heard in countless feature films, documentaries, jingles, and in pit-bands for dozens of hit musical productions.  He has performed with Holly Cole, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Mel Torme, Natalie Cole, Aretha Franklin, Kenny Wheeler, Bill Holman, Tito Puente, Dave Valentine, Maria Schneider, Vince Mendoza, Gonzalo Rubacalba, and Hilario Duran.

Artist Blog

Bill Dobbins and Concerto for Jazz Orchestra: the Use of a Twelve-Tone Row in a Large Scale Jazz Composition

(Click here to hear Concerto for Jazz Orchestra)

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.

concerto-ex-1

(Ex. 1)

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.

concerto-ex-2_01

concerto-ex-2_02

concerto-ex-2_03
(Ex. 2)

 

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.

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concerto-ex-3_02

(Ex. 3)

 

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).

concerto-ex-4
(Ex. 4)

 

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.

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concerto-ex-5_04
(Ex. 5)

 

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.


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concerto-ex-6_03

(Ex. 6)

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.

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(Ex. 7)

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.


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(Ex. 8)

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.


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(Ex. 9)

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.


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concerto-ex-10_02
(Ex. 10)

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.

concerto-ex-11
(Ex. 11)

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.


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(Ex. 12)

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:

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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).

Artist Blog

Adam Benjamin on Jazz Composition

Greetings Earthlings! This is my first blog post for ISJAC. It is an informal essay on “jazz composition”. I’ll try to be clear and make some useful points. Future posts will include some specific methods and techniques to try.

“Jazz composition” is a slippery term. There is lots of disagreement about “jazz” and what is “jazz” and what is not “jazz”. Many complex and important questions reside in and around these debates, and I would love to discuss them with you in the future. However, for the purposes of this informal essay, my answer to such questions is “Meh.” By which I mean, let’s not worry about what we’re calling things and who thinks you’re Jazz and who thinks you’re not. Let’s disregard all that for the moment.

PART ONE: Here’s one thing I know for sure

Here’s one thing I know for sure, is that to do something well, you have to actually do it. Preferably you have to do it many, many times. So all of that THINKING about compositions and TALKING about compositions and STARTING compositions is all well and good, but in order to write some decent music you’re going to have to write a lot of pieces / tunes / songs / jams / beats. Every time you write a piece / tune / song / jam / beat, COMPLETE THE CYCLE. Here’s how:

  1. make the complete thing
  2. bring it to the World
  3. hear it back and live with it
  4. edit as necessary
  5. DONE now start a NEW CYCLE!

So, if you’re writing Hot Jazz Tune, this would mean:

  1. write a complete piece
  2. bring it in to your Hot Jazz Combo
  3. hear them play it, record it, play it at a few gigs, etc
  4. make some tweaks if it needs it
  5. DONE now write a NEW HOT JAZZ TUNE!

Or, if you’re writing Sick Beatz for Partiez this would mean:

  1. make a complete piece
  2. release it on the internet, play it at shows, have a sick MC spit over it, etc
  3. see if you like it, if it makes people dance, if it gets the human you have a crush on to comment on it, etc
  4. make some tweaks if it needs it
  5. DONE now make NEW SICK BEATZ!

The whole point is, don’t spend too much time and thought and stress over any one thing you create. Just give it to the world and move on. Don’t get stuck trying to make a masterpiece. Everybody writes some crappy things. Creating a lot of things is the only way to make sure that some of them are not crappy. As you create more and more things, completing the cycle more and more times, you make less crappy things, more good things, and possibly … possibly even a great thing. But you cannot force this, it comes only when you have completed many cycles, with mixed results. This means being TOUGH, so that when something sucks, you don’t feel awful, but it also means being SENSITIVE, so that you can write music that make people feel things. TOUGH but SENSITIVE, that’s the way.

PART TWO : Here are two kinds of Jazz Composition

“Jazz Composition” can be a bazillion things. Today I’m going to talk about two different kinds of Jazz Composition. (There’s a bazillion minus two kinds that I’m not going to talk about today.)

