Of the most difficult tasks musicians give themselves, writing about music, or specifically writing about their own music, surely must be held in equal esteem with tasks such as decoding health insurance, making small talk, and income taxes. Comedian Martin Mull is credited with the phrase, “writing about music is like dancing to architecture,” so welcome my friends as I put on my dancing shoes.
I like to think of artists as people who are on a journey, traveling through time in their own personal wilderness. Careful observation of the world in which they live and a lifetime of meticulous trial and error yields discoveries of new ideas within themselves.
For most, there is an early period of intense study where one learns the history, craft, and style of their artistic ancestors: the giants, big and small, who have traveled their own journeys before we arrived.
Some artists begin from rich landscapes of opportunity, full of inspiration and support. Others trickle along slowly to start and gain momentum with time like small streams that become rivers becoming bigger rivers, criss-crossing one another or joining for a time, and splitting again to travel somewhere new. As each artist moves through life, their river continuously collects bits of silt, sand, and stone that provide them with ideas, inspiration, and influences that eventually make them entirely unique from the many other rivers that surround them.
The next time you cross the Mississippi, the Hudson, or the Delaware, you might think of the grandness of these waterways as some of the giants of artistic achievement like Walt Whitman, Thelonious Monk, or Frida Kahlo. They all began, like all of us, from someplace small, eventually overflowing with energy to become mighty artists of influence in and after their lifetime.
For me, my own personal journey began probably like many of you, with unbridled passion for the music of the jazz masters from the 1940s through 1960s. My artistic river has continued to bend and twist in unexpected ways that I never could have foreseen from the outset. Although at times I feel my path has taken me far afield from these early influences, the prism through which I view the musical landscape today still reflects values formed as a child from study of these masters which include concepts of rhythm, sound, melody, harmony, and certainly many other nuanced facets of which I am not even aware.
One very meaningful area of discovery for me is in regard to the study of other artforms outside of music. The practice of studying artists of other mediums has provided for me a wealth of ideas and inspiration in helping me to better understand my own artform. Although I’m certainly not an expert in these other forms, the process of placing yourself in the shoes of artists in other mediums has helped me give language and perspective to what it is I am doing as an artist living in this time.
For example, the way in which poets write about the mechanics of poetry directly speaks to the way in which musicians and composers describe and analyze music. Descriptors such as rhythm, form, pace, texture, line, and tone all play a central role when talking about the building blocks of a poem. Understanding the mechanics of poetry has helped me more closely observe the structures in music and has thus helped me compose with more intention and thoughtfulness.
While I cannot describe exactly how a particular poem or poet has literally influenced my writing, I can say that the study, close reading, and practice of creating poetry has helped me become more observant and more awake to nuance, texture of language, and playfulness of rhythm. This has affected my own musical compositions and I find myself asking more from them because of this. Such questions as “what does this composition mean?” “What am I saying with this?”
Prior to working on my most recent album, Music for Sextet, I had been working on a series of pieces for a much smaller instrumentation composed for alto saxophone, guitar, and drums in which many compositional ideas for Music for Sextet first began. The music for this trio was written and performed over the course of two years and culminated in an album for Fresh Sound/New Talent entitled Wobegon released in 2018.
The music written for Wobegon was somewhat of a turning point for me in that I was beginning to experiment with letting go of harmonic devices that I felt I had too often leaned upon for much of my past music. I had increasingly been drawn toward music that blurred boundaries of styles (see this New Music Boxarticle), and the continued process of discovery led me to further unexplored areas of composition that drew inspiration from contemporary classical music more than anything else I had written up until that time. I began exploring ways in which to balance some of the magic of modern classical music that I loved with elements from jazz which I was familiar with.
The successes I discovered working on these pieces inspired me to build new compositions containing an unusual instrumentation twice the size with a chamber music-like structure. And so in February of 2020, I recorded Music for Sextet for Innova Recordings, a culmination of my efforts to date. The music is written for two B-flat clarinets, trombone, horn, guitar, and bass.
The first piece on Music for Sextet entitled The Teller and The Tale is a representation of some of the ideas I was experimenting with at the time. It was my intention to scale back much of the harmonic movement that I normally might use and instead attempt to build energy and interest using overlapping rhythms and textural melodies in the brass to keep the listener’s interest engaged continuously through the piece.
I also let go of the notion of keeping a strict form, preferring to let ideas wander in a free verse/through-composed fashion. The rhythmic complexity and harmonic information presented struck a balance between simple and complex ideas. I fought to maintain clarity in the overall musical statement to give the listener challenging but not overly complicated material. I hope you like the music and video I created for The Teller and the Tale:
I don’t recall when I learned of the scientist Leonard Hayflick’s striking contribution to the understanding of human cell growth and the de facto understanding of the limits of our mortality, but his discoveries spoke to me and warranted a composition dedicated to his groundbreaking discovery.
Simply put, Hayflick’s work established a finite number of times that a human cell could replicate before it stopped, thus proving a finite limit on human life. The potential to live forever was effectively disproven, counter to many in the field at the time who feverishly sought evidence for the human cell’s ability to divide ad infinitum thus allowing for immortality. The Hayflick Limit or Hayflick phenomenon is the number of times a human cell will divide before cell division stops.
In working on my piece, The Hayflick Limit, I was confronted with my own limits. The continuing process of editing and revision is something that continues to be a part of my writing process. I am sure that the musicians in the ensemble were overjoyed when I presented huge revisions to the music they had already worked so hard to parse, however for me, it is the only way that I have found I can improve. That is to “Try, Fail, Try Again, Fail Better.”
The Hayflick Limit was born from many false starts and revisions that sometimes took me forward two steps only to find myself three steps backwards, somewhere in the weeds. In the end, I think I can live with how this finally came together:
Lastly, in order to create anything new in music, I have come to recognize that the process often feels like wandering about in the dark, stumbling into random objects, bumping your foot, knocking over a lamp, and hoping someone will finally tell you that what you are doing is good enough. But in reality, no one can really tell you that what you are doing is good, great, or anything in between. The only person that can give you the approval that you are seeking for the work you’ve done is yourself.
With so many of us on a wheel of social media-driven content, it seems worth saying that we should endeavor to live lives of our own making and not through the lens of other people’s narratives. Let us strive to be unique and individual, each singing with a clear voice. Rather than seeking reward or the approval of others to validate what can only be validated by ourselves, our ambitions can instead reflect our own beauty of being. The reward comes through the process of work and practice. By this and this only, will we be able to conjure art that is meaningful and true to ourselves.
We can become rivers both big and small, all vitally important to the ecosystems of music, art, and humanity.
About the Author:
Saxophonist, multi-woodwind player, and composer Aaron Irwin is from Decatur, IL. Known as a lyrical alto saxophonist and a compelling original composer (Steve Futterman, The New Yorker), Irwin is a sought-after commodity in both the jazz and commercial worlds. His latest recording Music for Sextet was released on Innova Recordings in January of 2021. He has seven other recordings as a leader with various instrumentations. In addition to his own groups, Irwin has performed with many leading jazz voices in the New York jazz community including the Grammy-nominated Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Bob Sabin’s Tentet, The Mike Fahie Jazz Orchestra, the mixed wind group Weathervest, as well as pop performers Kristen Chenoweth, Rufus Wainwright, Josh Groban, Idina Menzel, and The Roots. Prior to the global pandemic shutdown, Irwin maintained a busy schedule as a freelance musician, performing in jazz clubs, concert halls, and Broadway theatres working with many of New York’s finest musicians and bands.
Irwin holds a bachelor’s degree in music from DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois and a master’s degree in music from the University of Miami in Miami, Florida. He is a dedicated educator with over 15 years of teaching experience and currently serves as an adjunct saxophone professor at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland, and woodwind instructor at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, New York.
When JC invited me to publish something in this blog, it took me quite a while to figure out what to write about that would be interesting for a forum visited by many colleagues who already have their own voice as composers, and decided that maybe (just maybe) the most interesting thing I could share is my own methodology and approach, being that my musical background is (for good and for bad) far from that of musicians who have studied and developed their language inside the usual jazz boundaries.
This past summer composer George Lewis wrote a fascinating New York Times article called “Lifting the Cone of Silence From Black Composers.” In the article he wrote of composer/performer Nathalie Joachim’s wonderful Grammy-nominated album Fanm d’Ayiti (“Women of Haiti,” 2019 New Amsterdam Records) that she brings “musical Minimalism home to the African diaspora from which it has drawn so much” (Ibid). Continue reading →
This blog consists of an exchange of emails between Matt Horanzy, when he was a student at USF, and I discussing my approach to arranging for the albums “Songs I Like a Lot” and “Songs We Like a Lot.” Matt has agreed to share this email conversation with the ISJAC community. In the time since we had this conversation, I finished and recently released the album “Songs You Like a Lot,” so I have included an addendum to our original exchange to give you an explanation of the final album of arrangements. In rereading our emails, I felt I needed to include some clarifications to my original thoughts. These clarifications are labeled and appear in italics.
From: Matthew Horanzy Subject – Research Project question Date: February 5, 2018 at 4:48:23 PM EST To: John Hollenbeck
Hi Mr. Hollenbeck,
I’m currently working on a research project focused around your music, specifically your arrangements from the Songs I/We Like A Lot albums. My topic is going to be on your influences from wind ensemble music/composers. Having heard you speak extensively on this topic, I was wondering if you could point me to a few pieces or composers that you believe played a great deal of impact on your music for these two projects?
On Feb 6, 2018, at 9:09 AM, John Hollenbeck wrote:
I appreciate the interest and question. I have to stop you at your premise unfortunately, because I do not believe that you need to be influenced by something to do something. I hear too much of that in fact. When I write, I try to let the material itself influence me and guide me. While I sometimes do answer the “influences” question, I am increasingly hesitant. I know it is harder to start at “nothing” and not get a head start from another person’s work, but that is how I work the majority of the time. I know it does not make for a good paper, but that is the truth. 😀
Feel free to follow up!
LATER CLARIFICATION: I believe influences will always be present and what we do is based on what we take in. But I do not believe it is necessary to look for influences or spend a lot of time trying to get influenced. The process of being influenced and letting those influences flow naturally out can hopefully happen organically without conscious intent. I have always gravitated towards music where the influences are not quickly evident and I get immediately turned off if I feel someone is stealing someone’s music consciously or even unconsciously. I realize the frustration in my answer and the educational value of copying others, but I do want to continually stress the significance of trying to come at your work from “you” and not “in the style of” someone else, as a mature goal.
Hi John – I do appreciate the email! I won’t pry at the subject, but I am now curious about how your statement of treating the big band “as a wind ensemble” (something I recall from your ISJAC talk) can be true without some kind of influence by certain pieces or composers from the idiom?
This issue is a big one for me. So let me try to clarify.
The “big band as wind ensemble” concept was an important thought, a “what if” moment for me, not related to a specific piece or composer, but simply what I had NOT yet heard based on my experiences playing big band and wind ensemble music.
It is also just a general goal of mine. If my vehicle was the wind ensemble then I might be thinking of it the other way around, e.g. “try to put ‘big band’ into a wind ensemble context!”
I’m a firm believer of looking within for the answers, not to other people…it is much easier to be ethical and true to yourself if you can deal with just the music and not with what others have done. I realize that this does not lead to good papers or scholarship if you are told to look for influences and write about them. I think this way of educating is emphasized in jazz education to a negative degree.
In the case of the arrangements that I wrote for these recordings, the answers you are looking for can be extracted by analyzing the arrangements, because everything is built on the DNA of the original songs.
LATER CLARIFICATION: I am trying to emphasize that instead of just asking the composer/arranger for the answers, there is much value in actually studying the music first, looking for the answers on your own, and then presenting the composer/arranger with some very specific questions. The process of looking for the answers will often bring up unexpected rewards. I have discovered the first gem of a piece when looking at some other music and having it lead me to a new place, and it should be noted, a new place for the material too!
An example is the last section (starting at 8:53) of The Shape of Spirit from the album, Tunnel Vision by Ansgar Streipens and Ed Partyka. This material came directly from analyzing and learning Satie’s Gnossiennes No.1. I do not think the result has a direct auditory or foundational basis in the Satie piece, but I found some “new” material while trying to figure out what the Satie piece was about. This process reminds of all the times I went to a library looking for a specific book or score, did not find it, but instead made an unexpected book/score discovery!
All too often, I battle the challenge of resisting the temptation to draw from my favorite moments of other music. I’d love to hear how you manage to stay truly original – because everything has to come from somewhere… no? I can’t say that anything I’ve done has been due to “musical spontaneous combustion,” but listening to your music, I would believe if maybe you’ve had those moments!
Back to a stronger paper topic, yes I think perhaps going the direction of how the original works affected your arrangements could be more interesting. I’ll be looking on my own, but if there are any particular ones that you think might have some ideas/techniques that would really stand out in a presentation, I’d love to hear it right from the source!
“because everything has to come from somewhere… no?”
Yes! From YOU! (:
In other words, from an organic mix of all of your experiences. I’m not sure if one needs to try to, or can, be truly original, but I think the point is to be yourself and to work with the material and let it dictate what you do. This is jazz to me.
Coltrane, Miles, Monk and others are the epitome of jazz because they ended up creating something original by NOT using too many outside influences, but trying hard to create something that had not been done before and was personal to them.
About my SONGS I/We recordings:
Every piece has its own story, so it will be faster if you pick a few that you like or are curious about and then I may be able to help. (Sometimes I remember what I did, and other times it was done in a short period when I was in a zone so then I don’t really remember what happened!)
LATER CLARIFICATION: “Coltrane, Miles, Monk and others are the epitome of jazz because they ended up creating something original by NOT using too many outside influences but trying hard to create something that had not been done before and was personal to them.”
I’m arguing with myself on this a little when thinking of Coltrane because he was totally open to outside influences and looking for as much information as possible and then bringing it into his music pretty quickly. Yet despite that approach, the end result came through the Coltrane filter and therefore did not sound like a copy of someone else’s music.
PS Rick Lawn transcribed the ISJAC talk for his insightful book, so here is more on the “wind ensemble” aspect that you asked about from his transcription:
Hollenbeck: It came down to not calling it a big band and not thinking of it as a big band. It has the same instrumentation as a big band, but it’s just a large ensemble. It could be a large chamber ensemble or a wind ensemble. But thinking of it like that helped me a lot because then I didn’t have to think about styles or conventions. I just think of it as a group of people, and they play these instruments, and how could [I] deal with that. So that’s one thing that helped me a lot. Within that pretty traditional instrumentation that exists everywhere I just try to find a couple things that make it distinctive, that make it a little different. Having Theo Bleckmann in the band helps me stay away from what a traditional band sounds like. He can sing like an instrument, he can sing with words, and he can make sounds. Having that one musician really helped me see how to open up the music. And then having mallet percussion, nothing against guitar, got me excited about writing for the big band. It just wasn’t something I’d heard that much of. I’d heard some vibes before, but this allows me to incorporate things like crotales. It also gets me closer to that wind ensemble-like vibe that I wanted. And I think I haven’t even fully realized this yet. I have like 10 pieces that are sort of wind ensemble pieces.
I wanted to get your input about some analysis that I’m doing of a few of your charts. I was wondering if you wanted to provide a small blurb of what you recall regarding your thought process/motivic usage in each of these tracks, as well as anything you might find interesting to share!
From Songs We Like A Lot: Bicycle Race, Close To You, How Can I Keep From Singing, and True Colors.
These are some of my favorite recordings and pieces of music of all time… truly beautiful stuff.
On Tue, Feb 27, 2018 at 4:34 PM, John Hollenbeck wrote:
At the moment, I’m drawing blanks on these arrangements. It would probably be better for you to ask specific questions and hopefully that will jog my memory. All of those arrangements were written in a short amount of time, so it is difficult to remember anything!
What I can say generally is that I look at the original melodies, sometimes the harmonies but usually just the melodies (maybe the bass lines occasionally) and then generate new material from them. I don’t usually bring new material into the arrangement.
To give you some more specifics, I will usually take the melody, retrograde it and then turn this line into something vertical (chords/harmony). Or I might take the interval set from a melody and process that into more sets and then use that. (ala Bob Brookmeyer)
In True Colors, Theo is singing the original melody, but very slowly, so it ends up sounding like a chant. The piano is also playing the melody and/or some material that was generated from the melody, but much faster, so it also does not overtly sound like the melody, but actually is! The hi-hat part accentuates the piano part and fills in the sub-divisions in a typewriter-like fashion. My goal was to create something that sounds free and not in an obvious meter.
Also, I wrote an extensive analysis of Drewslate, a Claudia Quintet piece, that demonstrates in depth the composition process for this particular piece. It has been published in Arcana VIII, one edition of a series of journals that John Zorn has put together.
I would like to note that with most arrangements, I’m trying to keep the essence of the songs intact while giving them new life, like a new coat of paint or a renovation. The songs are still there but might sound quite different than the original.
LATER CLARIFICATION: The way I look at it, there is a scale of how much something can be arranged. In Imogen Heap’s “Canvas” from Songs I Like A Lot or “Blue” from Songs You Like A Lot, I felt like I just orchestrated the songs according to the players and instrumentation on this project. On the other end of the scale are “Get Lucky Manifesto” from Songs We Like A Lot or “Knows Only God” from Songs You Like A Lot which were arranged to the extreme, to the point of “re-composition,” which is why I re-titled them.
On Apr 15, 2018, at 11:36 PM, Matthew Horanzy wrote:
Hi Mr. Hollenbeck,
Thank you for writing me several weeks (months?) ago! I’ve been digging deeper into your charts, and your words continue to ring true, with the majority of these works being creative manipulations of the melody.
I wanted to ask some questions that were less technical in terms of analysis, but more conceptual. First and foremost, I wanted to know if there were any differences in your approach when writing arrangements for Songs I Like A Lot compared to Songs We Like A Lot. Did you notice any tendencies when tasked with re-arranging music that was not as dear to you?
And last, what pieces did you also consider for these two albums that did not make the cut? I’m very curious about your thought process when choosing pieces to arrange for projects such as these!
On Apr 16, 2018, at 9:56 AM, John Hollenbeck wrote:
“First and foremost, I wanted to know if there were any differences in your approach when writing arrangements for Songs I Like A Lot compared to Songs We Like A Lot.”
Not really, it felt similar – the main difference was in how the material was selected. I liked more of the material from the 1st project since I selected most of the pieces! But what I learned in the 2nd project was that I did not need to like a piece in order to make a successful arrangement out of it!
“Did you notice any tendencies when tasked with re-arranging music that was not as dear to you?”
I learned that it might even be easier if I did not like the original piece, because then there was less pressure on myself to do it justice. Also, if I did not like it, I did not listen to it much ahead of time, so it was easier to make it my own.
“And last, what pieces did you also consider for these two albums that did not make the cut? I’m very curious about your thought process when choosing pieces to arrange for projects such as these!”
Many, many pieces, but alas that list was on paper, and while I’m sure I still have it, I’m not sure where it is! For the last album in this trilogy, “Songs You Like A Lot,” we are inviting anyone to suggest a piece that they want me to arrange. We will then have an internet-wide vote, so I’m taking myself out of the selection of pieces!
To re-iterate, the process once I start arranging a piece is the same as my compositional process:
Find the core/cell
Process it and try to find the “gold” that is hopefully embedded in the material, something that speaks to me and gives the material a new life.
An update to this email exchange: Songs You Like A Lot is done and is about to be released (August 14th) so I can conclude this conversation with Matt by giving you some insight into the whole project with the liner notes to this final album:
SONGS YOU LIKE A LOT
with Theo Bleckmann, Kate McGarry, Gary Versace and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band.
This is the final chapter of a trilogy of albums in which I explored and arranged popular songs. The entire project was made in collaboration with vocalists Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry, pianist Gary Versace, and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. For the first recording, Songs I Like A Lot, I selected the majority of the songs for the album. Many of the songs I chose were from my childhood, and as I started to really listen to them again, I was surprised by how well I actually knew them. The second recording, Songs We Like A Lot, is composed primarily of songs that Theo and Kate liked and chose for me to arrange. Uri Caine held down the piano chair on this recording. And for this third and final recording, Songs You Like A Lot, we asked listeners to nominate their favorite songs for me to arrange. We then had an internet-wide vote on a list of nominated songs, and I chose (with the help of Kate, Theo and Gary) from the top 20 most popular songs.
This project brought up questions I asked myself numerous times: What is arranging? Why arrange? Why arrange popular songs? Is it still a “pop” song if it was not “popular”? Must the original still be recognizable in the arrangement? What can you arrange and what must be left intact so that the original is still there? When does it stop being an arrangement and transition to being a re-composition or original-composition-based-on-another-piece? And, do you have to like a song or composition to be able to create a good arrangement of it? Going into the project, my answer to this last question was “yes,” but now at the end of this project, my answer has changed to a definite “no.” As it turns out, for this recording, I was able to enjoy arranging pieces that I did not know or, in some cases, even like. This brought up subsequent questions: What does it mean to “like” a song? Is it possible to know a song so well, so completely, that even though you don’t really like the song, you realize that because you have heard it so much and know it so well, you end up kind of liking it anyway? (Yes!) And finally, how do you arrange something that you really do like, that you’re not sure you should even try to change?
What I do know is that above all, I want the listener to be reinvigorated and have their interest in the original versions of these songs revived! Through the course of this entire project, I have come up against many listeners that are so attached to the originals that any changes are considered blasphemy! I understand their feelings, but I also believe that this could be a great lesson in non-attachment? The Buddhists would say non-attachment is the key to happiness, so for the “poo-poo’ers” out there, consider this a path to enlightenment!
My arrangements may also highlight facets of these songs that were not obvious to the listener in the original, perhaps revealing hidden and exciting new layers. I sought to emphasize material that is present in the original, but not featured or in the foreground. I also tried to rewind what I perceived may have been the original compositional process to then figure out what I would do from that same point of departure. This approach always brought me down a much different path than the original composer. Throughout the course of this entire project, I also learned new methods of arranging that center in on how to change the original as little as possible while still achieving something “new.”
To give you some specifics on my process: in “Down by the River to Pray”, I let each verse exist organically in its own “room”, culminating in the last verse where all the “rooms” come together simultaneously. Keeping in mind the deep meaning this piece has to Kate, and many others, including myself, I tried to be very careful in not forcing the material, but allowed it to be what it wanted to be.
The Refuge Trio, a collective trio I have with Theo and Gary, was originally formed to perform in a Joni Mitchell tribute concert in New York City. In fact, the name of the band comes from her song “Refuge of the Road”. Having performed her work extensively, I knew that Theo could make “Blue” come to life in his singular way. I tried to do as little as possible with this one and mostly orchestrated the original piano part.
“How Deep is Your Love?” is a nostalgic tune for me. All of the Bee Gees tunes remind me of what was on the jukebox in the local bowling alley where I would bowl on Friday afternoons as a kid. Looking at the song many years later, the title’s question “How deep is your love?” took on an even deeper meaning to me and I heard an urgent intensity in these words, which I chose to emphasize.
The classic “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor was one of the most challenging pieces to arrange because I’m simply in love with the original and was reluctant to even touch it. I imagined how Kate would bring her own magic and then subtly shaped the original by accentuating certain qualities that were present but not explicit.