Jazz Composition Kind One : You have an awesome Band. You write for the particular people and particular sounds and particular personalities of that Band. For example, I write songs for my awesome band Kneebody. I specifically write things that they will sound awesome playing, and that makes them feel good, which in turn makes me feel good. I try to make it fun for them, comfortable in some ways and challenging in some ways. I think about what will fit in our setlists with the songs we’re already playing, and what will fit the venues we’re playing and the bands we’re playing with. I try to write something that propels our band forward and nudges our music in a more Now direction, a more Us direction, a more Real direction, a more Human direction, a more Imaginative direction, a more Mature direction, a more Yeah direction. We put no limits on ourselves and write music that is as detailed and complex and through-composed as we want. We don’t think about what kind of music it is.

LESSON: You don’t want to have a band exactly like my band (trust me), but you want to do something like this, you want to have a situation with this much trust and rapport, because it will help you grow as a composer (and as a person). This situation will not always be there in your life, but you must make it be there sometimes. You must.
Clue: try making the primary concern finding people that you want to spend time with, rather than just finding the Cats who are most Killing.
Clue #2: In Kneebody we learn all the music BY EAR. That’s worth repeating — We learn all the music BY EAR. We initially encounter all the music as sounds and feelings and we work in that realm. (Disclaimer: we all went to school and read music well, but just choose to work this way in this project.) It helps us form personal connections with the music, and to retain and evolve the music over a period of years. This process may or may not work for you, but find a process that is uniquely yours. Plus, do you really want to bring music stands to every gig ever?

Jazz Composition Kind Two : You have Gig with some Cats who are Totally Killing. You write songs for this group of people that may or may not play together again, and you want to play the songs at next Gig with some different Cats who are also Totally Killing. You have maybe one rehearsal or maybe zero rehearsals before said Gig.

LESSON: In this situation, you must write differently than in Jazz Composition Kind One. You must write music that is more flexible, and does not depend on particular players to succeed. You must write music that is suited to the playing abilities, and reading abilities, of the current and future musicians that will play this music. What can be executed successfully after one, or zero, rehearsals? (If you’re feeling skeptical about this scenario, think of almost all the great jazz music ever made.) You must distill the uniqueness of your ideas into their clearest forms, which is a very, very important thing to do. (Try it when you are talking as well.)
LESSON ALSO: Even though you think it will not sound Killing if you write something that is Jive, do not be afraid to write simply. That’s worth repeating — DO NOT BE AFRAID TO WRITE SIMPLY. Simple music makes musicians play better and improvise better because they’re not spending 90% of their brainpower trying to play the material correctly. Yes, master musicians can play ultra-complex music flawlessly with one or zero rehearsals and improvise creatively. But these Cats on your Gig, they may be Killing but are they master musicians? Right.
LESSON ALSO ALSO: Also, when I say write simply, I don’t just mean the music, I mean the CHART. In this musical scenario, the CHART is the Ur-document, the holy text of the moment. A very common mistake I see is that even when Composer writes a Simple Tune (Yeah man) the chart is confusing and byzantine (Not Yeah man). Sometimes you won’t even be there and CHART is the only communication connecting you with the performers. In a very literal way, CHART *IS* the composition. You must communicate the essence of the piece with CHART, using great detail when necessary but never, ever more detail than necessary. If you are there, you can Talk Down CHART before playing it at Gig, but you should say either zero, one or two sentences. Anything more than that people will forget. Remember, these are improvisers. All you have to do is not get in their way.

In conclusion, don’t be a drag. People are going to be playing your music and it’s going to sound great or terrible or Meh and they will probably play some things wrong. It definitely won’t sound like it did in your head. You will be feeling stressed and feeling judged. Eventually (after many times COMPLETING THE CYCLE) you won’t feel stressed or judged, but for now you do. Don’t take this out on the people around you. They’re just trying to play your music or have a successful night at Venue or eat dinner or whatever. You, and they, are doing this for Joy and Feelings, so just let go of all the stress. Nothing can go wrong. If your song sounds terrible the world does not blow up. You still have to drive home later. Music is amazing because it can be such a vehicle for Joy and Feelings and Understanding and Bonding but when it sucks NOTHING BAD HAPPENS. We are not surgeons. You are free to experiment and no one will die. If someone dies at your gig, it’s not your fault. It was just their time.

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.