The Kate Bush/Peter Gabriel pairing in “Don’t Give Up” seemed very suitable to Kate and Theo, but in order to get away from the original, I thought it would be interesting to have them switch parts. This concept of switching is explored also in the last section of the song with an escalation of intense vocal hocketing. While the original version of this song fades out like a gentle pat on the shoulder, I chose to end this arrangement with a coach-like fervor, imploring: “DON’T!” (GIVE UP)
“Kindness” doesn’t officially belong on this album of arrangements because it is an original, but I love this magical poem by Naomi Shihab Nye and want more people to hear it!
“Pure Imagination” was arranged with Gary Versace and Theo Bleckmann in mind. These two musicians embody pure imagination to me, so I created a musical fantasy world as described by the lyrics for them to explore and make magic in!
The easiest solution to arranging extremely popular songs like “God Only Knows” (which was #1 on the voters’ list), is to simply re-orchestrate it. I chose instead to challenge myself to re-cast this classic in a new light. I had such a great time re-arranging the lyrics that this became the key to finding what often sounds like a completely different piece, which I call “Knows Only God.” Perhaps after several listenings of both versions, you will start to hear that “God only Knows” is still totally present and intact!
Songs You Like A Lot along with my other albums can be found on Bandcamp (the most friendly platform for musicians) in physical or digital formats. Because I know it is a challenging time currently for musicians and composers, if you would like a digital copy of SULAL but can not afford it right now, please write to: email@example.com with “SULAL ISJAC SPECIAL” in the subject and we will send you a free download code.
In the years since this conversation, Matt Horanzy has moved to Washington DC where he enjoys staying busy as a guitarist, composer, and educator. He’s currently a member of the BMI Composers workshop, and his latest quarantine project entitled “Quartz” can be heard here:
I hope this article clarifies a process that is often mysterious and solitary.
About the Author:
It’s traditional, when paying compliment to drummers, to draw comparisons with the octopus, implying agility beyond the means of a paltry pair of human hands. But when considering John Hollenbeck, the multi-limbed creature that seems most appropriate to invoke is the mythical hydra; for while Hollenbeck is certainly no stranger to rhythmic intricacy, it’s ideas that seem to spring forth like so many heads, two more arising as one falls away.
Hollenbeck is a composer of music uncategorizable beyond the fact of being always identifiably his. A conceptualist able to translate the traditions of jazz and new music into a fresh, eclectic, forward-looking language of his own invention, intellectually rewarding yet ever accessibly vibrant. A drummer and percussionist possessed of a playful versatility and a virtuosic wit. Most of all, a musical thinker – whether putting pen to paper or conjuring spontaneous sound – allergic to repetition, forever seeking to surprise himself and his audiences.
The prolific and unpredictable nature of Hollenbeck’s output has been evident since he first emerged as a leader in late 2001, releasing four completely different albums within a matter of months. Three of them (Quartet Lucy, the duo CD Static Still, and no images, featuring several different configurations) introduced the partnership of Hollenbeck and iconoclastic vocalist Theo Bleckmann, who continue to collaborate in a variety of offbeat settings. Along with keyboardist Gary Versace, they form the Refuge Trio, as boundary-free a small group as one is likely to find.
The last of that initial burst of creativity was the self-titled debut of the Claudia Quintet, Hollenbeck’s longest-running ensemble. Over the course of its eight CDs, Claudia has cemented its reputation as one of the most innovative and adaptable units in modern jazz, so deftly attuned to one another that Hollenbeck’s most dizzying compositional leaps are taken with an air of playfulness and skewed humor. Claudia’s latest release, Super Petite, is a potent package that condenses virtuoso playing and a wealth of ideas into ten compact songs.
Claudia has received grants from the Chamber Music America New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development program to compose a suite which was recorded for 2009’s Royal Toast, and from Arts International and the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation to travel to Brazil, Nepal, and Canada for performances. The quintet was commissioned by the University of Rochester to set the work of Kenneth Patchen as part of their 100th birthday celebration of the ground-breaking poet, which can be heard on the 2011 release What Is the Beautiful?, featuring vocals by Theo Bleckmann and Kurt Elling. The Claudia Quintet can also be heard performing the theme music to Poetry Off the Shelf, a weekly audio program on PoetryFoundation.org.
Hollenbeck has been acclaimed for his unique twist on big band music – most notably through the work of the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, which trades the gale force blowing of most such bands for a multi-hued palette of tonal colors and rich, evocative atmospheres. Their third album All Can Work, pays tribute to the Large Ensemble’s late trumpet player Laurie Frink, a key force in the group and the jazz community. The JHLE received GRAMMY nominations for all three of its releases: All Can Work in 2018, A Blessing in 2005, and eternal interlude in 2008. John was nominated again in 2013 for his arrangement of Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress” from the album Songs I Like a Lot, commissioned and recorded by the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, featuring vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckmann, and pianist Gary Versace. That album and its companion piece, 2015’s Songs We Like a Lot, puckishly reimagine pop songs by the likes of Cyndi Lauper, Daft Punk, Queen and Burt Bacharach with big band arrangements, transforming familiar songs with surprising insight and audacious wit.
The composer’s large-band pieces have also been recorded by Austria’s Jazz Bigband Graz on 2006’s critically-acclaimed Joys and Desires. In 2010, the CMA/FACE French-American Jazz Exchange Program awarded Hollenbeck a grant to develop work with Daniel Yvinec and the Orchestre National de Jazz of France, resulting in the release of Shut up and Dance (Bee Jazz, 2011), which includes the GRAMMY-nominated composition “Falling Men.”
If these projects can safely be termed “jazz” (at least by those comfortable with the label’s more progressive interpretations), they should by no means be taken as indicating that Hollenbeck’s output is limited to even that genre’s most elastic borders. His growing body of commissioned compositions relate just as obliquely to the “new music” tag, exemplifying his ability to not so much defy categorization as to evolve beyond its necessity. One of Hollenbeck’s earliest appearances on record was as the composer of “The Shape of Spirit,” a piece for wind ensemble issued on the Mons label in 1998. The following year he composed “Processional and Desiderata” for wind ensemble and orator (released by Challenge Records in 2001), written for and featuring the voice and trombone of John’s mentor, Bob Brookmeyer.
John’s piece “The Cloud of Unknowing,” commissioned by the Bamberg Choir in Germany, fit comfortably alongside works by J.S. Bach, Igor Stravinsky & Paul Hindemith when it was released in 2001 on the Edel Classics label, while his 2004 chamber piece “Demütig Bitten,” commissioned by Germany’s Windsbacher Knabenchor, was released on the Rondeau label along with works by Giovanni Gabrieli, Josquin des Prez and J.S. Bach (again). In 2002, his IAJE Gil Evans Fellowship Commission piece, “A Blessing,” featuring Theo Bleckmann’s stunning vocals, was performed to critical acclaim at the IAJE Conference; and in 2003 his IAJE/ASCAP Commission, “Folkmoot,” was premiered in Toronto, Canada.
In 2009, John compiled several recordings of his chamber pieces on the CD Rainbow Jimmies, made possible by his 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship. The disc includes commissions by Bang on a Can and the People’s Commissioning Fund; Ethos Percussion Group funded by the Jerome Foundation; Youngstown State University; and a piece written for the Claudia Quintet’s cross-cultural educational journey to Istanbul, commissioned by the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall. Hollenbeck’s other notable works include commissions by Melbourne Jazz Festival; Edinburgh Jazz Festival; University of the Arts, Philadelphia; and Ensemble Cairn, Paris, France.
Hollenbeck received degrees in percussion and jazz composition from the Eastman School of Music before moving to New York City in the early 1990s. He was profoundly shaped by the mentorship of two hugely influential artists: trombonist/arranger/composer Bob Brookmeyer and composer/choreographer Meredith Monk. His relationship with Brookmeyer reached back to the age of 14, when he attended the SUNY Binghamton Summer Jazz Workshop, and continued at Eastman, through NEA-funded composition study, and finally on the bandstand with Brookmeyer’s New Art Orchestra and in the studio with Brookmeyer and trumpet great Kenny Wheeler. For Monk, Hollenbeck composed and performed the percussion scores for five of her works: “Magic Frequencies,” “Mercy,” “The Impermanence Project,” “Songs of Ascension” and “On Behalf of Nature.”
Hollenbeck’s awards and honors include five GRAMMY nominations; the 2012 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, the 2010 ASCAP Jazz Vanguard Award and a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship; winning the Jazz Composers Alliance Composition Contest in 1995 and 2002; Meet the Composer’s Grants in 1995 and 2001; and a Rising Star Arranger win in the 2012 and 2013 DownBeat Critics’ Polls as well as in 2011 for the JHLE as Rising Star Big Band. John was a professor of Jazz Drums and Improvisation at the Jazz Institute Berlin from 2005-2016 and in 2015 joined the faculty of McGill University’s Schulich School of Music.
Pivotal Arc (Whirlwind Recordings), coming out in a few days, features my evolving language composing for string instruments. It explores the connection between classical and jazz idioms with a Violin Concerto, written for soloist Nathalie Bonin, and a String Quartet written for the Molinari String Quartet. The Concerto was developed over a decade, working closely with the soloist, whereas the Quartet was composed right before the recording session, meeting the performers for the first time at rehearsal. A common thread between them is a focus on imaginative musical risks and finding connections between genres.
Near where I grew up in Toronto, Canada, there was a great reference library that had a large vinyl collection of music covering a diverse range of genres and styles. In high school I was getting turned on to so much music by taking out twenty records (the library checkout limit) every few weeks and listening to something new nearly every night. As a budding saxophonist, I was getting clued in to John Coltrane’s music, the 60’s quartet and beyond, thanks to my private teacher, Alex Dean. I had picked up the complete Bartok String Quartets by the Emerson Quartet at the library around the same time. Even though the instrumentation and approach was very different, in many ways I heard a deep connection between them: the intensity, vibrancy, immediacy, melodic elements, rhythmic development and some of the harmonic approaches. Even though Bartok’s music was fully notated, it still has a feeling of improvisation and spontaneity. And even though Trane’s music was highly improvised, it has a deliberate sense of development and form. They both have a vibrant blend of intellect and emotion.
This inspiration from these two sources grew into two of my first albums. Magic Numbers (Songlines), recorded in 2004, incorporates a String Quartet led by Nathalie Bonin with saxophone trio of bassist Mark Helias, drummer Jim Black and myself on tenor and soprano sax. Horizons Ensemble (Musictronic), recorded in 2005, was with pianist John Taylor, improvising cellist Ernst Reijseger and violinists Nathalie Bonin and Parmela Attariwala. For both of these albums, I wanted the strings to be another voice within the ensemble, interjecting and steering the conversation, not always, or even often, in a background role.
In preparation for composing, I dove into the Bartok scores, and also found the Debussy and Ravel String Quartets really helpful. I highly recommend them, in particular for composers coming from a jazz background, as the harmonic language is familiar and the writing and development is quite clear. You get a good sense of the ranges of the instruments and combinations of the four voices. From there I found it easier to then go back to Beethoven Quartets and move ahead to Shostakovich Quartets and beyond.
By digging into the literature, doing the homework, listening and checking out scores I learned a lot, but this is only one key element. As Jim McNeely (via Bob Brookmeyer) mentions in his recent blog post, doing it is also critical. By writing the music and then having the opportunity to hear how the players responded to it, how the registers sounded in real life and how the overtones interacted and resonated, helped immensely to focus and clarify my imagination: so what I was hearing in my mind would better match reality. (I had the good fortune to study with Jim on and off for several years: a great learning experience from one of the best.) This crucial element comes into play later in the story. From these experiences, I was able to take what was effective and discard what was not.
To the Present
Nathalie had been integral to both of those early albums. She had a strong classical background, but was also interested in improvising and worked in a wide cross-section of styles and ensembles. After a performance, we started tossing the idea around of writing her a concerto that would showcase some of her diverse interests. The commission came about in 2008, thanks to the Canada Council for the Arts. Writing for a specific person and working with her to develop the language was a growing experience. I knew some musical settings she was really good at that I wanted to showcase, such as the abstracted Tango of the first Movement, the moody ballad of the second, with room for her to improvise a cadenza into the third movement. But I also wanted to push her and challenge her with some new directions (it is a Concerto after all!) For example, by incorporating some of my own improvised language coming from the perspective of a jazz saxophonist, or some of my own interests at the time, including exploring Balkan music which manifested in the beginning of the third movement. The Concerto was completed in 2013, demoed in NYC in 2014 and recorded in 2018 in Montreal. (Raising funds to record large ensemble works is no small feat as I am sure many readers here can understand.)
In contrast to the Violin Concerto, which was developed in collaboration with the soloist over several years in addition to a long working relationship, the String Quartet was composed over a short period of time. I had not worked with the Molinari String Quartet before and did not know any of them personally. We were supposed to workshop some of the material together, but because of unexpected delays, the final score was delivered four weeks before the downbeat and I did not have the opportunity to hear any of it before our first rehearsal. Everything needed to work, as there would not be time to revise parts or rewrite sections. I had checked out the Quartet’s previous recordings that included works by Kurtág, Schnittke, R. Murray Schafer, Gubaidulina and knew they were working on an upcoming album of John Zorn’s music. I was confident that they were comfortable dealing with a complex notated language. They are not improvisers, so this would be a fully notated work. This would be a companion piece to the Violin Concerto, so to maintain some unity, I decided each movement would be a mini-concerto for one of the four players, in this order: Violin II for Movement I, Viola for Movement II, Cello for Movement III and Violin I to close out the work.
In writing the piece I still wanted to push myself and take musical risks, but calculated ones. At the first rehearsal, after only hearing the first few measures, I was very happy, and extremely relieved (!), to discover that all of the effects/extended techniques I imagined worked! Theoretically I knew these all should work and imagined what they would sound like, but sometimes in practice the dynamic balance does not quite work or executing a concept can be technically problematic. Thanks to earlier experiences of writing and working with strings my internal imagination was now much more matched with reality. While listening to the quartet play, I became fascinated with how much liberty each player would take in their featured movement. Each time we ran through it in rehearsal or did a take in the studio, they would subtly change the emphasis or push and pull the time in a different way – keeping it really fresh and with a sense of improvisation.
Translating the Thought Process
Rather than settling on a single element, I will discuss one short section from each movement of the Concerto and String Quartet, drawing some parallels to my background as a jazz saxophonist or revealing some of my thought processes.
Violin Concerto – Movement I – Opening Violin Cadenza
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As a saxophonist, playing standards in a solo format or in duet with drums is an important part of our practice. (Think Trane and Elvin Jones!) With this in mind, for the beginning of the Concerto I wanted the violin to set the form and tone of the movement. It is a Tango, but the clave has been expanded to a 3-bar structure. One of the string instrument effects that I asked her to use was grind where she applies extreme bow pressure to get an uglier, crunchy sound for rhythmic effect. As well, some standard string effects were used: sul pont. (sul ponticello), where the bow is kept near the bridge to bring out the higher harmonics, producing a strident, nasal quality and sul tasto, where the bow is kept over the fingerboard to produce a softer, thinner tone. There is also some fancy finger work where she plays one note and plucks other notes with her left hand: the +s in m23 for example.
Violin Concerto – Movement II – Ending Transitional Cadenza
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At the end of the second movement I gave the violinist the start of a written cadenza to use as a launching point for her improvisation that would connect to the third movement. I have found this can be quite an effective strategy for combining composed and improvised material. It helps to set the tone and direction of an improvisation while still allowing the soloist to freely express and personalize it.
The final measures that launch into the cadenza incorporate double and triple stops, where a string player will use a different note on each of their strings to play 2, 3 or 4 notes at the same time. To have a better understanding of these, I learned to play some mandolin, as it has the same open strings as the violin. This way I was not just intellectually figuring out what could work but got to feel it in my fingers, albeit at a snail’s pace.
Violin Concerto – Movement III Excerpt
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Another standard effect for strings are artificial harmonics, where the player will finger a note and then lightly touch the same string farther away with a different finger to play a higher harmonic instead of the fingered note. ‘Touch four’, touching a fourth away from the depressed note, produces a note two octaves higher than the depressed note.
This excerpt is from the final movement, near the end of the piece. At this point in a traditional concerto the soloist usually displays all of their most flashy, virtuosic work. I had already explored this direction extensively, so I decided to go for a contrast. There are several exchanges between soloist and orchestra, where instead of bravura from the soloist, everything drops out, the time becomes more floating and the violin is melodic, intimate and whisper-like high in the stratosphere. In some aspects this is even more demanding, needing to maintain a tremendous level of focus and control. The double stop harmonic at [OO] is particularly challenging and delicate as one false move and the notes will not speak properly.
String Quartet – Movement I Excerpt
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The first movement features Violin II as the more prominent voice. At the beginning I incorporate a lot of glissandi and some quartertones to embellish the melodies. As jazz musicians, the blues is a fundamental element. It has a lot of microtones, gliding and ornaments that inform how we interpret melodies and express ourselves. (I was tuned into this idea at a master class with James Newton.) I was also inspired here by how Johnny Hodges would interpret melodies in Ellington’s band: a lot of gliding around the melody, but for powerful emotional effect.
The first violin is in their own universe at the beginning, gliding quietly in the stratosphere, creating some ambient sound so that they can appear suddenly at [A].
String Quartet – Movement II and Movement III Excerpt
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On the saxophone, practicing harmonics is a fundamental part of developing a mature sound, as well as being used in improvising as effects or coloration, from Lester Young to Michael Brecker. We practice all kinds of torturous exercises to get more and more control over the upper partials (often sounding like a Wookiee in the early attempts!) Stringed instruments are also very capable of producing beautiful harmonics and effects. At the end of the second movement I have the cello and viola in counterpoint in controlled harmonics, creating an ethereal texture to which the two violins have their own contrasting commentary.
The third movement is a showcase for the cellist. At the beginning of the movement, the bow is set aside and the player digs into solo pizzicato material that is reminiscent of a jazz bass solo, with some gentle accompaniment from the other players.
String Quartet – Movement IV Excerpt
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One of the themes returns at [AA]. At m380 (and again at [BB]) I am using quartertones for a different goal, to make the response to the theme sound transfigured, twisted and abstracted. Integrating quartertones into my saxophone improvising has been a focus over the past several years. My aim with this, and similarly how I approach extended string techniques, is to weave them seamlessly into the language of what I am expressing musically. I find it most interesting to integrate effects into the flow of the pieces, often coexisting with more traditional writing. This lets me explore contrasts and commonalities.
Given the setting for this article, I have focused more on how my jazz background has influenced my string writing, but in reality everything is much more fluid. A working relationship with an individual performer over time comes with many rewards, allowing you to grow together. However, developing the skills to work with new collaborators is equally important. If you are inspired to write more for strings, do your homework, study scores and try to gain experience by doing it with real musicians. Look for common threads or connections between elements, either literal or abstract. I encourage you to take calculated risks, as it is how we best learn to develop our own language and realize what we are hearing in our imaginations!
About the Author:
Photo by Evan Shay
NYC-based saxophonist and composer Quinsin Nachoff has earned a reputation making “pure, bracing, thought-provoking music” that is “cliché-and convention-free” (Ottawa Citizen). His music moves fluidly between jazz and classical worlds and is soul-stirring yet intricately cerebral. His passions reach into both arts and sciences, with physics or astronomy concepts sparking inspiration for exhilarating compositions.
A state of constant unpredictability is vividly captured in Nachoff’s group Flux, which features the talents of saxophonist David Binney, keyboardist Matt Mitchell, and drummers Kenny Wollesen and Nate Wood. The band has earned critical acclaim during performances throughout Canada and the US. Their JUNO-nominated second release, Path of Totality, thrives in the spaces between genres, styles and inspirations, and garnered numerous yearend best-of lists including DownBeat’s The Year’s Top Rated Albums (4.5 stars): “Path of Totality is a stunning, deep dive of an album, the sort of music in which one could spend hours submersed.”
Nachoff was already blurring the lines between composition and improvisation on his 2006 debut, Magic Numbers, which paired a jazz rhythm section with a string quartet. Since that time he has found success in both worlds. In November 2018 he premiered a Violin Concerto, his first String Quartet (commissioned by Quebec’s Molinari String Quartet) and a large ensemble piece, Pivotal Arc, in Montreal. These are the latest additions to a growing catalogue of compositions for a variety of diverse ensembles. At the 2017 Vancouver International Jazz Festival he premiered his Saxophone Concerto with the Turning Point Ensemble, while his piece Stars and Constellations: Scorpio was a commission from the Penderecki String Quartet that incorporated bassist Mark Helias and drummer Dan Weiss of Nachoff’s Ethereal Trio.
Sound and music have always had a great power over me. As a child, music brought me a wild sense of pure joy and an urge to move, and I clearly remember the happiness of singing with friends and listening with family. Music was my friend. In fact, it felt so close that I assumed I could simply sit at our family piano and coax those same feelings, that same sense of joy from it without much preparation. So it was only natural that during my first piano lesson when the teacher asked if I could play a song, I said “Yes!”. I walked to the piano and tapped the rhythm to a well-known song on a single key – my primitive cave painting rendition of the song. I felt great pride until I turned around to encounter a bemused disapproving look on my teacher’s face: “Well, that’s just the RHYTHM of the melody,” she said. Deflated, but still determined, I went back home and started practicing.
While sound in general held considerable power over me, I soon discovered my catnip – the thing that made my mind enter a suspended state of wonder and caused me to place the needle on the LP again and again: counterpoint. In my case, it was Bach Fugues. Completely oblivious to the grand formal design and compositional prowess, I was simply mesmerized by the independent movement of voices. Like waves of electricity messaging my amygdala they came; here’s the beginning of a thing, but then another thing starting while the first thing is still going, and another one, and they go somewhere together, hand in hand, and split again – oh, there’s that beginning thing again – and it all sounds so good together. Again!
This was not the same wave of joy that would bring me to my feet while listening to Ariel Ramírez’s 1960s blockbuster piece “Misa Criolla” (A piece which I dubbed “A Great Joy” while jumping around our living room) – it was more of a slow, trance-inducing burn. In fact, I strongly believe that the effect of complex contrapuntal music on my brain made it impossible for me to properly execute it at the piano – I would just get too distracted. But I digress.
As I started to write music, I found myself chasing this feeling. When I consider how this element factors into my work it seems that what I find so compelling about it, is its potential for ease of expressiveness.
Writing Their Song
I’ve been very fortunate to spend time writing for bands. Bands in the old “touring band” sense. A group of musicians who spend a considerable time playing the same repertoire together. One such example is the vocal group “DUCHESS” for which I serve as arranger.
Duchess is a close-harmony 3 part vocal group featuring Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner and Melissa Stylianou. When Duchess first got together, they’d perform selections from the vast existing repertoire in this style (Andrews Sisters, Boswell Sisters to name just a few), but then sought to expand it with some original arrangements, which I gladly wrote. The group recorded them on their first album just a few weeks, and in some cases a few days after I wrote them.
The short time for rehearsals and just a couple of days in the studio did not seem to hurt the recorded output – the album was very well received, and the band went on to tour extensively. While on the road, the arrangements, like a well-worn comfortable pair of shoes, expanded and contracted, got a bit looser and a bit tighter in places. Usually, the adaptations were rhythmic, and most of them stretched the phrases I wrote, in what became the group’s characteristic “laid back” phrasing.
As an arranger, these changes worry me a bit. I’ve been in situations where a misunderstanding, or perhaps a copying mistake has taken the band on a path entirely different than the one I imagined. I remember when I wrote a part for the Harmonium (the European foot pump organ), but got a Harmonium (the Indian hand pump organ). While I thought the choice of instrument was obvious (“the piece is clearly a product of 1920’s Germany!” “the part calls for two hands!”) I can understand how this could happen. My natural response was to try to clarify my intention even further, provide as much detail as possible and not assume anything, in order to guide the performance along the lines I had conceived.
But in this case, these departures from the written parts were not the result of misunderstandings but rather the result of performing the music night after night, in various settings, different venues and at different points in the set. They were also the results of the interaction between the singers themselves, and they as a unit with the band. While not exactly what I wrote, the performances were swinging, interactive, and flexible.
When starting work on Duchess’ second album (Laughing At Life) I had that experience in mind. I let the style of the band – honed over a lengthy period of playing together – inform my writing. In a way, I entered a collaboration, a feedback loop with the group. “How about THIS for laid back” I thought, when I wrote this phrase:
I can’t know for sure, but this doesn’t seem like a phrase I would have written left to my own devices. I wrote it being keenly aware of the way the three singers sang together. When I presented the chart, the ladies of Duchess reveled in the gooey phrase I provided them with, and of course proceeded to stretch it even further to the next bar – laying back my laid back feel. Lovely!
The group’s performances also informed my choice of voicing. I found that in the style of this group, less rapid note changes are easier to sing and tend to swing more. So I’ve learned to prioritize the vocal line over my planned chord changes.
Additionally, I started writing specifically for these singers. This deep familiarity with the group opens a whole new set of creative possibilities; the specific timbre of a singer’s voice, at a specific register often informs my writing, as does the accumulated experience of how their voices sound together. I also find myself considering the personality of each singer when I decide which lyric should be delivered by whom.
I had always focused on serving the song while arranging, and now found myself also considering serving this particular ensemble and interacting with the musicians in a two-way, open-ended conversation.
Love the Band You’re With
In 2016, Anat Cohen and I, collaborators and friends for many years, set out to design a new ensemble for Anat. 2017 marked the 100th anniversary of the first jazz clarinet recording (“Livery Stable Blues” by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, generally considered to be the first jazz recording), and that gave us a good excuse to consider the history of the clarinet in Jazz, and beyond. We wanted to create an ensemble that would allow Anat – a musical polyglot – to venture into various musical styles with ease.
We hired the musicians and commenced a week-long workshop which served as a lab; we brought everything from re-orchestrated big band charts, lead sheets and unwritten textural and melodic ideas, and explored them with the group. That week established a language for the band and launched us on a journey through two albums and counting, a Grammy nomination, numerous performances in the US and abroad, and some of the most rewarding musical moments we’ve experienced.
The fact that the band’s personnel has remained almost unchanged from those early workshop days, the many performances, and my role as the band’s musical director gave me a great opportunity to integrate my writing to the group more deeply, and continue to consider the interaction between composer, soloist and band.
The band’s repertoire moves between structured, detailed and fully notated selections (Mel Powell’s Oh, Baby! *for example) and completely free, or loosely scripted moments. In my own writing for the band, I use both; the introduction to my composition “Trills & Thrills” could be described as aleatoric. The instrumentalists are asked to play a set of defined intervals using various techniques, growing in intensity, and then relaxing and resolving into a concert A. The following section is fully notated. The solo section that follows and concludes the piece, is labeled “collective improvisation,” resolving into a concert A, as low as it can be played on the different instruments.
After the first hesitation in reading the parts – aleatoric techniques are not something I’d try in a situation where the music needs to be sight-read – and as the texture became more defined for all involved, this section felt organic, and intensely moving. It seemed like everyone had a stake in the musical task they were entrusted with. Musicians were not asked to “play this note this way” but rather to make music within a set of constraints. Of course, playing notated music is not antithetical to making music, but it seems to me that there is a certain excitement, investment and involvement that is sometimes easier to achieve when removing some constraints. Especially when you recognize that the texture I’m after, in traditional notated form, would result in parts that are complex to read.
As we added the piece to our repertoire, the solo section which I labeled “collective improvisation” became a guitar solo (played by Sheryl Bailey,) which dovetailed into a clarinet solo. The trombone (Nick Finzer), trumpet (Nadje Noordhuis), baritone saxophone (Owen Broder), and cello (Christopher Hoffman) then join with melodic lines that serve more as a background to the interchange between the guitar and clarinet. Then, the entire ensemble winds down to a concert A, held for longer than is comfortable. Listening to the soloists and then the band crescendo and then calm things down is always different, and to me, endlessly satisfying. Like watching separate travelers come together, settle, finally rest, and slowly disappear.
The joint guitar/clarinet solo became an audience favorite; true to Anat and my initial mission of exploring all the clarinet can do, it provided a great opportunity to reflect on the place the clarinet can take in a modern setting. When I was commissioned to write a Clarinet Concerto for Anat and the band1Triple Helix: Concerto for Clarinet and Ensemble was co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Symphony Center Presents. The World Premiere was given by the Anat Cohen Tentet, featuring Anat Cohen, in New York City on January 12, 2019., I used the solo structure that emerged organically on the road in a more structured setting in the first movement.
During that first movement solo, I again provided the cello, baritone, trumpet and trombone with chord changes and the instruction “Play background – long notes.” It is always a joy to hear the four musicians navigate their respective lines, interacting with each other and the soloists, this time, building the energy up into a drum solo, rather than winding down.
Sometimes these free form instructions summon unexpected results. In that same first movement some musicians are instructed to “answer clarinet” along with chord changes stretched over just two beats of a 4/4 bar. During rehearsals, no one played on these changes. I thought I’d wait to see what would happen. No answer came during the recording, or the live shows. In fact – these bars remain silent to this very day. And that’s okay – silence is also a choice.
So perhaps the thing I find so attractive in contrapuntal settings is echoed in these techniques. Perhaps what resonated with me was not the structured, erudite execution of musical form, but rather that the individual voice is free to sing its own song. To flourish melodically. To express itself without barriers, make music, and interact with the voices around it.
And when writing for bands full of creative, curious and collaborative musicians, one can achieve that by suggesting parts custom made for individual voices and allowing the freedom to chart one’s own path within the collective journey. Love the band you’re with, and if your experience is anything like mine, they will return the love many times over.
About the Author:
Across a diverse range of work, GRAMMY-nominated composer Oded Lev-Ari showcases his own, individual soundprint, one of cinematic richness and open-hearted lyricism. He has created and collaborated on music that span recordings, stage, and media, reflecting a genre- bending sensibility, expansive creativity, and unique ability to bring out the best in his collaborators.
In 2019, Oded conducted the premiere of his work Triple Helix: Concerto for Clarinet and Ensemble – commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Symphony Center Presents in Chicago, featuring iconic clarinetist Anat Cohen. The piece was hailed as “an Everest” and “a significant addition to the clarinet repertoire” by the Chicago Tribune. The Anat Cohen Tentet, for which Lev-Ari is musical director, recorded the work on their GRAMMY-Nominated album, Triple Helix.
Last year, Oded made his Lincoln Center debut directing performances of Paul Taylor Dance Companyʼs Company B.
Since 2018, Oded has been collaborating with neuroscientist Beau Lotto to explore the perception of music and sound. The two were featured in the NationalSawdust+ series in Brooklyn, and are developing additional presentations to debut in the 2021-2022 season.
Oded has written more than 1000 arrangements and compositions for chamber and wind ensemble, big band and symphony orchestra, and a variety of jazz combos. In reviews for Anat Cohenʼs album Noir, The Washington Post called the it “one of the finest jazz records of the year, thanks in large part to the arrangements by Oded Lev-Ari, which alternate from lush Gil Evans harmonies to hard-charging bebop to a laconic beauty that could accompany a moody European film;” and NPRʼs Morning Edition chimed in, “The arrangements on Noir are anything but black – they are life-affirming and intriguing.” Billboard magazine labeled his work “outstanding.”
“Putting lightning in a bottle is what Oded Lev-Ari specializes in,” said DownBeat magazine in a feature article on Oded as a producer of albums by the likes of 3 Cohens, Anat Cohen and woodwind sage Marty Ehrlich, as well as rising-star singers Amy Cervini and Melissa Stylianou, and vocal trio Duchess (Cervini, Stylianou and Hilary Gardner). Oded – born in Tel Aviv but a longtime resident of New York City – released his debut album as a leader, Threading, in April 2015 via Anzic Records, the label he has owned and directed for the past decade alongside Anat Cohen.
Born in 1975, Lev-Ari graduated from Israelʼs Thelma Yellin High School for the Arts before serving in the Israeli Defense Force Orchestra. From 1993 to 1996, he was house arranger for the Dan Shilon – Live! television talk show. Lev-Ari is a recipient of the America Israel Cultural Fund scholarship, and graduated with honors from New England Conservatory of Music, where he studied with Bob Brookmeyer and Tamara Brooks.
Triple Helix: Concerto for Clarinet and Ensemble was co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Symphony Center Presents. The World Premiere was given by the Anat Cohen Tentet, featuring Anat Cohen, in New York City on January 12, 2019.
Hey folks. Your friendly neighborhood blog guru here. Unfortunately, due to COVID craziness, our scheduled blogger for April was, understandably, unable to complete his article for this month. So, I decided at the last minute to step in and throw together a little something that might be of some interest to some of you. I quickly assembled a little playlist of some big band music that I considered “game-changers” for me in my understanding and appreciation of the modern idiom. Many of you will be familiar with at least most, if not all, of this music, but if I’m introducing something new to you, you’re welcome. And if these are all your favorites, like they are mine, you’re also welcome, because what better excuse than now to settle in and listen to these masterpieces again. I could go on and on about each example, but I’m just going to say a few things about each, and maybe little bit about how I happened on it.
“(The) First Circle,” by Pat Metheny, arr. by Bob Curnow
As a junior at the University of Northern Iowa many moons ago, I was just starting to gain some understanding of modern big band music, and I barely knew who Pat Metheny was at that point. So, I was really thrown into the fire my first semester in Jazz I (then directed by Bob Washut) by playing this amazing chart. When I first looked at the music, I couldn’t even understand how you could even count it, much less play it accurately and smoothly. But it was really was an eye-opener how something so complicated and constantly changing could feel so fluid and organic in performance. Yes, this chart is only an imitation of the truly breathtaking original, but I think it does an admirable job.
Bob Curnow’s LA Big Band – The Music of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays, 1994
(Btw, here’s also a version of Pat playing another orchestration of it with the Metropole Orchestra conducted by Jim McNeely in 2003.)
“The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife are Some Jive-Ass Slippers,” Charles Mingus
I was already way into Mingus by the time I was a student at New England Conservatory, but I wasn’t all that familiar with his big band music yet, so when Allan Chase brought this into the NEC Jazz Orchestra, I was totally knocked out. The orchestration, the episodes, the incredibly memorable melodic structures were so rich while still managing to maintain the sense of spontaneity that the small group records always had. How could something be so complex and structured while also simultaneously feeling so loose?
Charles Mingus – Let My Children Hear Music, 1972
“Ugly Music,” Bob Brookmeyer
My trombone teacher at the time, John Mosca, hipped me to this whole record Electricity. I was somewhat familiar with Brookmeyer at the time but thought of him as an interesting improviser who wrote some “funnier-sounding” music in the Ray Wright book Inside the Score. Little did I know I’d be studying with him the following year at the beginning of a long and invaluable relationship. This record seemed so out of context for what I understood about Bob at the time. So much of the orchestration is stripped down to 3 voices or less, and the timbre of the 2 synths plus Abercrombie’s MIDI guitar was just so surprising to me. Later, after I had studied with Bob for a while, I thought of this track of the album as the paradigm of the melodic development stuff he was working on with me and his other students. It goes along with his concept that you really can’t develop an idea too much. It just keeps going, and I think it’s so powerful that the main thing that changes in the opening section is Danny Gottlieb changing from brushes to sticks.
Bob Brookmeyer (w/WDR Big Band featuring John Abercrombie) – Electricity, 1994
The summer in between being hipped to Electricity and studying with Bob for the first time, I attended the Lake Placid Institute for its first year hosting a jazz workshop that was spearheaded by Bob. In addition to working with Maria Schneider for the first time (also see “Wyrgly” from Evanescence), I got to play a bunch of Jim’s music with him, including charts like “Extra Credit” and “Sing, Sing, Sing.” But the big thing for me was playing “Skittish,” the 2nd track on the masterwork East Coast Blowout. I had heard the chart and thought the melody was super cool and that there was some neat rhythmic stuff, but I gained a much deeper appreciation of the chart with Jim rehearsing us. And after playing it, I just couldn’t stop listening to the original recording. The Ornette-ish melody is captivating, but the ways that the chart weaves through all of these contrasting ideas and section but are still held together by all kinds of unifying elements, I just feel it’s a paradigm of modern sectional large ensemble composition. Plus, the ways he utilizes the soloists with these back-and-forths with the ensemble is just riveting.
(Check out this great listening session Ethan Iverson and Darcy James Argue have where they talk about this great record.)
Jim McNeely (w/WDR Big Band, John Scofield, Marc Johnson, & Adam Nussbaum) – East Coast Blowout, 1989
It’s only fitting that my study with Brookmeyer would not only be transformative by what I learned from him compositionally and improvisationally, but also by the great music he introduced me to. When I would go to Bob’s house in rural New Hampshire to hang, he’d often play me all types of music, but these last two examples were the ones that really affected me long term. The first was this arrangement from the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, an ensemble I’d never heard of before. On this chart, I just got caught up in all the lush colors and motion that I didn’t even realize what tune it was until Florence Fogelson’s sudden statement of the lyrics over the bridge. So much yumminess throughout!
Sauter-Finegan Orchestra – Directions in Music, 1952
I had heard John Hollenbeck’s superb drumming with Bob’s New Art Orchestra, but on one of these other trips to Bob’s house, he told me about this recording a bunch of folks, led by Ed Partyka, put together to celebrate his 70th birthday (called Madly Loving You). He thought I should hear this certain piece by John, who I had no idea was also a composer. It grabbed me immediately, mostly because of Bob’s deep and paternal voice permeating the whole second half. And the fact that John also had Bob’s trombone playing in the ensemble just did it for me, hearing both of his influential voices simultaneously. Even without that very personal aspect, the colors and shapes John uses here are captivating and surprising in the ways I love so much about his music. (Again, little did I know at the time that I’d eventually conduct three Grammy-nominated records by the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble and would get the opportunity to conduct this work!) Here’s just the second part of the piece.
Ed Partyka Jazz Orchestra – Madly Loving You, 2001
About the Author:
Trombonist/composer/conductor JC Sanford is a musician of rare breadth, deeply rooted in the traditions of Jazz and Classical music, yet constantly pushing at their boundaries. Equally at home in many roles, Sanford works regularly as a composer, performer, arranger and conductor. A disciple of the legendary composer/trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, Sanford has had his works performed by Danilo Pérez, Dave Liebman, John Abercrombie, Ingrid Jensen, Lew Soloff, and others. His jazz orchestra CD Views from the Inside garnered international acclaim and received the coveted Aaron Copland Fund Recording Grant. The ensemble has also been recognized as a “Rising Star Big Band” in DownBeat Magazine’s Critic’s Poll the past 4 years. As a conductor, he is a member of the twice-Grammy-nominated John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, and also conducts the Alan Ferber Nonet +Strings, the Frank Carlberg Large Ensemble, John Ellis’ Ice Siren, and conducted the Alice Coltrane Orchestra featuring Ravi Coltrane, Charlie Haden, and Jack DeJohnette before her death. He also curated the Brooklyn-based creative large ensemble series known as “Size Matters” for over 4 years. He was a member of the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop led by Jim McNeely and longtime contractor for the BMI/New York Orchestra. In 2017, Sanford founded the Twin Cities Jazz Composers’ Workshop alongside his wife, composer Asuka Kakitani, with whom he also co-leads the Twin Cities-based Inatnas Orchestra. He was recently awarded a 2018 McKnight Composers Fellowship and a 2019 MN State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant to record his quartet. In 2019 he took over as musical and artistic director of the JazzMN Orchestra.
Composer/performer: someone who both writes and plays. This is nothing remarkable in the jazz world; most of the great jazz composers were also its best instrumental practitioners. However, it’s interesting to consider that, in the history of western music at least, the composer has often been behind a veil, quite separate from the musicians who performed their works. With that in mind, it’s been my long-held opinion that jazz composer/performers are in a unique and privileged position: we have the opportunity to create the perfect vessels for ourselves as improvisers. As both the composition and the improvisation which fits the composition comes from the same mind, we can compose shapes for ourselves that perfectly encompass our priorities and desires as improvisers.
Holding the above to be true, I noticed a couple of years ago that there was a rift between the way that I played and the way I composed. While, as a player, I was interested in extended techniques1A broad term meaning any non-traditional way of producing sound on the instrument. For the saxophone, this would include multiphonics, air sounds, buzzes, slap tongue, circular breathing, etc and the saxophone as a creator of “sound” and not just “pitch”, my compositional world was basically an exploration of cool rhythms with cool melodies and harmonies. Not that there was anything wrong with that! But, as someone who believed that there should be a continuum between my compositional language and my improvisational language, I set out to try to bring those syntaxes closer together. To do this, I turned to studying scores of classical music from the 20th and 21st centuries – composers in the contemporary classical world have been dealing notating extended techniques for a long time, and there were notational precedents for many of the techniques that I was using.
One result of this journey has been a series of pieces called Idiom, of which there are now six. Each of the Idiom pieces focuses on a specific woodwind extended technique which I took from my own improvisational language. I wanted to use the physicality of my instruments as the foundation for these works, and to use timbre as an organizing force that was as structurally important as rhythm, melody, or harmony. Idiom II, from my 2019 septet album Clockwise, deals with ventings on the saxophone (i.e., holding a key open on the instrument while moving my other fingers normally, creating a quirky microtonal melody). Idiom I, III, IV, and V are written for my Simple Trio, which features myself alongside drummer John Hollenbeck and pianist Matt Mitchell. If you’ve seen this band play in the last year and a half or so, you’ve seen us perform these pieces. Idiom VI is for a twelve-piece large ensemble of mixed instrumentation. At sixty minutes in length over six movements (plus four interludes), Idiom VI is the longest of the Idioms, and is likely the final piece of the series. This piece was premiered earlier this year at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, as part of John Zorn’s Stone Commissioning Series.
I’d like to focus a little on Idiom VI, as a way of highlighting both my compositional process and the way I sought to create music that codified and notated my improvisational language.
The instrumentation of Idiom VI is as follows:
tenor saxophone/flute/bass flute (this is me)
tenor saxophone/clarinet/contra-alto clarinet
horn in F
The specific extended technique I used as the foundation for this work is a series of dyad multiphonics2My multiphonic practice comes from research I’ve done on my own, through trial and error and a study of contemporary saxophone repertoire. There are plenty of books out there, but for anyone who’s interested in delving deeply into multiphonics, I highly recommend a personal cataloguing system based on what actually works on your own horn, with your set up. Additionally, I’d recommend that any non-saxophonist composer who is trying to write multiphonics for the saxophone should take all books with a grain of salt. Always ask the saxophonist you are working with if the multiphonic you want to use works on their horn, and, if it works, at what dynamic range, with what sort of attack, etc. that can be found on the tenor saxophone, all which form small intervals (minor seconds to major thirds). There’s a set of these that occur in the low range of the instrument, and a set of these that occur in the top octave.
These multiphonics manifest both literally and abstractly throughout the piece in a number of different contexts, which I’ll discuss later. However, given that I wasn’t writing a solo saxophone piece, the first step in my compositional process was meeting individually with almost every one of the musicians who would be performing this piece. I did this for a number of reasons. First, I think a huge advantage we have as jazz composers is that we usually play and hang out with the people we are writing for. We’re not writing for “orchestra” or “string quartet” in the abstract, we’re writing for a specific set of people who are our bandmates and friends. Incorporating as much as we can about their specific personalities in our compositions will not only make them feel happy and involved in the process, it will also make the music stronger. Second, there were a number of instruments in this ensemble that I’d never written for before, or hadn’t written for much. I wanted to learn more about these instruments so that I could make more informed compositional decisions, with information coming from real-life experiences rather than from whatever Samuel Adler’s The Study of Orchestration had to say (though I certainly used Adler as a tool as well!). When I met with people, I asked them these questions:
What do you like doing on your instrument? What do you think you sound good doing?
What sounds do you have that sound kind of like X (insert a specific sound I make on my instrument)?
What are some of your pet peeves, ie, what do people always write for your instrument that annoys you?
Pretty basic stuff, but those questions, plus a few extra questions tailored to specific instruments, got me pretty far in creating a list of things that excited me about each specific person and the instrument they played.
The next step was imagining a form for this piece. I knew I wanted to write a set-length composition, but I wasn’t sure I had it in me to write a single-movement piece of that duration. I decided I would conceive of this piece as a loose symphonic form: four movements, sonata form—adagio–minuet and trio/scherzo–rondo/allegro. I know that “writing a symphony” sounds pretentious, but to be honest, the real reason behind this idea was that it’s been a successful way of organizing a longer piece of music for centuries. I officially discarded the symphonic form mid-way through composing, but it unofficially snuck its way back in, and the final form of the piece is sort of double symphonic form. Each of the six movements has a pair. Movement I = Movement IV (and both are very loosely in sonata form), II=V (both are the groovy “dance” movements, an abstract interpretation of the minuet), and III=VI (scherzo and rondo, respectively). The interludes function collectively as the adagio movements.
So, the multiphonics – how did they factor in? Basically, I thought of as many ways of generating material from these as I could. I wrote out pages and pages of ideas. First, there was the literal use of the multiphonics. I wrote the multiphonics into my parts, and I orchestrated the multiphonics across the ensemble, or figured out what made a similar effect to the multiphonic on different instruments. On a stringed instrument, for example, a double-stop sounds like a multiphonic, but the resonance might not totally match that of a saxophone multiphonic unless open strings are used. When I expanded my research to include multiphonics that are possible on other woodwinds, I discovered that alto saxophone multiphonics and bass flute multiphonics actually have a lot of overlap! I also treated the multiphonics as generators of pitch material: I made scales from them, and I created chords. Additionally, by figuring out the frequencies of the pitches in the higher multiphonics in Hz, I figured out the difference tones3Difference tones are psychoacoustic phenomena – you’ve experienced them if you have felt a buzzing in your ears/heard a resultant low pitch when you heard two high-pitched instruments holding notes in their upper register. To find the difference tone of two pitches, you simply subtract the frequency (in Hz) of the lower pitch from that of the higher. created by the multiphonics, and generated more scales and chords from these. I also used the intervals of the multiphonics to generate rhythm: some of the multiphonics created just intervals4I.e., just intonation, as opposed to equal temperament. Just intervals can be expressed as simple integer ratios, such as 3:2, 4:3, 11:8, etc., and so I translated those into rhythm, both on a micro scale (polyrhythms) and also on a macro scale (overall rhythmic grid). I also treated the multiphonics abstractly. I considered a multiphonic conceptually, as two things that combine to make a composite that is more than the sum of its parts. Taken a step further, thinking about a multiphonic as a “naturally occurring sound” on the instrument gave me license to include other naturally occurring sounds/extended techniques, both on my instrument and on the other instruments in the ensemble. This meant worlds opened up wherein I could create mysterious sonic combinations and orchestrations.
While I assume that most people reading this article have not heard Idiom VI, the core ideas here are things that are important to me, and which I think translate whether people are familiar with my work or not. As improvisers, we generate tons of material all the time, and I feel that it’s selling ourselves short if we don’t use the music that comes out of our own heads and hands as a starting place for composition. This doesn’t just have to mean extended techniques – that’s my world, and my language. My journey with this stuff felt like it began when I realized that the sonic worlds I inhabited as an improviser and a composer were pretty different. I feel like this approach has brought my compositional practice to another level, and that I’ve come closer to finding the center of my musical personality. Another advantage of using my improvisational language as compositional material, is that once I’ve written something down, asked other people to play it, and recorded it/sent it out into the world, it’s pretty difficult to use that language as a crutch when improvising! For me, this has meant growth as an improviser, as I’ve had to push forward into new territory past the language that I once relied on.
About the Author:
Anna Webber (b. 1984) is a New York-based flutist, saxophonist, and composer whose interests and work live in the overlap between avant-garde jazz and new classical music. Her most recent album, Clockwise, featuring a septet comprised of several of the most creative musicians working in New York’s avant-garde, was released on Pi Recordings (February 2019).
Webber’s other projects include her Simple Trio, with John Hollenbeck and pianist Matt Mitchell, and the Webber/Morris Big Band, co-led with saxophonist/composer Angela Morris. This ensemble will release its debut album, Both Are True, on Dave Douglas’ Greenleaf Music in April 2020. She has performed and/or recorded with projects led by artists such as Dan Weiss, Jen Shyu, Dave Douglas, Matt Mitchell, Ches Smith, John Hollenbeck, and Geof Bradfield, among others.
Webber is a 2018 Guggenheim Fellow. She has additionally been awarded grants from the Shifting Foundation (2015) and the New York Foundation for the Arts (2017), and residencies from Exploring the Metropolis (2019), MacDowell Colony (2017 and 2020), the Millay Colony for the Arts (2015), and the Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts (2014). In 2014 she won the BMI Foundation Charlie Parker Composition Prize as a member of the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop. Webber is originally from British Columbia.
My multiphonic practice comes from research I’ve done on my own, through trial and error and a study of contemporary saxophone repertoire. There are plenty of books out there, but for anyone who’s interested in delving deeply into multiphonics, I highly recommend a personal cataloguing system based on what actually works on your own horn, with your set up. Additionally, I’d recommend that any non-saxophonist composer who is trying to write multiphonics for the saxophone should take all books with a grain of salt. Always ask the saxophonist you are working with if the multiphonic you want to use works on their horn, and, if it works, at what dynamic range, with what sort of attack, etc.
Difference tones are psychoacoustic phenomena – you’ve experienced them if you have felt a buzzing in your ears/heard a resultant low pitch when you heard two high-pitched instruments holding notes in their upper register. To find the difference tone of two pitches, you simply subtract the frequency (in Hz) of the lower pitch from that of the higher.
This interview was conducted by Blog Curator JC Sanford
JC Sanford: Can you tell me a little bit about your experience in Japan growing up, and what ended up bringing you to the US?
Satoko Fujii: I was a super shy child who couldn’t go out and play with other kids. I even was not comfortable going to Kindergarten and asked my parents if I could quit. They put me in piano class instead because they thought it would be better for me not to stay at home all day long without any communication with other people. When our family moved to another town because of my father’s work, I was in the second semester of first grade. My mother encouraged me and said, “If you cannot introduce yourself in front of your classmates, they might not accept you. Speak your name clearly and loudly and tell them what you feel.” I did so, and I was accepted by my new classmates warmly and kindly. After that, I started being active and talkative. I have to say that since then, I have found out Japanese society back then wanted to have girls quiet and not to express their opinion. Well, I think probably the whole world is not so different because it has always been a male-dominated society.
Playing music was always my favorite thing to do, but I was not so good. In piano lessons, other students improved faster than me. I was always the last student who could play something. But I liked it very much. I wanted to become a musician even though I was not very good. I was rejected all the time, when I had an admission exam to enter the music high school, music college, etc. In high school, I started to listen to jazz because my classical piano teacher, who I respected a lot, loved jazz. And jazz made me question whether or not classical music is my music that I want to play and express myself through. I was 17 or 18 years old, and I noticed I couldn’t improvise at all if I didn’t have written music in front of me. I remembered I enjoyed improvising when I was little. I was so shocked and felt like I was a well-trained dog that can do anything if he/she was told. I stopped playing classical music and started to improvise. It was not easy. I had to stop playing piano and use my voice to improvise because playing piano itself limited my freedom due to my formal education. I didn’t play piano for a few years, but I went to many jazz clubs in Tokyo to listen to jazz then. One day I decided to go back piano. I love the playing of the great jazz pianist Fumio Itabashi, and his music inspired me to play piano again. I asked him for lessons and was able to study with him for a few years. Around then, I started playing piano professionally at a cabaret in Tokyo. Back then there were many cabarets and clubs that had live music. I played every night in a cabaret big band that had a different singer every night. It was a great training, and my bandmates said to me by doing this I would improve easily. But a year later, I was still the worst piano player in Tokyo! This way didn’t work, and I started thinking about going to some school where I could concentrate practicing. I seriously thought I don’t have enough talent and should quit, but I didn’t because I was not sure if I had worked hard enough yet. I gave myself one last chance. If I didn’t change after a year of school, I would quit. I looked for some schools in and out of Japan. There were not colleges that we could study jazz in Japan then, so I decided to go to Boston to study at Berklee in 1985.
JCS: We met at New England Conservatory as students playing in Allan Chase’s “Avant-Garde” Ensemble in 1995, which was a pretty transformative experience for me, although you already had quite a lot of experience in that kind of music before then. Do you recall much about being in that group?
SF: That was a lot of fun playing in Allan’s ensemble with you! I went back to the states to go to NEC after five years back in Japan. At Berklee I practiced and studied to emulate other great jazz musicians. I improved of certain degree and went back to Japan to have a professional career. Then I lost my motivation and started wonder if jazz is a music I really want to play. I mean jazz jazz as a style. I was playing already “free jazz” with [husband and trumpeter] Natsuki at jazz clubs in Tokyo, but I had no confidence what I did. We had heard about NEC and decided to go back to Boston again. I was very happy at NEC where I was encouraged to play music with my own voice. I could focus on not playing like someone else. So that ensemble class was a very good fit for me.
JCS: When I was at NEC, there were a lot of different kinds of students who studied with Paul Bley, but you seemed to connect with him in ways that really helped you develop your own personal thing. Can you talk about your relationship with him?
SF: For me, talking to him was a very special experience. I was already a professional musician when I studied with him but lacked something very important. I think that was confidence that I can accept myself as is. I could see myself clearly when I talked to him. This was not like other piano lessons about technique or music theory or whatever about music. I started looking at myself and accepted myself in ways that made me feel much better about expressing myself. He encouraged me to be myself, and this meant a lot for me. Paul Bley, who had been my favorite piano player, encouraged me!!
JCS: I got the chance to play in your big band a few times when you were still in Boston. That was also a really special experience for me, because I was so surprised how interestingly you mixed very simple tonal structures with very atonal ones. And I remembered you having solo changes in parts, but you weren’t really concerned whether or not the soloist stuck to them very closely (and maybe you may have even advised them not to at times?). And having heard your band several times since then, I still sense this as a hallmark of your music. How do you think about combining tonality and “atonality” and how the improviser fits into all of that?
SF: The more I play and make music, the more I noticed that I can do whatever I want. I feel free to go to “tonal” and/or “atonal”, also playing or having rests at any time. I don’t want to limit myself. Many “free jazz” improvisers don’t like playing some simple chords, melodies, and groove. I want to use anything I can use to make music. I like melodies, harmonies, and grove as well as some abstract textures. I would love to be completely free in making music. There are so many limits in society, but in music we can be totally free.
JCS: Obviously, you’re an incredibly prolific composer. Last year when you turned 60, you released one CD a month for the entire year. And I believe you told me you’ve released about 90 recordings over your lifetime. What drives you to continue to produce so many recordings? Do you have some sort of routine which allows you to generate so much material?
SF: If you look at just one project of mine, I am not so prolific. For example, I only released 11CDs of my NYC orchestra over 22 years. I just have many different projects. When I am at home, in front of the piano, I compose 15-20 minutes every day. I am not at my home so often, so this doesn’t actually mean 365 days a year, but by doing this, I can generate a lot of material and ideas that I can use for each of my projects.
JCS: Wait, are you saying that you’re disappointed that you only made 11 CDs with your NYC big band in 22 years? If so, wow, I’d say most big band leaders live a lifetime and don’t have 11 big band CDs as a leader! Have you made other big band CDs with your groups in Tokyo, Berlin, etc.?
SF: In my mind, the normal release pace might be one CD per year. 11 CDs by my orchestra NYC, 6 CDs by my orchestra Tokyo, 3 CDs by my orchestra Nagoya, 1 CD by my orchestra Kobe, and 2 CDs by my orchestra Berlin have been released. I push myself….
JCS: OK, so can you tell me more about how and why you developed this composing routine?
SF: When I was at Berklee, Chick Corea had a workshop there. He talked about composing training. This was long time ago, so my memory might be wrong, but I remember he said we musicians need to practice “composition skills” just like “piano technique.” Somehow I agreed. Some people think melodies, harmonies, and rhythms are coming down from the sky to talented people. But they don’t come every day. When I compose, I feel like I am looking for something that is already there. There are so many choices to make music, but for me there is only one right note at a particular time, and I look for this right one. Sometimes I spend 15 minutes to find one note. But I really enjoy the process.
JCS: Can you talk about some of your compositional influences? Anyone who melds together improvisation and predetermined composition that set you down that path? Or composers in other styles?
SF: I am sure I get influenced by all of the music I have heard, but I especially like [Charles] Ives’s compositions.
JCS: Did you take the Charles Ives class [taught by John Heiss] when you were at NEC? Is that how you got interested? That class changed how I hear music and was a huge influence in my writing, as well.
SF: Yes, I took that class. It was great. I noticed music sounds different if we listen to it with someone who loves and understands it well. I love his symphonies, but I’m not a big fan of the songs.
JCS: You’ve been an incredible traveler with your music. And you’ve lived in various parts of the country, including Boston, New York, and Berlin, in addition to Japan. And you have versions of your big band in different places using local personnel. How do you manage personnel in that scenario, and how do those different collections of players affect your compositions? I imagine that wide range of musical personalities really shapes your music in different ways depending on where it’s being played?
SF: I lived in different countries and now I somehow know we people are same even there are many differences in the society and culture. My big band projects also allow me to meet many musicians in different countries because I travel with my scores and lead large bands in the places where I travel. I love to hear all their individual voices. If I was satisfied with my music being played in one way only, I wouldn’t need to travel. I know that different kinds of musicians’ own voices make the music richer and more interesting. Last year, I got a chance to bring my large band score “Fukushima” and played it in Kiev, Ukraine, which is close to Chernobyl. Somehow I felt something very deep.
JCS: What’s next for you in 2020 and beyond?
SF: Natsuki and I have a whole day concert from 2 PM to 10 PM at the jazz club Pit Inn in Tokyo with five different projects on January 13. We are busy planning it right now. Right after that I tour with Tatsuya Yoshida in Japan for our new CD, Toh-Kichi “Baikamo.” Then Natsuki and I have a tour with our Quartet Kaze with Ikue Mori in Europe. We have five CDs waiting to be released by Natsuki’s trio Gato Libre, our duo, a trio with Ramon Lopez, a new quintet with Rafal Mazur, and my duo with vibraphone player Taiko Saito.
I started getting some new ideas to make a new solo recording, as well as a new Suite for Orchestra Tokyo. I like being busy.
About the Artist:
Critics and fans alike hail pianist and composer SATOKO FUJII as one of the most original voices in jazz today. She’s “a virtuoso piano improviser, an original composer and a band-leader who gets the best collaborators to deliver,” says John Fordham in The Guardian. In concert and on nearly 100 albums as a leader or co-leader, the globe-trotting Japanese native synthesizes jazz, contemporary classical, avant-rock, and Japanese folk music into an innovative music instantly recognizable as hers alone.
Since she burst onto the scene in 1996, Fujii has led some of the most consistently creative ensembles in modern improvised music. In 2013, she debuted the Satoko Fujii New Trio featuring bassist Todd Nicholson and drummer Takashi Itani, the first piano trio she has led since her trio with Mark Dresser and Jim Black last played together in 2009. The trio expanded into a quartet called Tobira with the addition of her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, in 2014. The all-acoustic Satoko Fujii ma-do quartet, together from 2007 to 2011, showcased the latest developments in her composition for small ensembles in an intimate acoustic setting. Another acoustic quartet, the Min-Yoh Ensemble with trumpeter Tamura, trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, and accordionist Andrea Parkins is dedicated to developing written and improvised music in the collective spirit of Japanese folkloric music. Fujii also led an electrifying avant-rock quartet featuring drummer Tatsuya Yoshida of The Ruins from 2001 to 2008.
Fujii has established herself as one of the world’s leading composers for large jazz ensembles, prompting Cadence magazine to call her “the Ellington of free jazz.” Since 1996, she has released a steady stream of acclaimed albums for jazz orchestras and in 2006 she simultaneously released four big band albums: one from her New York ensemble, and one each by three different Japanese bands. In 2013 she debuted the Satoko Fujii Orchestra Chicago at the Chicago Jazz Festival. In 2015, she released a CD by her new Satoko Fujii Orchestra Berlin and worked with orchestras in Oakland, California and Bielefeld, Germany.
In addition to playing accordion in Tamura’s Gato Libre, Fujii also performs in a duo with Tamura, as an unaccompanied soloist, with the international quartet Kaze, and in ad hoc groupings with musicians working in different genres. Her special projects have included collaborations with ROVA saxophone quartet, violinist Carla Kihlstedt, pianist Myra Melford, bassist Joe Fonda, and Junk Box, a collaborative trio with Tamura and percussionist John Hollenbeck. She and bassist Joe Fonda have established a fruitful duo as well.
With 2016 marking her 20th year in creative music, Fujii performed solo concerts once a month in cities around the world, her duo with Tamura performed with special guests, and she presented concerts with her small and large ensembles, past and present.
During her 60th birthday year in 2018, a milestone known as Kanreki in Japan, Fujii celebrated by releasing one new CD a month. In keeping the Kanreki tradition of reflecting on the past while looking forward to the future, the 12 albums included releases by groups that Fujii has led or been part of for years, such as Kaze, Orchestra Berlin, Orchestra Tokyo, and her duo with Joe Fonda, as well as new groups and collaborations with Australian keyboardist Alister Spence; Mahobin, a cooperative quartet featuring Lotte Anker, Ikue Mori, and Natsuki Tamura; a quartet featuring percussive dancer Mizuki Wildenhahn; and others. Her newest working trio, This Is It!, made its recorded debut, as well.
“Whether performing with her orchestra, combo, or playing solo piano, Satoko Fujii points the listener towards the future of music itself,” writes Junichi Konuma in Asahi Graph. Fujii’s ultimate goal: “I would love to make music that no one has heard before.”
When I was invited to prepare a post for this blog, I started sketching out ideas; the result was several pages of random notes that could have filled a book if each was fully developed. It became clear I needed to focus, so I decided to zero in on what has been occupying my thoughts most recently – my new CD release Mike Holober & The Gotham Jazz Orchestra: Hiding Out. Beyond the (admittedly) self-serving goal of promoting the record, this will provide a convenient framework for discussing some of the ideas that have shaped my approach to jazz orchestra writing over the years.
I first got hooked on writing for jazz orchestra in the 1980s, when I was teaching at Binghamton University, which had a very good big band. The hook was further set at the Eastman Arrangers Festival during the summer of 1986, where I spent several priceless weeks with Manny Albam and Ray Wright (I remain friends with many of the people I met at the workshop that summer).When I moved to New York City in the early 90’s I enrolled in the BMI Jazz Composer’s Workshop (with Manny Albam, Jim McNeely, and Roger Kellaway at the helm), and I realized that writing was going to be a big part of my musical life (though I had not anticipated that it would take over completely at times!). I decided that I should form my own big band, and The Gotham Jazz Orchestra was born. We had a good run: we released our first CD in 2004 (Thought Trains) and a second in 2009 (Quake). However, sustaining a 17-piece jazz orchestra takes a lot of focus, and other opportunities started to take precedence.
In 2007, I was invited to serve as artistic director of the Westchester Jazz Orchestra, a position I held until 2013. This was an exciting opportunity, and a valuable learning experience. Under my tenure, we commissioned over 140 new arrangements for jazz orchestra (almost 50 of them mine), which we performed to sell-out crowds at our home theater in Irvington New York. We also released a critically acclaimed recording titled Maiden Voyage Suite, featuring newly commissioned arrangements of the tunes from Herbie Hancock’s seminal recording, formatted as a seamless set-length work. It remains one of my favorite projects with WJO.
Despite the organization’s success, WJO came to an end when it faced staffing difficulties (as not-for-profit organizations often do), but by this time I had already begun working with the German radio big bands (hr-Bigband in Frankfurt, and WDR Big Band in Cologne), which kept my pencil busy for many years. I had also started working as Associate Director of the BMI Jazz Composer’s Workshop with Jim McNeely, which gave me an opportunity to read through hundreds of charts by some very gifted writers, which was as much a learning experience for me as it was for them.
In his recent post, Jim McNeely wrote that the best way to learn big band writing is to write, listen, evaluate, and repeat – and I really got a chance to practice this method during this period! I like to tell my own students when they are about to dive into their first jazz orchestra piece that the learning curve is steep – they should really write two, because they will learn so much from the first one. I remember that my first chart (written in a euphoric-rush-of-inexperienced-adolescent-writer-frenzy) ended up in the circular file; the second one, an arrangement of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” actually worked. Write, listen, evaluate, and repeat – wise advice indeed.
The sheer volume of commissions I was working on during this period (often full-length concerts) forced me to hone my craft, while the challenge of working with such a diverse range of musical personalities and temperaments also taught me a great deal about the role of the arranger and conductor as artistic collaborator, diplomat, and psychologist, all rolled into one!
When arranging someone else’s music, it is necessary to maintain a balance between the voice of the composer, the arranger, and the performing artist. But I also believe that for an arrangement to be really good, it should sound as if it was originally written for that exact instrumentation – and sometimes this means that the original composition must “grow” some new music (intro, interlude, tag anyone?). Of course, this depends on the original material; when writing for Miguel Zenon, for example, some of his quartet lead sheets were very detailed in form (already approaching 300 measures), making me less inclined to add new music. But for others (such as Al Foster, or Eli Degibri), their shorter forms invited a deeper collaboration, allowing the arranger’s voice to assert itself in a way that complimented the original intent, enhancing the message of the tune. When an arrangement is completed, I strive to hear from the composer: “I love what you did with my music.”
Hiding Out In spite of my busy schedule as an arranger, I did manage to continue working on my own compositions — and this is the work that is the focus of my new CD Mike Holober & The Gotham Jazz Orchestra: Hiding Out (ZOHO, 2019). The two featured works, Hiding Out and Flow, are in extended form, with multiple movements. Perhaps my classical background was in my thoughts, or maybe I was just trying to get away from the idea of stand-alone medium length works — but I found myself thinking in large form multi-movement works, with no agenda about length, radio air-play, or jazz club suitability versus concert setting.
I was also very fortunate to have what I refer to as a “perfect storm” of compositional opportunity to write these pieces. This means a commission for an excellent ensemble, an artist colony residency where I could focus on the creation of the work, and a suitable premiere setting.
Hiding Out was commissioned for The Gotham Jazz Orchestra by The Philadelphia Museum of Art (funded by the Pew Foundation), and was first performed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was composed during a residency at the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming (my cabin was called “Jesse’s Hide Out”), and was inspired by the beauty of its setting. Flow was commissioned by the Westchester Jazz Orchestra (with funding from a NYSCA Grant), and was premiered by WJO in an Americana-themed concert at Irvington Town Hall. It was composed at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where I stayed in the cabin that Aaron Copland worked on Appalachian Spring, and Leonard Bernstein worked on his Mass. The ghosts of these two great American composers no doubt influenced the resulting composition.
To demonstrate some of the ideas that have shaped my writing process, I have selected the opening passage of “Tear of the Clouds,” from the first movement of Flow, as an example. I will focus my comments on two basic elements: motivic development, and orchestration. Igor Stravinsky said “Good composers borrow, great ones steal,” and I hope this analysis will give readers something worth stealing.
When I first started to compose I was familiar with the concept of motivic development, but I didn’t take it seriously enough. Now I can’t get enough of it. There are so many compositional devices that can be used to develop a motif (transposition, re-harmonization, augmentation, inversion, retrograde), that the possibilities are endless. This not only provides a constant source of material, but also gives a composition structural logic.
Orchestration plays vital role in motivic development. Ravel refers to orchestration as a device for revealing form (nowhere is this more obvious than in his Bolero). The way a composer assigns notes to an instrument is integral to the development of the work. I often think about orchestration as being like a painter’s palette – mixing colors, blending edges. This applies especially to a woodwind and mutes passage (as in the sample I analyze below): As you add instruments and colors on the top of the harmony (the melody?), it doesn’t double in volume, but instead becomes slightly more colored and pronounced. If there is a Bb (a 7th above middle C), and it is orchestrated for a unison of flute, cup-muted trumpet, and clarinet, it is easily balanced by single voices underneath; add guitar, and it becomes a little warmer; add flugelhorn and it smooths it out — or 1 harmon-muted trumpet to put a little buzz on it, or piano 8va to light it up or pop it out; or even add all of these at once – it’s barely getting louder – you are just using your palette to color the top and influence the expression of the music.
In my arranging classes, I often tell students to exercise their minds by making an “orchestration structures” list, designed to help them think about the range of their timbral palette. Saxes unison with brass hits — that’s the idea! Now make a quick list of 30 different combinations! Keep in mind that only some of them should have everyone playing. Would the voices be balanced if they all play the same dynamic — in other words is there a registration balance? What is the natural or organic “power” of each voice in the range it is written?
Now let’s look at the excerpts!
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#1 M 37 – M 44
This is the entire main theme. Here, in its first presentation it is 8 bars. The first two bars are so strongly suggestive of the theme that this fragment alone is all that is needed to be obvious about the source material. Once this is “programmed” into the listener’s ear, even just a strong rhythm such as that of bar 38 is enough to suggest the main theme. This is the essence of motivic development.
The piccolo is very evocative — of isolation, peace, youth, simplicity, innocence — and its unique sonic imprint in the low register is easily recognizable. When it returns much later in the work, the timbral recognition gives clarity to a very long and formally sinuous movement. The listener knows where they have ended up after being taken on a long journey.
The harmony here is in shifting minor modes – natural, harmonic, and melodic – with the 6th and 7th becoming variable. The success of this shifting modality is perhaps related to the “classical” difference in the ascending and descending melodic minor. M 37 is in B minor; view the F natural in the piano as a “blue” note with little harmonic meaning, especially since the root is not present.
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# 2 M 18 – M 29
Yes, the excerpts are out of order (I thought it best to show the main theme at M 37 first). One of my favorite techniques is to take a theme and cut it up like a jigsaw puzzle, scatter the pieces over a score, and then assemble them. These theme fragments can also provide material for general use anywhere else in the piece. This is a technique I commonly use to create intros for arrangements of other composers’ music (especially if the music is fairly modern) – a kind of “deconstruction” or “cubist” look at the subject. An example of this is the arrangement I wrote for the hr-Bigband with Kurt Rosenwinkel playing his tune “Star of Jupiter,” in which I use fragments of the bridge to form an intro:
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# 3 M 51 – M 52 Here we have the first 2 bars of the theme — the rhythm is the same, but the melody is a slight variation. The soli voicing is in clusters; the melodic palette is in 3 octaves (flute, trumpet in cup, with trumpet in bucket 8vb, and piano 8va). The 8va piano makes it “pop,” and there is enough melodic weight to hear the melody clearly through the density of the cluster.
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# 4 M 57 – M 63 Here we have the first 6 bars of the theme, which is then interrupted by “new” material at M 63. The line is in 4-part harmony, in large dissonant intervals, but generated from the same modality. Notice how the instrumentation of this 4-part harmony crosses every section (a note of thanks to Duke Ellington for opening up these possibilities!). The piccolo part could be viewed as a 5th harmony, but I see it as overtone reinforcement of the melody (a technique directly stolen from Ravel!). The melodic palette is flute, and piano, and the trombones comp a little.
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# 5 M 63 – M 69 Here there is a drastic shift in modality to Gb harmonic major. Note that in M 65 and M 68 the re-use of the motif immediately ties the new harmonic zone to the main theme. The soloist makes its first entrance as well, laying the sonic/character groundwork for future formal development.
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# 6 M 69 – M 76 This time, alto and tenor play the main theme in unison octaves — a more “throaty” and “heroic” statement. This is essentially two saxes in unison, with trombones comping. Here I use one of my pet techniques: instead of the trombones all hitting together, or bass trombone offset against 3 tenor trombones, they do a modified or “linear pyramid,” making the attack harp-like, or like finger-style guitar. Notice that in these “linear pyramids” players rarely attack alone, and all entrances are rhythmically easy. You can see other uses of this technique at M 81 – M 86, and at M 102.
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# 7 M 77 – M 81 In this section, the winds and mutes are gone, replaced by saxes and open brass. The power increases, as the orchestration evolves to the saxes and trumpets in soli with the trombones comping. The range here (as everywhere) is integral to the dramatic evolution of the piece.
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# 8 M 102 – M 109 Here we have soprano and alto in 3rds (more consonant and tonal), with trombones comping. A huge shift in mood happens, as functional chord changes add to the momentum. The music is no longer modal at this point.
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# 9 M 112 – M 119 Tutti! We made it! Real rhythmic unison in M 113 and M 115 – power it up!
[Side note: The common fear that writing full-ensemble soli is challenging and time consuming is a subject for an endless discussion unto itself. However, I’ll take this opportunity to point out that from M 37 – M 151 there is only a total of 12 measures where everyone is playing: M 77 – M 81 and M 112 – M 119.]
After this tutti, it is time to subtly release the tension of the big orchestration and let the solo emerge. Often after a loud passage like this (or a send-off), I’ll reduce the orchestration gradually to let the next section develop organically, rather than have a sudden shift. I think of this as “taping the seams” (as in putting up drywall); then spackle with some rhythmically smooth mid-register writing, and sand with a diminuendo!
Here at M 136 it is finally time to hand the compositional process over to Jason Rigby (the tenor soloist for whom “Tear of the Clouds” was written). Bob Brookmeyer suggests only getting to the solo by composing your way there – developing your information so that the solo occurs as a natural evolution of the composition. In this case it took me 4 and a half minutes to arrive at the solo – about a third of the way into the work.
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# 10 M 37 – M 151 For the context of how these nine fragments develop, here is the entire first section of the work in one continuous excerpt, starting from the first appearance of the main theme, and ending a little way into the tenor solo.
Mike Holober served as Artistic Director/Conductor of the Westchester Jazz Orchestra (WJO) from 2007-2013, and Associate Guest Conductor of the hr-Bigband (Hessischer Rundfunk – Frankfurt, Germany) from 2011-2015. With WJO he has written and conducted for Joe Lovano, Kate McGarry, John Scofield, John Patitucci, Randy Brecker, and Paquito D’Rivera. Projects with the hr-Bigband include writing and conducting for Kurt Rosenwinkel, Billy Cobham, Jane Monheit, Terje Rypdal, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Miguel Zenon, and a concert of the works of Frank Zappa. With the WDR Big Band(WestDeutsche Rundfunk – Cologne, Germany) he has written and conducted projects for Avishai Cohen/Eli Degibri and for legendary drummer Al Foster. He has also recently written a project for Eli Degibri with jazz orchestra and strings that was produced at the Israel National Opera House in Tel Aviv, as well as arrangements for WDR with Joshua Redman, a recent Stockholm Jazz Orchestra recording, and OJM (Portugal) with pianist Fred Hersch.
Mike has recently returned to the helm of his own stellar big band with the release of Mike Holober and the Gotham Jazz Orchestra: Hiding Out(ZOHO, 2019). This double CD features two extended form compositions: Hiding Out, commissioned for The Gotham Jazz Orchestra by The Philadelphia Museum of Art (funded by the Pew Foundation) and Flow, commissioned by The Westchester Jazz Orchestra (funded by a NYSCA Individual Artist’s Grant). The recording also includes an arrangement of Jobim’s “Caminhos Cruzados,” a WJO commission that was written as a feature for trumpet master Marvin Stamm. Other featured artists on Hiding Out include Billy Drewes, Jason Rigby, Scott Wendholt, Adam Kolker, Jon Gordon, Steve Cardenas, and Jesse Lewis.
Mike was a 2017-18 recipient of a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works Grant for Don’t Let Go, which was premiered at Symphony Space (the Leonard Nimoy Thalia) in June 2018. Structured as a song-cycle in the tradition of Robert Schumann, Samuel Barber, and Ralph Vaughn-Williams, Don’t Let Go was written for Mike’s octet Balancing Act, whose eponymous premiere recording was released in 2015 (Palmetto). The recording features Mike’s original compositions and lyrics, with Kate McGarry, Dick Oatts, Jason Rigby, Marvin Stamm, Mark Patterson, John Hebert, and Brian Blade.
In addition to his 6 records as a leader, Mike can be heard as a sideman on over 70 recordings. He has performed with or had his works performed and recorded by numerous ensembles, including The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, Zagreb JazzOrkestar, The Gotham Wind Symphony (where he is Composer-In-Residence), UMO, RTV Big Band Slovenia, The Airmen of Note, The Army Blues, The Tim Ries Rolling Stones Project, John Patitucci, Jason Rigby, Marvin Stamm, The Prism, American, and NY Saxophone Quartets, and many others.
Mike is a Full Professor at The City College of New York, and is a five-time MacDowell Fellow, Ucross Foundation Fellow and Yaddo Guest. He also teaches composing and arranging at The Manhattan School of Music. From 2007 – 2015 he served as Associate Director of the BMI Jazz Composer’s Workshop, (founded by legendary jazz composers Bob Brookmeyer and Manny Albam), where he taught with Musical Director Jim McNeely.
I recently lurched into my 70th year–my eighth decade (sobering words to write!). Yes, “age is just a number,” I know. But 70 has caused me to pause and reflect on some of my experiences, and more importantly, what I’ve learned from them. There is one overriding theme: every time my age would hit a “Big X-0 (4-0, 5-0, etc.)” I would get a sense of not only how much I had learned, but also how much more I didn’t know. With each new decade I felt that both the “knowns” and “unknowns” had increased. In reaching the “Big 7-0” I think I’ve learned an incredible amount, yet I’m awestruck by all that’s left to learn.
Growing up on the north side of Chicago, I knew little about jazz until I was about 13. I had taken piano lessons since the age of six. My teacher, Bruno Michelotti, also taught me theory, saxophone and clarinet. Being a nice Catholic boy, I was considering two different Catholic high schools. One Sunday afternoon I saw the “stage band” from Notre Dame High School in Niles on a local television broadcast. Something in me said “yes!” I entered NDHS as a freshman in 1963. Little did I know where that would take me.
In my sophomore year my father bought me Russ Garcia’s The Professional Arranger Composer. I devoured it; I learned so much about theory, voicings, and melodic writing from this book. From that I got the idea to write a big band arrangement. My band director was Rev. George Wiskirchen, who was one of the premier big band educators in the Chicago area. It was my fortune to be in his school; and he encouraged me to write that arrangement (he was also the first person to tell me to “comp” behind a soloist). I found an Ernie Wilkins blues head called Blues Go Away. I wrote a five-chorus arrangement: unison sax melody, sax soli melody, solo chorus with background, shout chorus, and out melody. I’ll never forget the first reading: sax melody, fine; sax soli: when they first burst into 5-part harmony I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. I thought, “Garcia was right, that’s how you do it!” Solo chorus and background, passable. Shout chorus was an unmitigated disaster. Out chorus, fine. I thought, “The stuff that sounds good I’ll keep doing; the stuff that sounds bad, I’ve gotta find a different way.” That process has continued through today.
In spite of the shout chorus disaster, Father George was encouraging. I went on to write six or seven more big band arrangements while in high school. I got to study a few scores along the way (including copying parts from a few of Oliver Nelson’s original pencil scores). The learning continued. One time I brought in Freak Out!, the first album by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. I played a couple of cuts for Fr. George. My adolescent mind thought “This will really bug him, heh-heh.” He looked at me and said, “Why don’t you write something like that for the band?” Completely called my bluff. And I wrote! He also had me and my friend Nick Talarico write music for the school’s marching band. One show featured a medley of She’s Only a Bird In a Gilded Cage, segueing into Coltrane’s treatment of My Favorite Things (I got those sousaphones pumping!). Along with having to deal with challenges like this, I also got my first invaluable experience writing to a deadline.
In 1966 I heard the University of Illinois Big Band at the Collegiate Jazz Festival at Notre Dame University. Again, something in me said “Yes!” So in 1967 I entered the U. of I. School of Music. There was a student in the graduate program there named Jim Knapp. He was writing some gorgeous music for big band, both original compositions and arrangements of standards. I was so intimidated by him I didn’t write a note until he got his degree and left for Seattle (where he still resides, still writing remarkable music). I was encouraged by John Garvey, the director of the U. of I. Jazz Band. Again, some things worked, some things didn’t. As a composition major, I was studying with Morgan Powell, a wonderful composer and trombonist who was writing music deep in the cracks between jazz and contemporary classical chamber music. The music I wrote as part of our lessons was mostly for mixed ensembles. Along with classes in counterpoint and fugue, I was able to take classes in ancient and medieval music, African music and Persian classical music. I studied Balinese gamelan music and serial composition. So much music in the world!
With both my high school and university experiences, I was lucky: there was no one there to tell me “you can’t do this”; “you’re not supposed to do that.” And I learned that, as with my piano playing, the more I did it, the better it sounded. I made decisions faster. I developed more options. Took more chances.
I recently finished writing the forward to a remarkable book called Bob Brookmeyer in Conversation with Dave Rivello (coming out soon on ArtistShare). In it Bob imparts his general advice for composers: “Write music.” Two words. My early experiences taught me that you learn to write music by writing music. You can glean information from scores, teachers, recordings, and peers. It’s all there, good and important. But unless you write, you will never grow.
Here is the basic process:
Write some music
Hear your music played
Evaluate your music
Repeat 1, 2, & 3
To flesh this out:
1) Composition; composer. These are loaded words in Western culture. We are told that composition is difficult. We are told that Bach, Beethoven, etc. were THE GREAT MASTERS. Okay, they actually were, along with a lot of other folks, but that doesn’t take the rest of us out of the picture. If I tell my non-musician neighbors that I write music, their response is “oh, nice”. If I tell other neighbors that I am a composer, gasps and “oh-wows” ensue. Forget that nonsense. Composition essentially requires courage, bolstered by confidence. Confidence in the note I’m putting on the paper. Confidence that I can follow that note with another one. Confidence that my musical ideas are valid simply because they are there. Confidence that my musical ideas are valid on their own terms, not in comparison with anyone else, no matter how much I may admire them. Confidence that I have the tools to shape and develop my ideas. Confidence in my ability to get the piece finished and played. The last four “confidences” might take time to achieve. But the first–confidence that this one note must go on the paper, and I’ll find another to follow or precede it–is crucial. And that confidence comes from doing, doing, doing and doing.
2) If you want to write music for human players, you must hear your music played by human players (duh). Computer playback is simply not good enough. Having your music played live is the only way to develop gut feelings about balance, timbre, density, range, and playability. Have it played in a reading session; better yet a real rehearsal, or a composition workshop. Ideally, rehearse it to the point where it can be performed. More than once. Your music will start to tell you what it wants and needs.
3) Listen to what you’ve written and evaluate it with absolute, brutal honesty. What sounds the way you thought it would? What sounds different? Why? Sometimes a student will tell me “That’s what I’m hearing.” Is it really? Maybe that’s what you kinda, sorta thought it might sound like. Or maybe you were thinking, but not really hearing anything at all. A defensive attitude will just get in your way.
4) Repeat—as often as you can.
Writing, Learning, Writing, Learning
When I moved to New York City in 1975 I had little thought of pursuing a writing career. I wanted to play the piano. Meet people. Play with some of the well-known bands at the time. When I joined Thad Jones/Mel Lewis in 1978 I thought, “I’m playing this great music of Thad’s, and Bob Brookmeyer’s. Who am I to write for this band?” That changed the next year when Thad left to live in Denmark, and Brookmeyer came in as musical director of the newly-titled Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra. Bob knew I wrote small group music, and I tried to talk a good game about writing for big bands. He encouraged me to write something for Mel. So I did. We rehearsed it, and actually attempted to play it on a few Mondays. It was dreadfully overwritten. But Bob heard a few things of value, and said, “Write another one.” That’s one of the greatest things I’d ever heard in my life! So I did. The second one was a little better. Around this time I had one of the greatest arranging lessons ever. Mel had hired a French Horn player and wanted me to write her some horn parts. Kendor Music sent me ten scores of Thad’s (this was the pre-Inside the Score era). I had to really analyze what he did in order to squeeze in another note between the trumpets and the trombones. I felt like a whole world had opened up. I no longer just thought I heard what was in his writing, I actually saw it, and got my hands on the piano to play it. I began to sense that until then I had really been writing piano music, merely transferring it to the score paper. “This C# is in the range of a trumpet, I guess I’ll put it in trumpet 3.” Now I was starting to hear a band when I wrote. The piano became more a medium through which I would hear the ensemble, not simply a piano. This was a gradual process that took many years to mature, but it started with writing those French Horn parts.
I learned other lessons from musicians in Mel’s band. I’d brought in one piece, and at the rehearsal lead trumpeter Earl Gardner said, ”McNeely, you’ve got to give us some time to rest.” I said, “Well, after the head you guys don’t play for a long time.” Earl said, “No, it’s that when we’re playing, we need to get the horns off our faces some of the time.” My semester of trumpet class at the U. of Ill. hadn’t prepared me for this! In another arrangement I started with flügelhorns going up to a double high F#. After passing out the parts the trumpet players laughed. Again, Earl: “McNeely, do you really want this?” Not really knowing what I wanted, of course I said “Yes, it is.” “Okay!” We played it. I immediately understood the hilarity and re-wrote the intro.
My time with Mel’s band (’79-’84) afforded me another incredible arranging lesson: to sit at the piano every Monday, playing such great music. Hearing the harmonies; the inner voices (especially first tenor, closest to the piano); Thad’s rhythmic language; Brookmeyer’s cranky harmonies. I loved it all, week after week. It was learning by osmosis. Write—hear—evaluate—repeat.
My working with Brookmeyer led to five years of writing and conducting music for the WDR Big Band in Cologne, Germany. I had pretty much carte blanche with them. I wrote a lot of original music, some for soloists like John Scofield, David Liebman and Phil Woods, and some without a “name” soloist. I was able to try so many new ideas, and get immediate feedback, from the musicians and from my own listening. For one project I realized that brass mutes were a big mystery to me. So I threw caution to the wind and just went for it. Every arrangement had different combinations of mutes, and a lot of woodwinds. Most of it worked, some of it didn’t. And I learned a lot. Write—hear—evaluate—repeat.
Being “of a certain age” I came up writing with pencil and paper. I’m glad I did. Pencil, paper and keyboard get my hands on the music. The process is physical and tactile. One time, years ago, I decided to try composing directly on the computer. I felt like I was looking at the music through a window—like visiting someone in prison. I decided I wanted to be in touch with the music. I’ve since learned the value and role of the computer, especially with all the writing I do for European ensembles. I do the final stages of scoring in Finale. But the beginning and middle of the process are done with a pencil—I love the feel of the paper and the smell of the eraser. I love the anticipation of looking at blank pages of a large-format music manuscript book—wow, what’s going to happen here? No bar lines, no systems—plenty of room to let the imagination flow. Before I know it, it’s filled with scribbles. I use some, I don’t use others. But they are all part of the overall process. A leads to B leads to C leads to D…..leads to R. I might continue on to W, but then decide to stay with R. But R would not exist without A-Q and S-W.
People who’ve studied with me know that I am very big on planning a piece. The shape. The form. The color. The surface sound. But I’ve also learned to be flexible in those regards. In 1993 Jon Faddis asked me to arrange a program of songs from the Benny Goodman repertoire for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. One of tunes was Louis Prima’s Sing, Sing, Sing. Goodman’s original version featured a free duet between himself and drummer Gene Krupa. For the mid-‘30’s this was quite an advanced concept. Thinking of this, as well as the duos that John Coltrane played with Elvin Jones or Rashied Ali on drums, I wanted to feature David Liebman on soprano sax and Victor Lewis on drums. Using Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall recording as a loose model, I carefully planned my arrangement. I composed call-and-response figures for the band, with Lewis answering. Then Liebman would solo, followed by a similar composed call-and-response section with him. I orchestrated the drum solo section and started sketching the section for Lieb. That’s when the phone rang.
The copyist, rightfully concerned about the approaching deadline, told me, “I need the score tomorrow.” I promised her I would overnight the score that evening. I hoped the FedEx guy would come at 8. He showed up at 7. My wife scrambled to put together the envelope and mailing label. I quickly scribbled “4 bars Lieb, 4 bars band answers; 2 bars Lieb, 2 bars band” into the score, then “copy mm. 180-195” and tacked a final bar onto the score. Folded it up, put it in the envelope and sent it off. I felt that I had really blown it, because I wouldn’t get a chance to show off my carefully crafted section for David.
It turned out that the arrangement as finally written and performed at Carnegie was tremendously exciting. Building off of the orchestrated drum passage, Lieb and the band screamed through the whole final section. Most of the audience went wild, and some walked out. I was thrilled with both reactions. Thanks to the copyist and the FedEx guy, I got my first Grammy nomination with this arrangement. More importantly, I learned that sometimes it’s possible to over-think, and over-plan. It’s jazz. Always consider the balance between the pre-written and the improvised. The piece isn’t about me. It’s about the music. Write—hear—evaluate—repeat.
Sing, Sing, Sing Excerpts (Carnegie Hall, 1993)
These experiences, along with countless others, helped shape me as a composer, arranger, and teacher. I had band directors who made time for student composer/arrangers. Teachers who knew the value of a few encouraging words as opposed to a whole mouthful of discouragement. Feedback from musicians playing my music. Copying parts from other people’s scores. The value of both hearing, and later saying “Write another one.” I was fortunate to be in situations where I could ask “What if?”, instead of “Am I allowed to…?”. Where it was okay to take risks, and at the same time accept and learn from the results. I learned that I didn’t know everything, and that’s okay. That I needed to listen honestly to my writing, then act on what I heard. That I had to acknowledge my weaknesses, not as failings but as part of being human—it was up to me to strengthen them. That not everyone will love what I do. And as important as thinking, mulling, stewing, and planning are, action—doing—overrides them all.
Speaking of doing, I’ve got a lot more writing to do; so it’s time to get back to my studio. A deadline is fast approaching, with six arrangements due. Time for more action.
About the Author:
Jim McNeely was born in Chicago, moving to New York City in 1975. In 1978 he joined the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. He spent six years as a featured soloist with that band and its successor, Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra (now The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra). 1981 saw the beginning of Jim’s 4-year tenure as pianist/composer with the Stan Getz Quartet. From 1990 until 1995 he held the piano chair in the Phil Woods Quintet. At the present time, he leads his own tentet, his own trio, and he appears as soloist at concerts and festivals worldwide.
Jim’s reputation as composer/arranger and conductor for large jazz bands continues to flourish and has earned him ten Grammy nominations. In 1996 he re-joined The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra as pianist and Composer-in Residence. He is also chief conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. Other recent work includes projects with the Danish Radio Big Band (where he was chief conductor for five years), the Metropole Orchestra (Netherlands), the Swiss Jazz Orchestra, and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. The New York Times has called his writing “exhilarating”; DownBeat has said that his music is “eloquent enough to be profound”. And he won a Grammy for his work on the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra’s “Monday Night Live at the Village Vanguard” on Planet Arts Records.
Jim has appeared as sideman on numerous recordings led by major artists such as Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Stan Getz, Bob Brookmeyer, David Liebman, Art Farmer, Robert Watson, and Phil Woods. He has numerous albums under his own name. The latest is the Grammy-nominated “Barefoot Dances and Other Visions”, with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band on the Planet Arts label (“superb…a feeling for arranging orchestral colors that is magical”—All About Jazz.com)
Teaching is also an important element of Jim’s work. He is on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music. He was involved with the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop for 24 years, including 16 years as musical director. He has appeared at numerous college jazz festivals in the U.S. as performer and clinician. He has also done clinics and major residencies at dozens of institutions in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand, and Egypt.
I recently revisited a magazine article I did on arranging over 30 years ago to see how germane it is to today’s world of scoring. Surprisingly, except for the fact that musical styles and industry practices have changed drastically (in the commercial advertising world we got paid to do demos and we recorded with live musicians), the basic tenants of presenting the fundamentals of arranging haven’t changed. Here’s an abridged and slightly updated version of that article.
BASIC TOOLS FOR BETTER ARRANGING
“As a young arranger, I was always searching for some work that actually described the process involved in making orchestral arrangements.“- Glenn Miller, 1943
Well, Glenn, we’re still looking for that one text that gives us the secrets and lays it all out for us.Unfortunately, that book will never exist, because arranging is an art that evolves hand-in-hand with music composition and technology; it is changing constantly.And, since it is an art, one can’t effectively break it down into hard rules and regulations.We can, however, list and explore the various musical techniques that one might use to get a working knowledge of the field.It doesn’t matter if you use a pencil and score paper or a mouse and a notation program, the principles and techniques still apply.“Okay, La Barbera, quit talking and show us some hip voicings.” Sorry Glenn, no voicings yet.So often, the novice assumes that the secrets of arranging lie in the chord voicings used by the various greats of the art. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have to learn what arranging is before we get to any of that. Here’s my definition of arranging:
Arranging, in music, is the art of giving an existing melody musical variety for a listening audience.
The composer gives us the melody and we, as arrangers, strive to give it variety. Henry Mancini has said, “The song is the thing, and the arranger’s function is to make it memorable, regardless of one’s personal feelings.”And variety, musical variety – is what makes the song memorable. This musical variety comes from our knowledge of the tools of arranging and how to use them. An arranger is very much like a magician.After presenting a melody to an audience we try musical sleight-of-hand to keep their attention, because if the audience can predict what’s going to happen next, we lose their attention and therefore are not as successful as arrangers.We’ll list some of those tools in a little while, but first I want to explain the last part of my definition – the audience.
As arrangers (or composers or performers for that matter) we are always dealing with an audience, whether real or imaginary. If we wrote or played music just for ourselves, it would not truly be a creative art. To be successful in the musical arts, one must always acknowledge the existence of a listener and create accordingly.It’s somewhat like the old riddle of “if atree falls on your Pro Tools Rig in the woods and there is no one around to hear it fall, does it make a sound?“Suffice it to say that with even one set of ears around, the whole event has an impact.It becomes memorable.I believe that the success of our great arrangers is partially due to their conscious or subconscious acknowledgement of a listening audience.So, if you think about it, the arranger’s job is to take a melody/song and play it for an audience for a certain length of time without boring them.If we played the same melody over and over with the same instruments for six minutes, with the same chord changes, they’d be searching for the rotten egg emoji.We have to give it variety and make it memorable so as to keep the audience’s attention.It’s just that simple.How we keep their attention shows our talent as arrangers.If we wanted to break down my definition into rules or commandments of arranging, we’d arrive at something like the following.
Rule 1: Thou Shalt Not Bore.
Strive to give the song or melody as much variety as necessary to capture and please an audience, while at the same time keeping the integrity of the composer’s musical idea.This is such a fine line – balancing one’s arranging techniques against the intent of the composer while maintaining a stamp of individuality – that it can take a lifetime to learn to do it consistently.
Rule 2: Know Thy Place.
We must always remember that, as arrangers, we’re subservient to the melody and must write accordingly.Unlike composers, we arrangers are not allowed the luxury of personal likes and dislikes when it comes to the melody or the musical style we have to work in.Disdain for a certain style or song shows through in your musical arrangement.(The hardest job I ever had was when Count Basie asked me to arrange Rubenstein’s “Melody In F”for his band.I didn’t care for the song as a Basie-style tune, and I stared at blank score pages for weeks.) We have to divorce ourselves from our musical prejudices, listen to all kinds of music, and be prepared to cover any style with sincerity.Remember what Hank Mancini said – “regardless of one’s personal feelings.”
Rule 3: Know Thy Boss.
Remember that we are ultimately working for someone else.When we take the job of arranger, we are not working for ourselves but for an audience with a composer or producer in between.We must strive to please both but fight like hell for the audience when confronted with a choice.I tell students that if I can get five percent of John La Barbera (a creative uniqueness or stamp of identity) in a chart, I’m more than pleased.The hardest pill to swallow is when you bring your finished masterpiece to a bandleader or producer and he/she immediately cuts out the hippest interlude you’ve ever written.All of us, no matter how famous we become, must be prepared to give up our most prized musical child at the whim of the client.The best advice I ever received from any arranging book was from Mancini’s Sounds And Scores [Cherry Lane].I underlined the last paragraph on page 1 in my copy:” …Finally, don’t fall in love with every note you write … Be prepared to eliminate anything that tends to clutter up your score, painful as it may be to do so.”Even if you are the composer /producer and it’s your record label featuring you as the artist, the audience is still the boss.Keep that in mind and you’ll find arranging decisions much easier to make.Now then, if you’re still with me, we’ll move on.
Rule 4: Know Thy Styles.
We must be familiar with the idiom in which we intend to place the melody.In simpler terms, if you have never listened to current pop styles like R&B, or Country Blues groove, etc., then you can’t successfully arrange a melody in those styles.Or, if you’ve never heard second line, you’ll be spinning your wheels when it comes time to cover that style.So, it’s obvious that if you aren’t familiar with a style of music, you can’t competently arrange in it.That seems pretty obvious, but I’ve seen students try to arrange a big band jazz chart who have never heard of Basie or listened to Stan, Woody or Duke.So, before we can become arrangers, we have to know our musical styles and learn what instruments, rhythms, and harmonies are basic to each idiom.
Now, let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of arranging by listing some of our tools and putting them in an arranging road case.These are what I call the five basic variations used in arranging, and we’ll get our roadie to pull them out one at a time and illustrate how each of them works.The devices in each category are just a starting point.I’m sure you’ll have your own ideas so add those as necessary.
1.Change the rhythm of the melody.Of course, no brainer.
2.Change the rhythmic feel; double time, half time etc.
3.Gradually speed up or slow down the tempo.
4 .Refrain from using one rhythm for any length of time.
5.Displace the melody relative to the bar line by a uniform value.
6.Change the meter 4/4 to 3/4.(My arrangement of “So What”is a good illustration)
Slightly varying the rhythm gives new life to the melody however, this is effective ONLY after you’ve stated the original.
The audience needs a reference before it recognizes a variation. I believe this is true for all of the variations we incorporate.
It’s been a common practice for years to go to double time for the blowing on a ballad and then back to the original tempo to take it out.Gradually speeding up and slowing down is a great device (Brad Mehldau and other groups have used this very effectively) but it takes some rehearsing.
Changing the meter is a great way to add variety.My arrangement of “So What”is a good illustration.
Then imply 4/4and eventually get there.
The next tool in our road case is
1.Substitute chord changes (reharmonization).
2.Change melodic modes (major to minor).
3.Use counterpoint to imply new harmonies.
4.Modulate to new keys, either subtly or drastically.
Every melody comes with its own harmony or set of chord changes, whether given or implied.If we change the harmony after our audience has heard and absorbed the original chord changes, we automatically create variety.So, the use of substitute chord changes, or reharmonization, is one device in the harmonic category. Another secret that seasoned writers share is that a new device introduced into the chart has effect, but the more devices or variations you add to a chart at the same time, the less impact each will have (i.e.modulating and using a substitute change for the new target key down beat…softens the impact).Keep this in mind when you aretempted to empty the whole road case of tools into the same section of a melody.As with all devices in arranging, we must remember that we are working for the song.Anything we add has to support the melody and not overpower it.I find that harmonic variation is the one tool that’s most overused by arrangers and is an area where we can get into the most trouble.Hip changes, used for the sake of being hip, rarely fit comfortably into a well-balanced chart.
Now that we have two arranging tools at our disposal.Let’s go on to another.I call the next device:
1.Vary the articulations of the melody.
2.Vary the dynamics of a phrase or section.
3 .Use ornaments, such as trills, turns, and grace notes.
4.Use pitch-bend or modulation.
5.Take advantage of the basic instrument mutes (plungers, straight mutes, hats, etc.) and combinations thereof (plunger wa-wa over straight mute, bucket over straight, cup in bucket, etc.).
6.Use effects that are unique to individual instruments, such as half valves, squeaks, flutter tongue, sub tone, etc.
Performance variations encompass quite a few items that we don’t always think of when doing an arrangement and, to me, is one of the most important tools we can use.I believe it’s what’s above & below the notes that make music and the uniqueness of an arrangement.
These are the performance techniques are the one uses when playing music – articulations (long, short, etc.), ornaments (turns, trills, shakes, flips, pitch-bend, vibrato, etc.), and dynamics (crescendo, decrescendo, subito p, sforzando, etc.).Using any of these performance devices in your arrangement is a sign of a seasoned writer. Just as an orchestra conductor studies all of the nuances of string bowing techniques, we must be familiar with all of the unique sounds and variances of each instrument in the band.
Mixtures of muted and open instruments is a wonderful way to add variety to an already stated melody…it adds color and the repetition of the melody is acceptable to an audience. The hat or derby is probably one of the most versatile mutes for brass but it has fallen out of favor these days.Muted brass in buckets produce wonderful colors.Look how a bone deep in the hat coupled with alto and trumpet creates a life like French horn sound at the end of the shout chorus.
Also, like Basie, using cresendi, subito p, and back and forth adds so much variety to the passage.
Here’s a link to the entire chart in case you want to check it out.
“What about chord voicings , aren’t you ever going to get to chord voicings like clarinet lead over two altos and two tenors?”
Sorry, Glenn, not yet.But that brings up an interesting point.People tend to interchange orchestration and voicing.They use the term voicing when they really mean orchestration and vice-versa.It’s very important to understand the difference.
When beginning students come to me with questions about arranging, the first thing they usually say is something like, “I’ve been working on this chart and I want to use this sax voicing but I’m not sure if it will sound.”Or, “Will this half step between the cellos and violas work?”This aspect of arranging, the voicing and orchestrating of chords , is just another tool in the art, but it always seems to attract the most attention.I guess it’s like a slick paint job on a Porsche – the most important parts are under the hood, but the paint job gets the attention, So, let’s clear this up right now.Voicing is the putting together of chords in a certain way, with the notes stacked in a certain order.Orchestration is simply what instruments are assigned to play the notes you included in the voicing.
4.Unisons & Octaves.
Let’s talk about voicings.We all should know the difference between a closed voicing and an open voicing, a cluster and an octave unison.Voicing techniques, especially in jazz, are usually the individuality stamp of the arranger.I would voice and orchestrate a certain passage differently from my colleagues.If we’ve listened enough to any idiom we can probably pick out the individual arrangers by their style and voicing techniques.Traditionally, a composer/arranger would give a sketch of his or her work to an orchestrator, who, in turn, would use standard rules for assigning the different musical lines and chords to conventional bodies of instruments.In today’s music, there are so many new instruments, recording techniques, and consolidations of music styles that there are fewer and fewer standard rules of orchestration.So what was once a separate trade has now become an additional, necessary skill of the arranger.
To recap, the voicing is the type of chord structure (unison, close, open, octave, unison, cluster, etc.) and the orchestration is the body of instruments assigned to play the voicing.Orchestration and voicing allow us to create unique sounds or musical colors by combining different instruments.If we think of voicing and orchestration as two separate entities, it will be much easier to understand our job as arrangers.
On top of the endless possibilities and permutations of traditional acoustic instruments, we now have to contend with the modern instruments (world instruments, synths, samples, etc.).These new instruments are a challenge in themselves, and the combining of acoustic and electronic instruments gives us further combinations with which to achieve unique musical colors.We can truly spend a lifetime experimenting with voicing and orchestration, but it shouldn’t take the beginning arranger that long to find those combinations that fit and seem comfortable with his or her writing techniques.These combinations go toward making up an arranger’s style.For example, Nelson Riddle’s harmonic variation use of Lydian motifs identifies his work just as Gil Evans’ and Duke Ellington’s unique orchestration of their voicings identify their work.
Simply changing a line from unison to octaves gives it an entirely new character and an audience will accept the same backgrounds and chord changes.Here’s an example using my arrangement of “Esperanza.”
Here’s a link to full video of the chart in case you want to check it out.
Yes Glenn, sort of.Melodic variation, this last piece of essential equipment, is composition.The composer rarely gives us intros or endings.The arranger is usually expected to furnish those.We arrangers are also required to compose counterlines, interludes, and background melodies as well, in order to give existing material variety.Here are some thoughts worth pondering:
“Arranging, after all, is a euphemism,” according to Alex Wilder, “For it includes composition as well as orchestration. The introductions, countermelodies, transitions, and reharmonizingare all more than just orchestration.But by using the word arrangement, they get two skills for the price of one.”
“The true art of orchestration,” Walter Piston declared ,”is inseparable from the creative act of composing music.”
And from Nelson Riddle: “An arranger occupies, in music, that shifting, almost indefinable ground between an orchestrator and composer.”
1.Creating and using countermelodies against melody.
2.Variation of melody or fragment of melody used for interludes between sections.
3.Introductions and endings based on newly created material.
It’s undeniable that arrangers must wear many hats in today’s music industry and must function sometimes as composers and orchestrators.That’s why arranging is not a hack trade but an art that takes years to perfect.So if you get discouraged because it doesn’t come to you right away, or, if after years of arranging, you still seem to get stuck, don’t worry;join the club.
About the Author:
John P. La Barbera is a Grammy® nominated composer/arranger whose writing spans many styles and genres. His works have been recorded and performed by Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Torme, Chaka Khan, Harry James, Bill Watrous, and Phil Woods just to name a few. Though his major output has been in jazz, he has had works performed and recorded for symphony orchestra, string chamber orchestra, brass quintet, and other diverse ensembles. Most recently, Mr. La Barbera was chosen from among dozens of applicants to participate in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute at UCLA. As a result, John was one of sixteen composers commissioned by the JCOI to compose new works that meld jazz and symphonic music. “Morro da Babilonia” was the resulting work and was presented by the American Composers Orchestra in New York City at Columbia University’s Miller Hall. His “Drover Trilogy” for string orchestra and corno da caccia was recorded by the late Dr. Michael Tunnell and has recently been released on Centaur Records. John’s Grammy® nominated big band CD “On The Wild Side“ along with “Fantazm“ and his latest “Caravan” on the Jazz Compass® label, have been met with tremendous artistic and commercial success and are on the way to becoming a jazz big band standards. As co-producer and arranger for The Glenn Miller Orchestra Christmas recordings (In The Christmas Mood I & II) John has received Gold & Platinum Records and his arrangement of “Jingle Bells” from those recordings can be heard in the Academy Award winning film “La La Land.” Mr. La Barbera is a Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Louisville’s School of Music and an international clinician/lecturer whose topics range from composing/arranging to intellectual property and copyright. Among his numerous organizational affiliations are Jazz Education Network, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, NARAS, American Composers Forum, Chamber Music America, and a writer/publisher member of ASCAP since 1971.
John’s Sunday morning big band jazz radio show, “Best Coast Jazz” on WFPK has been a mainstay on public radio for over twenty years and is streamed worldwide. He is a two-time recipient of The National Endowment for The Arts award for Jazz Composition and has served as a panelist for the NEA in the music category. His career has recently been profiled in “Bebop, Swing and Bella Musica: Jazz and the Italian American Experience” and in dozens of publications and encyclopedias. John’s published works are considered standards in the field of jazz education.
“The jazz soli is the arranger’s solo!” I can’t remember who it was that I first heard say that, but I believe it is absolutely true. I’ve always been intrigued by jazz solis, saxophone solis especially, but also brass solis and trombone solis.
A soli is the spot in a jazz arrangement where you as the arranger have the opportunity to write something that represents what you would play at that moment if you were the soloist. Of course, since you are writing it down, you can work with it until it says exactly what you want it to say, which is very different than improvising the solo. The composer whose soli writing I found to be most compelling early on in my studies was Thad Jones. Who can forget the saxophone solis on Groove Merchant, Don’t Git Sassy, and Fingers? And Little Pixie, in which even the opening melody sounds like a soli? Little Pixie is really soli writing from the beginning to the piano solo. It is two different “soloists” (brass and saxophones) playing and then trading 16s, 8s, 4s, and 2s. This is really exciting music that builds at an amazing pace!
In recent years I have written a number of jazz arrangements and compositions that include solis by saxophone sections, brass sections, trombones, and mixed instruments. I’m happy to share some of the ways I go about writing a soli and a few of the techniques I use.
The most important aspect of a jazz soli is the melody. It seems obvious, but I’m sometimes surprised how often I hear solis that don’t have interesting melodies. It’s important! When I began writing a saxophone soli for an arrangement of Freddie Hubbard’s Birdlike, I knew that I needed to come up with a melody that was “Freddie-like.” I studied Freddie’s solo on his recording of the tune and discovered that it was a perfect example of the “Bebop Scale approach” to improvisation. I decided to write a melody that sounded like what Freddie Hubbard might have played, without using any quotes from his solo. The written soli follows and there is a link to the recording of the arrangement.
The first eight measures of the melodic line include very clear usage of a downward moving F bebop scale that begins with an enclosure of the root, which is a typical element of bebop language. The downward, mostly stepwise, bebop scale of measures 1 and 2 are followed by an embellished arpeggio of F9 beginning with the 7th moving to the 9th, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th. It’s a classic looking (and sounding) bebop phrase consisting of “down by step” and “up by arpeggio.” It’s interesting how the line in m. 176 on beat 3 moves chromatically down to the 7th on the Bb9th at m. 177. That Ab is drawn out in a bluesy fashion, appropriate for a blues tune and it is something that a bebop player might do. At the end of m. 179 there is an enclosure surrounding the F# (3rd of D7) followed by a chromatic enclosure of the A (9th of Gmi9) and a diatonic enclosure of the G. Use of the diminished whole-tone scale for the line in m. 182 is also idiomatic. These are melodic elements that Freddie Hubbard uses in his playing, so it fits very well in an arrangement of his tune.
Example 1) Birdlike by Freddie Hubbard, arranged by David Caffey; mm 173–225
Click to See the Full Example
(The soli begins at 3:51 of the recording.)
I often use guitar melodically with the saxophones on a sax soli. I have done this fairly consistently over the last seven or eight years. The guitar adds a sonic quality that somehow focuses the saxophone section sound in a way that I really like. This allows me to write the saxophones in 5-part voicings without doubling the melody an octave lower. The guitar plays the melody an octave lower than the lead soprano sax. In this arrangement there is a trumpet used on the melody in unison with the soprano saxophone. Using the trumpet seemed appropriate since it is a soli on a Hubbard tune in which I’m trying to be consistent with his solo style. This combination provides a beautiful color and allows for voicings with more density than the more typical voicings used in sax solis. The denser chord voicings do not obscure the melody because there are three players on different instruments playing the melody. The melody comes through clearly.
One of the first questions that comes up when writing a soli is “how do I begin.” In Shades of Blue I decided to use the melodic figure that appears in the highest point of the melody (m.20) of the A sections as the source for the opening statement of the soli (m. 120). The rhythm shows up again in m. 127 and there is an extended version of the first motive in m. 131. If you have a good idea that works, use it more than once (but perhaps not more than three times).
Example 2) Shades Of Blue by David Caffey; mm 120 – 148
Click to See the Full Example
(The soli begins at 3:47 of the recording.)
The opening measures of the soli demonstrate ways to use very thick 5-part voicings that work well. The voicings in m. 120 use the four pitches of the B diminished 7th with one added pitch drawn from the B diminished scaled. The fifthpitch chosen in each of the voicings is in the 2nd tenor part and is a half-step below the pitch in the first tenor part. This creates a distinctive dissonance that colors a diminished sound, making it interesting rather than bland. This can be used on altered dominant seventh chord voicings, as well. I learned this technique from studying Thad Jones’ scores. In his scores, you can find brass voicings with eight different pitches, all derived from a single diminished scale.
The five-part voicings in m. 120 are cluster voicings. These work because there is a third between the top two voices. Cluster voicings are also used in mm. 121 and 122. The voicing for the F7(#9) in m. 121 uses, from bottom to top, the 7th, #9th, 3rd, #11th, and 13th.The first voicing of the following chord in m. 122 consists of the 3rd, b5th, #5th, 7th, and #9th. And it moves on in a similar fashion. This makes for a meaty saxophone section sound. You can open up the voicings with Drop 2, etc, and get the same kind of sound.The two voicings beginning on beat three of m. 125 are good examples of this.
I try to create balance by separating passages that are technically difficult with passages that are relatively easy. The music needs to breathe, and so do the players! In the Shades Of Blue soli, you will see that there are three spots that have sixteenth note lines. Before and in between those technically challenging spots, there are measures of melody with relatively easy and straightforward rhythms.
I sometimes use a single scale to harmonize a melodic line in a soli like this. In m. 140, for example, the melodic line in the soprano sax is a diminished scale for an octave followed by three chromatic notes moving downward to the concert C on beat two of m. 141. Beginning with the C, there is another diminished scale moving upward. Using the process I described above to voice a diminished chord for five voices, I found a voicing to begin on and then ran all of the voices in exact parallel motion with the soprano. It was quick and easy, and it sounds good! This technique can work well using diminished-whole tone, whole tone, blues, pentatonic, and bebop scales. I recommend not over-using it, though.
The saxophone soli in Blue 16 is another example that uses the guitar with the saxophones an octave below the soprano sax. The baritone sax is often an octave below the soprano sax, as well, in contrast to the approach used on the previous two solis.
Example 3) Blue 16 by David Caffey; mm. 132 -179
Click to See the Full Example
(The soli begins at 5:21 of the recording.)
An example of the technique of using a single scale to harmonize a melodic line can be found in measure 174 of Blue 16. In this case a pentatonic scale is being used. The soprano sax line was written first. The first voicing for the saxophones was created after testing the line that it could be followed throughout before running out of the range. Then each part has the pentatonic scale line from their starting pitch. Another example of this technique can be found in m. 156.
Measure 175 includes another version of the diminished scale being used to create the voicings throughout the line. In this case, when the line moves upward, the chord tones are approached from a half-step below. When the line moves downward, the chord tones are approach from a half-step above. In this context I think of the scale as being a “melodic diminished scale.” When moving upward the connecting notes of the scale are ½ step below the chord tones; when moving downward the connecting pitches are ½ step above the chord tones. The concept is similar to a melodic minor scale in which scale degree 6 and 7 are raised going up and lowered going down. Another good example of usage of this can be found in mm. 158-159.
Finally, just remember that it’s all about the melody…
About the Author:
David Caffey has appeared as a clinician, adjudicator, and guest conductor at music festivals, conferences, universities and schools throughout the United States, in Canada, and in Europe. He was inducted into the California Jazz Education Hall of Fame in 2011. His compositions and arrangements have been performed in concerts and festivals in Europe, Asia, Australia, Mexico, Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Canada and throughout the United States. He has won awards for musical composition from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and the National Association of Jazz Educators (NAJE). He served as President of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) from 2004 to 2006 and is a Founding Member of the Jazz Education Network (JEN). He also serves on the Board of Directors of the International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers (ISJAC). Most of his published compositions and arrangements are available from UNC Jazz Press. His most recent CD, ALL IN ONE by the David Caffey Jazz Orchestra, was released in October 2018 by Artist Alliance Records and is available at Amazon, CD Baby, and iTunes. The band’s first release, ENTER AUTUMN, was released in October 2015.
Mr. Caffey recently retired from a career in Higher Education and is Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Northern Colorado, where he served as Director of the School of Music from 2005 to 2013. His work as a college professor and arts administrator spans 44 years and includes previous appointments in Jazz Studies at California State University – Los Angeles, Sam Houston State University, and the University of Denver. He relocated to Southern California in August 2018 and is working full-time as a composer, arranger and music producer.
Most of us spend our time studying the art of composition and arranging with the ultimate goal of writing for professional bands, either our own groups, top level university groups, military jazz ensembles and the like.Writing for groups likes these allows us to write challenging music, replete with woodwind doubles, all kinds of mutes, odd meters, no seriously limiting range constraints or technical considerations and the possibility of highly complex changes to improvise over.While these pieces can be published and sold off of our own websites or possibly through existing publishers, if they are willing to take on pro level material, there is also a world out there of elementary, junior high and high school jazz bands who also desperately need to be exposed to good literature. There are certainly many age-appropriate well-written pieces out there already, but I’m writing this in the hopes of encouraging more professional composers, especially younger ones, to think about taking on the challenge of writing unique and compelling music for developing players that may provide them inspiration to continue on in this music.
I have been fortunate to get opportunities to write for younger groups and can attest to the fact that it is extremely difficult to do well.I can write a bad arrangement of a video game tunewith the best of them but to expose students to jazz standards or interesting original compositions that they will enjoy playing and that are written in an appropriate manner for them is a whole ‘nother ball game.When I speak at education conferences on the subject of the selection of good primary or secondary school jazz ensemble material I cite these following considerations:
Appropriate Ranges (see sheet below)
Well-written for technical aptitudes of players’ ages (avoidance of large leaps in brass, fast legato trombone passages, etc.)
Appropriate dynamic and phrase markings
Does each section of the band get interesting material to play?
Is the composer aware of idiosyncracies of individual instruments? (Held c#s on sax or trumpets apt to be out of tune, going from first position to seventh position on trombone quickly is very difficult, younger students needing shorter phrases so they don’t run out of air, etc.)
Are rhythm section parts notated well and age appropriate (voicings and bass lines written out but chord symbols included for educational purposes)
Do sections sound good unto themselves?
Is the piece charismatic and/or memorable? Is it well-structured with regards to form?
Are improvised sections well-thought out with information provided about chord/scale relationships or idiomatic rhythmic ideas?
While many of these categories also apply to professional level writing, the consequences of not adhering to these limitations for younger players will render the chart unplayable, not merely unsatisfying or disappointing.
So the trick then becomes to maintain as high a level of harmonic and rhythmic sophistication possiblewhile still keeping it playable. I firmly believe that you can still add alterations to your voicings or have an interesting progression; you just have to create individual lines for the players that are technically manageable, range-appropriate and that voice lead well.
One of the composers that I most admire for his ability to write interesting and fun music that never sounds “dumbed down” is the late, great Fred Sturm. I have used two of his pieces in presentations to show how the goals mentioned above can be achieved:“Song of The Rainforest” and “Another Step Towards The Blues”.
I’m including the front page of the Rainforest score here as it includes background on the derivation of the piece as well as important information to help beginning students start improvising on the piece, with relevant scales and rhythmic ideas. The use of pentatonic scales here is brilliant as it is appropriate for the genre and gives the beginning improvisers less notes to contend with:
I am also including a score page that shows the instrumental writing as well as a concert reduction of the section – the parts are simple to play but when put together sound beautiful. Figures repeat so that the students can lock into the basic rhythmic patterns but he doesn’t shy away from having an occasional second between voices in order to have interesting voicings, especially when it provides some good tension and release.
He also has included auxiliary percussion parts which allows directors to involve more students.
This piece is playable by an advanced elementary group or middle school band but could be played by a developing high school group without sounding inappropriate, which is a mark of a really well-crafted composition and arrangement.
Looking at a slightly more difficult piece, and taking a page from “Car Talk’s” Shameless Commerce Division, I’ll include one of my own pieces here, “Point, Counterpoint” (commissioned by the Minnesota Band Director’s Association) and published by Doug Beach Music:
My goal was to write a swinging chart that had good lines for each section that were often contrapuntal in nature, in an effort to engage the students’ ears in a slightly different way than the vertical orchestrations that typically get used for younger players. The sax line is established over the swing ride pattern (the implied progression is a minor blues but no bass to start) and then repeats itself with a few trumpets added as the trombone counterpoint comes in. In the third chorus the top trumpets come in playing a paraphrase of the sax melody with the saxes and trombones answering in the spaces. The rhythm section is in at this point and I wrote out all the bass lines taking care to have half notes mixed in for younger hands that tire more easily and chord symbols above so that the pianists, bassists and guitarists understand how what they are playing reflects the progression and so that at some point when they are confronted with just chord symbols and slashes they may be able to recall some of the types of chords and voicings they played before.
There is a short ensemble shout that acts asa send-off to the solos and scales are included on the parts in addition to written out solos that the publisher asked to have.To show an example of 8 bars where the individual parts are very playable but the complete sound involves quartal harmony, altered dominant chords and poly chords I have included a score page from part of the ensemble choruses about ¾ of the way through the chart as well as a concert reduction. Each section sounds good unto itself (a lesson I learned from my teacher and mentor Rayburn Wright, among many others!) and the whole ensemble sounds pretty hip (if I do say so myself) once the players have mastered the individual notes.
While pieces for younger bands generally need to be shorter than the magnus opi we generally write when given the license to do so (think 4 or 5 minutes max for junior high, maybe 6 for high school) that is part of the challenge. I frequently find that I have to edit myself, chopping out that 2nd or 3rd chorus of shout, for example, or that extended intro with all the cool extra bars in the phrases, but that the piece is always stronger in so doing. (Note to self – perhaps I should be doing that more in my other writing as well…). I think we are all guilty of being self-indulgent with our composing and arranging from time to time and writing for younger groups is a great cure for that!
You never know how a piece you write may light a fire under a budding jazz player OR budding jazz composer. Holding ourselves to the highest standards possible when writing for younger groups can help their ears develop, provide them with a better understanding of jazz harmony, improve their improvisation skills and hopefully even inspire them to start writing themselves.
I encourage everyone to take a crack at this if you haven’t already – reach out to a local school and ask if you can write something for them. This can even develop into a commissioning situation, which, as we all know, is all to the good! I am certainly grateful to the Illinois Music Educators, Minnesota Band Directors and the various schools that have asked me for charts and have learned more every time I have taken one on.
About the Author:
Ellen Rowe, jazz pianist and composer, is currently Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation at the University of Michigan. She is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music, where she studied with Rayburn Wright and Bill Dobbins.Prior to her appointment in Michigan, she served as Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Connecticut.
Ms. Rowe has performed at jazz clubs and on concert series throughout the U.S., as well as touring in Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Ireland, Poland, South Africa and Australia. CDs out under her own name include “Sylvan Way”, “Wishing Well”, “Denali Pass” and “Courage Music.”Her latest project, “Momentum – Portraits of Women In Motion”, featuring Ingrid Jensen, Tia Fuller, Marion Hayden and Allison Miller will be released in the winter of 2018. Also active as a clinician, she has given workshops and master classes at the Melbourne Conservatory, Hochshule fur Musik in Cologne, Grieg Academy in Bergen and the Royal Academy of Music in London, in addition to many appearances as a guest artist at festivals and Universities around the country.
When not leading her own trio, quartet or quintet, she is in demand as a sideman, having performed with a wide variety of jazz artists including Kenny Wheeler, Tim Ries, Tom Harrell, John Clayton, Ingrid Jensen and Steve Turre.She was also a guest on two installments of Marian McPartland’s“Piano Jazz” on National Public Radio.
Ms. Rowe’s compositions and arrangements have been performed and recorded by jazz ensembles and orchestras around the world, including the Village Vanguard Orchestra, BBC Jazz Orchestra, U.S. Navy Commodores, Berlin and NDR Radio Jazz Orchestras, London Symphony, DIVA and the Perth Jazz Orchestra.Many of these works can be heard on recordings including “Leave It To DIVA”, “The Perth Jazz Orchestra”, “Bingo” (The Bird of Paradise Orchestra) and “I Believe In You” (DIVA). She has recently been a composer-in-residence at the Eastman School of Music and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.A recipient of jazz ensemble commissions from the Minnesota Band Directors Association, Belleville (MI) High School,Illinois Music Educators and Lawrence University’s Fred Sturm Jazz Festival, her big band compositions are currently published by Sierra Music Publications, Doug Beach Music and Kendor Music.
Having been selected to conduct the NAfME All-Eastern and All-Northwest Jazz Ensembles as well as All-State jazz ensembles throughout the country, she has also been an invited clinician at the National Association for Music Education Eastern Division Convention, International Society for Jazz Composition and Arranging Symposium and Jazz Education Network conferences.She is on the Board of the International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers and also serves as the Coordinator for the JEN Sisters In Jazz Collegiate Combo Competition. Her quintet has performed at the San Jose Jazz Festival, Jazz Education Network Conference, Michigan Jazz Festival, Detroit International Jazz Festival and in jazz clubs around the country. Other activities include serving as an adjudicator and mentor for the JEN Young Composers Showcase, adjudicating the 2019 Kimmel Center Jazz Residencies and Lincoln Center Ertegun Hall of Fame. She also serves on the faculty of the NJPAC All-Female Jazz Residency in Newark, NJ. In 2017 she was named a UCROSS Composer Fellow and awarded a residency at the Leighton Artist Colony at the Banff Centre for the Arts.
When I first started composing & arranging seriously for jazz ensembles as an undergrad at the Univ. of North Texas (then NTSU), my interest was focused primarily on exploring the rich harmonic world jazz embraces – studying and experimenting with voicings and orchestration to create colorful and evocative settings.Odd meters and complex, disjunct (particularly funk) rhythmic figures?Loved them too!!But as to melody??Well, I largely viewed that as something that I could extract quickly, simply, and intuitively from the harmonic structure.I mean, that’s what we do as improvisers, right?And, form? Frankly, there just didn’t appear to be much to wrestle with; as the strophic use of song form was (and is) ingrained throughout the jazz tradition.So, most formal considerations seemed pretty codified; with variations limited largely to whether to employ an intro or coda and when/where to use background figures or a sax soli.
As you might expect, my vision of what jazz composition is. . or can be . . . .has changed a bit since that time . . . . as has my compositional approach.For the last 25 years, at least; my energy, focus, and struggles (and I have a LOT of these!), seem to have coalesced precisely around those 2 areas – melody and form – that I tended to toss off early on.Oh, don’t get me wrong, I still love orchestrating and creating evocative voicings as I believe anyone who listens to my work will readily recognize; but I see these now existing in service to advancing the melodic and formal development of the composition.
Why the change?
I use analogies to the other arts a great deal in my teaching – particularly literature, film, and architecture. While comparing a melodic idea to that of a character in a book/movie is certainly not a novel concept, it is an apt one.If the reader or movie-goer isn’t able to develop a relationship with the main character. . . .and the more personal, the better . . . . they’re typically not invested in the story.There simply HAS to be at least one character (if not more) that is unique, relatable, intriguing, and evolving.Stop for a minute – read that list again!!Unique . . . relatable . . . . intriguing. .. . . and evolving!Wow – what a challenge to create a melody in that vein!!
Likewise, form can be seen as essentially the plot or narrative structure.If it’s too predictable (or too convoluted for all that matters) we tune out!I’m guessing we’ve all read books or watched movies in which every scene seems telegraphed from the outset (often just a rehash of another plot) and no matter how many buildings/cars/politicians are blown up, or how stunning the cinematography or prose is, we leave with little we (want to) remember.It’s not much of a stretch to imagine our listeners would be most intrigued by a formal structure that involved both a logical progression/evolution of ideas as well as a few unexpected twists or turns along the way.
While many of the students I work with seem to greatly admire composers/works which I feel embrace the values just set forth; I’ve often been struck by their resistance to really wanting to spend time (or possess the patience) to fashion the strongest possible melody or work on formal and melodic development beyond largely formulaic practices.While it’s all too easy to dismiss this as mere laziness on their parts (and sometimes it is!); for the most part, I think that assumption misses the mark.
Actually, I think it’s our background as jazz musicians/performers that often leads us astray!
Oh, that will probably raise some eyebrows . . . and, admittedly, I’m being somewhat purposefully provocative.However, while I don’t necessarily disagree with the oft-heard adage “improvisation is spontaneous composition”, I’d like to clearly and unequivocally state that “jazz composition is not and should not be confused with improvisation”.
Composers are endowed with two things the improviser (by definition) does not possess – time and reflection!Our ability to improvise can (and should!) prove extremely advantageous in coming up with melodic ideas; but the jazz composer must resist the desire to accept the very first phrase that comes to her/him as if its manna from heaven.Challenge it!Seek competing ideas. Evaluate its characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses.Is it open to being transformed over time and, if so, how?Tweak it, live with it . . . how does it sit two days later??These are all luxuries the composer has that the improviser does not.Take advantage of them!!
It’s equally important for the composer to recognize that many of the formal structures and devices used to this day on the bandstand are historical constructs of convenience and necessity – devised explicitly to facilitate gigs, impromptu performances, and improvisational settings where musicians are not only working without any notated music, they may never have even met each other before.Here, there is a clear and compelling NEED to rely on conventional structures . . . to simply call the tune, count it off, and play!There’s not enough time before each tune to discuss how an expansion of the form during the second solo might build intensity better or how a 13-bar restatement of the 2nd half of the bridge might be the perfect, elegant intro needed.Strophic repetition of the song form for solos is not only tradition, it’s an absolute necessity . . . . . as are stock intros and codas.
The composer, however, is not constrained by such pragmatism.We get to dream bigger!In dealing with form (ultimately, a much, much longer conversation!), recognize how it can be used, effectively, to help the listener understand the context of the musical ideas.Repetition, in and of itself, is not problematic.It can be highly effective in giving the listener a sense of grounding and in reinforcing important ideas.But it should not be employed simply for the lack of anything better to do. . . .or because of convention.Even more critically, it is through careful and imaginative use of form that the composer has the opportunity to profoundly influence the flow, contour, and proportions of the piece – creating an actual story rather than merely staging an event.(I’ll briefly draw your attention to the use of the word “influence” rather than “control”.While an appropriate subject for another blog, I believe strongly that good jazz composition embraces an improvisational sensibility and seeks to provide those performing the music with creative input and opportunities even in the most highly scored works.)
So, having read to this point, you might be surprised to learn that I continue to use song form as the basis for almost all of my composition.It’s the jazz tradition I grew up with – and a jumping off point I still find very fertile compositionally.If viewed not as a rigid pre-fab structure but as a foundation that can support an infinite variety of expandable/collapsible walls, windows, doors, and a few cozy nooks – you’ll understand my comfort level with it.
I’m attaching a formal outline to “Warped Cowboy” from my last CD “Whispers on the Wind”.You’ll note both its expansiveness (the piece is over 14:00 long and is comprised of two major themes – each of which employs song form) and, hopefully, its economy.The solo sections’ chord progressions are based on the prior song forms (primarily the “Cowboy” theme) but have been altered to create not only a better solo environment but to allow for the story to breathe and evolve in a manner that is both logical and continually fresh.You’ll also notice they differ not only from their original iteration – but from each other as well.As Stephan King likes to say, “The world moves on.” You’ll also note the absence of any section marked “Transition”.In my mind, every moment is a transition of some sort.By understanding where we are headed we can fashion these moments so that the final arrival or climax feels inevitable, even if not completely expected.
If you’re interested in delving a bit deeper, study scores for “Warped Cowboy” as well as a number of my other recorded works with the Jazz Surge are available on my website store:www.chuckowen.com along with the CDs and full charts.
Chuck Owen is Distinguished University Professor of Jazz Studies at the University of South Florida.A nationally respected educator, having established USF’s acclaimed jazz program, he is recognized equally for his unique compositional voice; one steeped thoroughly in the jazz tradition but drawing on a diverse array of additional influences from contemporary classical and American folk/roots music to Latin styles, funk, hip-hop, . . . even country!The result is an evocative, thoughtful, and frequently quite playful/joyous body of work.
The recipient of a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship and five GRAMMY nominations, Owen has written for or had his compositions performed by the: Netherlands’ Metropole Orch., Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orch., Tonight Show Orchestra, Brussels Jazz Orch., Aarhus Jazz Orch. (Denmark), Scottish National Jazz Orch., Cincinnati Symphony, US Army Jazz Ambassadors and numerous others.
Owen’s primary creative outlet, however, is his own 20-piece Jazz Surge.Founding the ensemble in 1995, Owen serves as conductor, primary composer/arranger, and producer of its six highly-feted CDs, including:River Runs (2013), a stunning 5 movement genre-bending work Rufus Reid described as, “.. . . .a tour de force of contemporary orchestral composition” and the Huffington Post called, “a masterpiece of aural sounds”, andThe Comet’s Tail (2009), critically acclaimed as “riotous and joyous” (JazzTimes), “muscular” (Downbeat), and “deserving of universal attention” (All Music Guide).Both recordings garnered Grammy nominations with Chuck individually honored in 2014 with Grammy nominations for both Best Instrumental Composition & Best Instrumental Arrangement.
The Jazz Surge’s most recent project, Whispers On the Wind, expands on the American folk and roots leanings of River Runs enlisting the evocative violin of Sara Caswell, the luminescent harmonica of Gregoire Maret, and an array of acoustic guitars deftly played by Corey Christiansen.In it, Owen has created a sound that is drenched in atmosphere – at times buoyant, playful, and triumphant . . . .at others, melancholy, mysterious, and intimate – but always coming straight out of the American heartland.Feted with four 2018 GRAMMY nominations (for Best Large Jazz Ensemble recording, Best Instrumental Composition, Best Instrumental Arrangement, and Best Jazz Solo – Sara Caswell) the reviews have been similarly glowing:
“creative, poetic . . . . wildly personal” – Jeff Simon, Buffalo News
“ an impressive melding of Montana and 52nd St.” – George Harris, Jazz Weekly
“ episodic, dramatic, and picturesque.” – Scott Yanow, NY City Jazz Record
“. . . an impossibly winsome combination of slow burn with spontaneous combustion. Reality on a sizzling hot silver platter.” – Carol Bank Weber, Medium.com
Owen presently serves as the founding President of ISJAC (International Society of Jazz Arrangers & Composers).Previously he has served as President of the International Association for Jazz Education, as a “governor” for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and as a panelist (Chair) for the Pulitzer Prize in Music, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Grammy Awards, and numerous regional arts associations.The Director of the USF Jazz Ensemble for 30 years, he has led the group in performances at international jazz festivals as well as with renowned guest artists. He is the recipient of the USF President’s Award for Faculty Excellence as well as both the Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award and Outstanding Research Award.
Chuck’s most recent compositions for jazz ensemble are available on his website:www.chuckowen.comOther publications are available through UNC Jazz Press as well as EJazzLines.
When asked by Paul Read if I would write an article from any subject I would like,I decided it should be about my “Concerto for Jazz Clarinet and Orchestra” as it has been a success story for me and one that has opened many doors in my music career.
I will start with the piece being commissioned by Jack Elliott in Los Angeles in 1982 at a lunch meeting – at that meeting Jack told me that he had really liked my arrangement of “Forget The Woman”, written for Eddie Daniels, so much that he had voted for me when it was nominated for a Grammy (my first nomination) in 1981.It was then that he told me he wanted to commission me to write a serious piece for Eddie and the New American Orchestra – from the time of the signing of the commission I had one year to compose and orchestrate the piece before its premiere in Los Angeles.
I have been asked by several people in the past what I did during the composing period so thought I would address that – I started the process by meeting with Eddie Daniels with my first sketches at a piano several times and recording what we did as a reference for the orchestration, at that time of course there was no midi and everything was recorded live.
Also, I made a point not to study any clarinet concertos while composing my own, what I did instead was to meet with my friend and fellow composer John Corigliano in New York a few times as he had written his clarinet concerto not to long before.
During these meetings we discussed the orchestration of the piece such as how to make the clarinet cut through the density of the orchestra in terms of range and other technical aspects as well.They were wonderful meetings and very inspiring to me as John is such a great composer!
One of the most important goals I had in writing my concertowas to be very honest in what I wrote and to pour all of my loves, passions and influences, from Classical to Jazz, which I had enjoyed and accumulated through my life into my writing – some of the biggest influences for me have been Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartok, William Walton, Gil Evans and Clare Fischer but there have been others as well – in Michael Roeder’s book “A History of The Concerto”where he included my concerto in his book, he states that he found “Latin American influences” in my music; this was a surprise to me but I found it to be interesting and I have come to believe over time that he is absolutely right.My dear friend and mentor Astor Piazzolla told me one time as well that the first movement of my concerto was a “Tango” and the third movement a “Chacarera” (a 6/8 folklore dance rhythm from Argentina!) – only the second movement was a “Jazz ballad”.
Being that I am originally from Argentina and having grown up there exposed me at a very early age to Argentine Folkore, Tango and Brazilian music as well as Jazz and Classical music which were my truest loves.My much loved mother played Debussy, Fauré and Chopin on piano beautifully as far back as my memory reaches – so much to my surprise these were also influences which appeared in my clarinet concerto!
Even more importantly I wrote what I had always wanted to hear in a crossover piece of that sort but never had.
The concertos I had heard from other composers attempting the crossover genre (Classical and Jazz) were not entirely successful from my point of view because they were either too Contemporary, too Classical or they didn’t “swing”!…That became the main reason I chose to write the first movement in “even 16th notes” which a classical symphony orchestra can play accurately, and the third movement in a “12/8 groove” in even 8th notes, which can also be played without any problem by a classical orchestra.For the second movement which is “Jazz Ballad” inspired, I chose to add a jazz trio to support the clarinet improvisations in the jazz section. On the score I wrote all the clarinet solos throughout, but I also wanted to add the Jazz chord symbols on the clarinet and piano parts as a way of giving a clarinetist or pianist who understands the style the creative freedom of improvisation – I felt that by having both options it gave a chance to classical musicians to play the piece as well by using the written solos and not having to improvise in modern jazz style if that was not their specialty.
I was very fortunate to have had the great Eddie Daniels as a soloist, as he is absolutely one of the best crossover players if not the best in the world.I took that into account when writing which I believe added to the success of the piece with other virtuoso clarinetists. I was also fortunate that Dave Grusin attended the premiere of the piece in Los Angeles and decided he wanted to record the concerto on Eddie’s GRP “Breakthrough” album. We recorded the “Concerto for Jazz Clarinet and Orchestra” in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra at Olympic Studios with Keith Grant, engineer, Ettore Stratta, conductor, Produced by Eddie, Ettore and myself – and the rest is history!
I have been thrilled with the way the piece has been received and that it has had a life of it’s own so to speak having been played several times since it’s premiere, in the US, Europe, South East Asia and South America. The last performance in Argentina took place at the re-opening of the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires during the bi-centennial celebrations where Eddie was invited to play the concerto with the
“Orquesta Filarmónica de Buenos Aires”.
I am on to my next project which is a concerto for piano and orchestra written as a classical piece without any jazz elements.I have been working on it for quite a long time and I believe that when it is it is finished it will possibly be the best piece I’ve written to date.
Thank you Paul for asking me to write this article for ISJAC and to everyone who has read it! It has been a pleasure to have spent some time sharing this musical experience of mine with you!
Jorge Calandrelli [Bear Valley Springs, CA 2018]
Listen to the Concerto (Excerpts)
About the Author:
JORGE CALANDRELLI began his career in Argentina and Europe as Pianist, Arranger and Conductor. Calandrelli moved to the United States in 1978, he is one of today’s most prolific arrangers and has worked in the Pop, Jazz, Latin, and Classical fields.
Jorge, the youngest of six, was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Matias Calandrelli, his father, was a medical doctor, an eminent chess player, president of the Argentine Chess Club and a lieutenant colonel physician in the Argentine Army. His mother, Nieves Solá Calandrelli played classical piano, was fluent in French and was the daughter of Juan E. Solá, a prominent politician and an early member of the Jockey Club of Argentina.
Calandrelli toured Europe for three years with his Quintet and then returned to Buenos Aires to perform as a professional pianist with his Jazz Trio while arranging and conducting for major recording artists and record companies.
His formative private studies included Piano with Guillermo Iscla, Harmony and Counterpoint with the renowned composer Carlos Guastavino, Composition with composer Roberto Garcia Morillo, Altered Harmony with Jacobo Fischer and Master Classes in Contemporary Composition with composer Gerardo Gandini.
OF NOTE ASMAC honored Jorge Calandrelli with the 2014 Golden Score Award for Arranging, the highest award that could be given to an arranger in the USA.
Most recent is Jorge’s involvement on the new album “Cheek to Cheek” with Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga where he arranged and conducted all orchestral arrangements, as well as the “Great Performances” live show conducted for PBS at the Lincoln Center in New York just aired on the heels of the album release. He also conducted on the Tour at the Wiltern Theatre in LA, the Hollywood Bowl in LA, and at the Royal Albert Hall in London. With the completion of the Duets II album Jorge Calandrelli reaches a milestone celebrating a 30-year association with Tony Bennett with 13 albums recorded, 6 Grammy nominations and 2 Grammy Awards won.
As both composer and orchestrator, Jorge Calandrelli, has been involved in films and television. His most recent TV score “The Rain” (Director: Nazomu Amemiya) co-composed with Kuni Murai, a four hour docudrama, premiered in 2010 for Japan Television. “Crouching Tiger / Hidden Dragon” (Director Ang Lee); “The Color Purple” (Director Steven Spielberg); “The Billionaire Boys Club” (Director: Marvin Chomsky); “Tron” (Director: Steven Lisberger); “The Shining” (Director Stanley Kubrik); “Sola” (Director: Raul De La Torre); “The Great Mouse Detective” and “I’ll be Home for Christmas”.
“Concerto for Jazz Clarinet and Orchestra” Calandrelli’s concert works have been performed worldwide, this composition has been premiered in several countries and singled out in Michael Roeder’s book “A History of the Concerto”; Calandrelli also received the nomination for, “All Music Composer of the Year” the London Wavendon Award, for the Concerto. The latest performance of the “Concerto for Jazz Clarinet and Orchestra” was in Buenos Aires at the Teatro Colon by the Orquesta Filarmónica of Buenos Aires and in Cordoba, Argentina, by the Orquesta Sinfónica of Córdoba for the Bicentenialcelebration of Argentina.
“Escapade in D minor” (2003) commissioned and premiered by The Henry Mancini Orchestra for Arturo Sandoval, conducted by Calandrelli.
“Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra” commissioned for pianist Tian Jiang and premiered by Tian and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra during their 2003 US Tour.
Mr. Calandrelli is currently finishing his work on a collection of “Piano Pieces”, to be premiered by Sonya Belousova, as well as working on a piano concerto, “Diptych for Piano and Orchestra”.
Jorge Calandrelli has worked as Executive Musical Director for The Concord Music Group for three years.
Mr. Calandrelli continues to work independently with a diversity of artists and projects. He serves on the Board of Directors of the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers (ASMAC), as well as having served on the Board of Governors of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS).
When I compose, I usually start someplace away from the piano or the computer. I start by hearing a tune in my head, and I’ve found the best way for me to get it out of my head is not to sit down at the piano – because at the piano, my muscle memory can get in the way, and I’ll sometimes end up playing what I already know, instead of trying to write down what I’m actually hearing. For me, it’s especially important to get the groove, and the tempo, and the form of the tune down first. That’s the architecture. I hear it in my head, and then I’ll try to sing it into my iPhone especially if I’m walking about a city, which I do often. I’ll sing bass lines, melodies, I’ll beat-box the rhythms; I’ve been known to sketch out the whole form of a five-to-six-minute song like that. Then I’ll go home and transcribe it. At this point, I’m not looking for particular voicings; I’ll do that at the piano for sure. But before that, it’s important for me to capture the essence of the composition – what I’m trying to say – without the filter of the piano.
After I do that, I’ll start working at the computer, getting the form into shape. Once you start to slowly transcribe your ideas, I find that just referring back to that first iPhone version will inspire new material. It activates that same initial feeling that you had when the ideas first came into your head. It’s not like I can sing that accurately, but hearing it will remind me of what I was going for. Then, at the piano (or the computer), I can figure out the right notes, and the right spacings, and all the rest. You often hear about jazz musicians wanting to play what’s in their head, right? Well, that’s what’s in my head – but now I’ve got technology to record and help me remember it.
In a lot of ways, it’s like transcribing an improvisation, as opposed to just staring at the computer and saying, ‘OK, what’s next?’ For a while, I would sit down at the piano and struggle with every note, like everybody does at some point, because at the piano, you’ve got too many options: ‘Oh, I could do this, or maybe this.’ But then it’s not straight from the heart, or from my muse.
It works pretty much the same way when I’m writing a big arrangement. I’ll sing the parts into my phone; of course, I can’t sing counterpoint with myself, but I can get the essence of it. I’m trying to get down the creativity, the spark of the moment, before I dive into the details. Also, I might have two or three different versions of the same tune, all recorded on my phone, each with different ideas. So then I’ll try to pick out which one I like best at that moment, when I’m actually ready to sit down and transcribe. Or maybe I’ll pick one section from each version.
I go through something like that with the voicings, too, in terms of getting down the basics and then cleaning it up later. At the piano, I’ll just let my hands go and follow my instincts, and put down whatever comes out. It might be too many voices – it might be 10-finger voicings, using pedal, whatever – but I’ll get it down, and then later go in and make it right from an orchestration standpoint. That way, at least I’ve got the sound I want, the harmonic concept, without struggling over the fine points right off the bat. It just goes much faster if you’re doing it in the moment; again, for me it’s like improvising.
If I’m arranging a work for hire, maybe orchestrating for a singer and it’s his or her song, that’s more like a meat-and-potatoes thing. If it’s already been recorded, I’ll make a take-down of the record: I’ll transcribe the original arrangement, especially what I hear on the rhythm track, so I can keep listening back to it in the computer. And then I’ll frequently refer to the original, because a lot of times, if you’re doing a ‘sweetening’ date – putting strings or a horn section over an existing track – there’ll be these nice little lines already in there, on the guitar or the piano. Keeping those in mind, I might double or continue the line, or support that line in some other way. (I learned this from Tommy Lipuma, my friend and great record producer who worked with everyone from Miles, Al Jarreau, Diana Krall, Paul McCartney). There’s already a lot of information in the original, and by using some of what’s already there, I can keep things from getting too crowded. Typically I’ll first do that, and then depending on who the artist is, and how many chances I think I can take, I’ll decide how much of myself I can put in there.
A good example is an arrangement I recently finished for Dianne Reeves, for her Carnegie Hall Youth Jazz Orchestra tour with Sean Jones. She wanted to do this George Duke tune, “Someday,” which is a really great tune with lots of interesting chord changes. But his version is only two and a half minutes long, and that’s not going to work for this big live-tour performance. The way the tune is laid out, though, it’s almost like three tunes in one. The A and B sections are like separate songs, and the real hook chorus is actually in the intro, which he doesn’t get back to until the very end. Also, this tune goes through a lot of modulations. I had to figure out a way to extend it, and then, at the end, when he gets back to that hook chorus, to let that really grow. So I had to come up with three different climaxes, in a way, in order to hit all those marks – including a joyful, gospel-type chorus to close it out, sort of like Earth, Wind & Fire. And then I had to come up with an ending that’s not corny.
But again, since this is kind of a hybrid, I took the information from George’s rhythm tracks, and then I worked to expand on that. I sort of went backwards. First I worked out the form from his record, and then I sat back, went for a walk, and waited till I could figure out how I wanted to start this thing. I waited till I heard it in my head. And then I sang it into my iPhone.
About the Author:
In the course of three decades, Mack Avenue recording artist John Beasley has carved an enviable reputation – or actually, two reputations. First and foremost, he is an uncommonly versatile, unerringly exciting pianist who has worked with such music icons as Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard – playing in the bands of both these trumpet legends while still in his 20s – as well as with Herbie Hancock, Steely Dan, Al Jarreau, Chaka Khan, and Christian McBride (and even, for one night, with James Brown). But Beasley is also an accomplished composer, and a distinctive arranger who works regularly in film and television, earning five GRAMMY nominations and an Emmy nod along the way. And he has worked extensively on soundtracks, primarily those of famed film scorer Thomas Newman, including the James Bond hits Spectre and Skyfall.
Beasley’s arranging skills find no better showcase than on the albums MONK’estra (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2), each of which received two GRAMMY nominations. MONK’estra is a smashing 15-piece big band that captures the spirit of Thelonious Monk’s singular music in fresh arrangements flavored with contemporary sounds that range from Afro-Cuban rhythms to hip-hop. Critics have called it “some of the most mesmerizing big band music of recent memory.”
Beasley continues to balance a multi-faceted career that includes co-producing albums with former Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine; legendary guitarist Lee Ritenour; and oft-awarded vocalist Dianne Reeves. Every year, Beasley resumes his role as Music Director for the Thelonious Monk Institute’s globally heard International Jazz Day concerts, collaborating with the Institute’s Chairman Herbie Hancock. In 2017, this all-star concert was held in Cuba and broadcast throughout the world and on BET-TV in America. The 2016 event was hosted by President Obama at the White House and was broadcast on ABC-TV, gaining Beasley an Emmy nomination for Best Musical Direction.
There are many different processes for writing music. There is no right one or wrong one, it just depends on what works for the individual, and that is something that each writer must determine for himself. The fledgling writer can try different ones, or change up on each piece.
For myself, I have found something that works consistently for me. When I was much younger, I tried many different processes and finally determined the “routine” with which I was most productive and organized. When I started out, in high school and college, I was able to find and purchase miniature score pads, where I could start by doing a sketch that would itself turn into a score. This worked for awhile, but I found I would eventually have to copy it all over again because the miniature score was too small to be legible by anyone else. This was before computer notation.
I believe it was when I was writing a commission for the Buddy Rich band that I finally decided on my process. I tried starting with the score itself, but that didn’t work for me. What I ended up with was the following and I have used it every since. Now mind you, I have used many variations of this since, especially in the beginning stages (research) for writing and composition or arrangement.
Sketch (templates)- 4 staves, 6 staves, 3 staves
digital score (Finale or Sibelius)
Now let’s pick apart and detail these process points.
This is the melody and chord symbols (if any) only. On my classical pieces, this is more like an “ideas” sheet, with main
themes and some ideas for variation/development, with key centers sometimes but rarely indicated. Usually with pencil and paper, one or two staves.
I have various sketch templates that have been devised in Finale.
4 staves for for large jazz ensemble
6 staves for orchestra with strings
3 stave for smaller ensemble
Let’s take for example the large jazz ensemble.
(4 staves -treble & bass, treble & bass. The upper two saxes/woodwinds, the lower two brass) (diagram 1).
If it is an arrangement for a vocalist or featured soloist, I add another single staff above. I write on this with pencil.
Placed are melody lines, chord changes, rhythmic slashes when actual melodic lines not decided, rhythmic slashes and notation (below staff) indicating what rhythm section will be doing (swing, even 8ths, Latin, tutti rhythms etc.). This includes devising an intro and ending, transitions, modulations, development areas. This is essentially the creative part, establishing the form, where you spell out your ideas (diagram 2).
Number the bars.
Fill in existing loose sketch with counter lines, accompanying ensemble rhythms and lead lines (diagram 3). Label (with words).
COMPLETE DETAILED SKETCH
Fill in existing sketch with all harmonies and voicing (diagram 4).
This means going through the piece from beginning to end three times.
I use Finale or Sibelius (and perhaps Dorico soon). Transfer all notes onto the computer using keyboard input or manually. I usually start with the woodwinds, then trumpets, trombones, bass, piano, guitar, tuba, French horns, mallet percussion, drums, and hand percussion, in that order. I write and print my scores in concert (diagram 5).
This is often ignored by many arrangers, and this is crucial. And this is a pet peeve of mine. Instead of just printing out the parts, they must be examined in detail and formatted to make sure they are spaced legibly, have any instructional notation in the right places (ie, “2nd X only,” or “Play 4 Xs”), make sure the D.S. and coda (if any) are separated and indented properly (see Diagram 6A & 6B).
It is important to make sure that all melodic lines read in the simplest enharmonic way possible (see diagram 7A-wrong way, and diagram 7B-correct way).
It is best that all rehearsal letters are on the far left of a system. It is best if the coda mark is on the far right of a system (diagram 8).
Make sure that slash marks with chords above appear correctly.
Make sure that all headers or footers (page number, song title, part name) appear in the proper places on every page.
I believe it is best to have bar numbers below the start of every bar, multi-rest bar numbers centered below rests (diagram 9).
On the score I like bar numbers to be large enough to be readily readable centered above bars on top stave, and enclosed in a box (diagram 10).
That’s my process, and I don’t intend to say that mine is for everyone. In a masterclass by Bob Mintzer, which I helped organize a few years ago, he said that once, by necessity, he started arranging right onto the score. It was during an airplane flight where he needed to have the arrangement done at the end of the flight, and that has been his process ever since. I’ve known a few arrangers who have simply started writing parts, no score.
The point and goal is be suitably and comfortably organized in order to best support your creative efforts.
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.
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’tready. 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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 Quartet, Longing) , 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 MCG, Old 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.
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
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.
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.
Give Me More
I’ve had the pleasure of playing with and writing for some serious players. Whenthe 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 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.
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.
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!
Toronto, Ontario CANADA
Editor’s note: Please check out one of Terry’s composition, this timefor 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
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.
From the time I became the principal director of the WDR Big Band in the fall of 1994, I started thinking about the possibility of composing a multi-movement concerto for jazz orchestra specifically for that band. I decided that, if it was to be for a jazz orchestra, it should be written expressly for the special qualities of the particular musicians in the band and should also showcase the skills of the individual sections as well as the full ensemble. However, it wasn’t long before my interest in the immediate projects at hand and the excitement of writing for a wide range of internationally known guest soloists kept my creative imagination occupied and the idea of the concerto was forgotten. For some unknown reason, my attention returned to it during the spring of 1999, while looking forward to a good deal of free time in the summer months just ahead. It seemed like the time was right, and I planned to compose the piece in time for one of the band’s fall programs.
The idea of a concerto for jazz orchestra was initially inspired Bela Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, one of my favorite pieces of music since my college days in the mid and late 1960s. In terms of overall dimensions, Bartók’s scheme of five movements also appealed to me. It seemed to me that five movements could more completely display the exceptional ensemble and solo skills of the WDR Big Band and also allow for maximum range of tempos, expressive moods and orchestral colors. I eventually decided that the outer movements would be relatively fast swing in 4/4, with the slow movement in the middle, also in 4/4. For contrast, the second movement would be a medium tempo jazz waltz and the fourth would be a toccata of sorts, in 12/8, with even eighth notes and an Afro-Cuban character.
As I began to think about melodic and rhythmic ideas, I found myself coming back to the thought of organizing a twelve-tone row, primarily for melodic material. My first twelve-tone jazz piece was a blues called Blues for Anton, inspired by the symmetrical rows of Anton Webern during my undergraduate years as a classical piano and composition double major at Kent State University. At that time I was very impressed by George Russell’s writing that featured pianist Bill Evans, and was fascinated by John Carisi’s use of a twelve-tone row in his composition Moon Taj, from the Gil Evans recording Into the Hot. The ability of these composers to employ chromatic and polytonal concepts to jazz compositions and arrangements without abandoning either the swing rhythmic feeling or the spirit of the blues really inspired my own search in composing, arranging and improvising.
During the 1980s I was invited to compose an original piece for a recording project of trombonist Jim Pugh and bass trombonist Dave Taylor (The Pugh/Taylor Project), involving an instrumentation of two saxes with woodwind doubles, two violas, two cellos, rhythm section and the two trombonists. I took that opportunity to write a more ambitious piece in which a twelve-tone row was used as the main source for the thematic material and some of the harmonic structures, while returning to the blues form for the main themes and solo choruses. The piece was entitled Still the Blues (After All These Years), reflecting my enduring conviction that some connection to the feeling of the blues is an essential element of all great jazz.
From this earlier experience working with twelve-tone techniques, I felt that the use of a row as a source for thematic content could provide a self-imposed limitation that would enable my strongest musical influences to come through in a personal manner, while also providing an important unifying melodic element throughout the five movements. One of the final aspects of the large-scale structure of the piece was the decision to organize the five movements in keys that symmetrically divide the octave. Since there were to be five movements, it seemed that minor third relationships would be best suited. I decided that the outer movements would be in the key of C, with the inner movements in the keys of Eb, F# and A, respectively. I left the decision about major or minor modality to the more specific organization and development of each movement, with the assumption that all movements would have some connection to the blues, whether in actual form, melodically, harmonically, or simply expressively.
The twelve-tone row that I constructed strongly suggests blues relationships. The first seven notes of the original form consist of an enharmonic C7 chord with the blue third (Eb), blue fifth (Gb) and lowered ninth (Db). The first seven notes of the inversion form consist of an Ab7 chord with the blue third (Cb), raised eleventh (D) and thirteenth (F). The last five notes of the original and inversion forms consist of a Dm6 chord with the blue fifth (Ab) and an A7 chord with an enharmonic lowered ninth (A#). The first seven notes and the last five notes of both forms contain a diminished seventh chord, which relates to the minor third relationship between the main keys of the five movements of the piece. Of course, numerous harmonic structures that are commonly used in jazz have the notes of a diminished seventh chord within larger combinations of five or more chord tones.
Another final aspect that was decided before any actual themes were written, was that the first and final movements would begin with the same introductory material, primarily introducing the row in it’s prime form and setting the overall emotional tone for the piece. One of my favorite jazz compositions is a three-movement work that Bill Holman wrote for the Australian Jazz Quintet in 1957, Jazz in D Minor. The outer movements begin with the same thirty-measure introduction, which includes all the motivic material to be developed through all three movements. I was awed by Holman’s ability to follow the same thirty measures with two completely different pieces, each of which is equally compelling. Furthermore, having a lengthy introduction at the start of the outer movements, Holman balanced this with a much longer coda to conclude the final movement.
Of course, the work of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Bob Brookmeyer, Clare Fischer and many other jazz composers, as well as that of classical composers from Bach to Shostakovich have informed my own music through the years, and is a constant source of inspiration. The language of chromatic tonality is, arguably, western culture’s most unique musical gift to the world, and it is primarily jazz musicians who continue to use this language, enabling and encouraging its ongoing evolution.
My usual procedure in composing and arranging is to allow my ear and intuition to lead things. I only use techniques and theoretical knowledge in a conscious manner when I get stuck. The concerto opens with a majestic brass choral. The four melodic gestures of the lead trumpet line resulted from trying different rhythms with successive groups of notes in the row. The lead trumpet line in bars 1-9 presents a complete statement of the row, beginning on Eb. Although the first four notes suggest the actual key of the movement (C blues) the bass line and harmonic motion remain ambiguous until bars 15-21, when the progression leads to D7alt. and, eventually, G7alt. in subsequent measures. Although some of the brass voicings are bitonal, the voice leading is convincing as they move to more conventional harmonies at the end of the phrases. Strong voice leading is the most essential skill for achieving clear and colorful harmonic content.
The second statement of the row in the lead trumpet line in bars 10-16 is on A, a tritone lower than the first statement. Although the first two voicings are simply a transposition of the opening statement, the subsequent voicings continue in a contrasting manner as the row is divided into two long phrases, rather than four short phrases. The saxophone responses in unison octaves relate to the lead trumpet line and use some intervallic content from the row, but in a free manner. I simply heard what was suggested by the context of the brass material.
The main theme of the first movement plays with the blue third and blue seventh in a bitonal context of two solo instruments (trumpet and baritone sax, played by Klaus Osterloh and Jens Neufang, respectively) accompanied by bass and drums.While the baritone line clearly suggests the home key of C blues, the imitation by the trumpet is in Ab blues. I like this relationship because the first and fifth scale degrees in C (C and G) suggest the third and seventh scale degrees in Ab, which give the Cb and Gb in the trumpet line a strong blues color.
The first four notes of the baritone melody are the first four notes of the opening choral melody. However, by moving down from Eb to C instead of up, an entirely different melodic meaning is conveyed. When the two horns join each other rhythmically in the pickup to bar 37, the trumpet line clearly takes over the melody from the baritone. The trumpet’s four-note group, G-G#-B-C#, is the retrograde of notes 2 through 5 of the opening choral melody (C-Bb-G-Gb) transposed up a half step. The baritone line here was developed freely, but still uses some intervallic content from the row.
After the opening four bars in C blues, bars 37-44 suggest motion from B7 to Em9, A7 to AbM9+11, C#13sus. and F#9sus., which resolves deceptively to G7+9-9. This leads back to the key of C blues in bar 45, where the content of the small group is presented by the large ensemble.
The large ensemble statement of the main theme is cut short in order to keep the listener’s attention by developing material heard in the small group statement into a ten-bar transition to the second theme. While bars 37-38 are continued in a simple sequence in bars 39-40, bar 51 resolves the B7 chord to EM9-5 instead of Em9. Instead of completing the sequence heard earlier, a new starting point occurs. As a two-chord vamp is set up, the half note in the saxophone melody of bar 49 is lengthened, while the eighth note figure of bars 49-50 is shortened from six notes to five. Once the two-chord vamp has occurred twice, the eighth note line is stretched out by a full measure of eight notes, after which the vamp returns as the harmony moves from Eb7+9 to D7+9 in bar 59. This leads to the short second theme section, which begins with a pentatonic figure (F-Ab-Bb) whose shape is found in the first three notes of the inversion form of the row. The texture of this section is contrapuntal and, although the bass line and some of the melodic content clearly convey G blues, the lines are sometimes in a polytonal relationship.
I sometimes like to use classical formal relationships in jazz pieces, both to add another self-imposed limitation to work with and to acknowledge the rich European tradition of chromatic tonal music that many jazz musicians still draw from. In the classical sonata form, the second theme section is often in the key of the dominant, in relation to the main theme. Here, the main theme in a C blues tonality is followed by a second theme in a G blues tonality, established by the D7+9 chord. Note that the saxophone melody note is Db, enharmonically the major seventh, but also a blue note in the new key of G. Duke Ellington clearly heard that blue notes often sound convincing because the ear hears them as “right notes” in blues melodies, even if they are “wrong” notes in relation to the accompanying chords. According to Ellington, “If it sounds good, it’s good music. If it doesn’t, then it’s the other kind.” In this case, the Db recurs in the trumpet line of the second theme, where it is resolved up a half step (where the ear wanted it to go).
The second theme is followed by the closing section of the exposition, with stop time exchanges between the ensemble and the soloists leading to improvised solos by trumpet and baritone. The harmonic form for the solos combines blues and modal harmonies with G7+9 and Eb13+11 lasting for eight bars each. This is followed by a two-bar harmonic rhythm lasting eight measures, with backgrounds recalling the two-bar vamp figure from bars 51-52. At the end of each solo, the stop time exchanges from the end of the exposition return.
I decided to start the recapitulation with the second theme material, but in a higher, more climactic register. This soon descends to a lower register for a bit more contrapuntal development, which gradually builds to a cadence on a highly chromatic G7 chord that announces the return of the main theme. The brief coda features short exchanges between the soloists and the ensemble, ending on a Cm6/9 chord, but with unresolved extension of Gb, Ab and F in the higher instruments.
The opening of the second movement is my variation of the introduction to Stratusphunk by George Russell, as arranged by Gil Evans on the album Out of the Cool. The pyramid is taken from a retrograde of notes 1-7, transposed a minor third lower. It creates an octatonic voicing of Bb7, setting up the tonality of Eb blues. The solo bass trombone’s pickup, Bb-G, adds the eighth tone to complete the Bb half step-whole step octatonic scale. The Gb played on the downbeat of bar 6 clearly sounds like the blue third in the key of Eb.
The two eight-bar phrases from bar 6-21 each begin with the pitches Bb-G-Gb, notes 3-5 of the original form of the row. Each eight bars seems to suggest a harmonic turnaround leading back to Eb, although there is no rhythm section to clarify exactly what the chords are. At first, I tried following Bb, G and Gb with the three notes on either side in the row, Eb, C and Fb. I didn’t like the Fb, but substituting the Db next to it in the row seemed to make the perfect three-note response. From there on, I worked out the bass trombone line by ear until it sounded perfect to me. The two-beat cross rhythm in bars 10-11 and 18-19 definitely add momentum. Using a jazz waltz feel and a rhythmically developed bass trombone solo led the Stratusphunk reference into a totally unexpected direction, paying respect to the roots while creating a personal statement from them.
The second statement of the bass trombone theme is joined by a more active contrapuntal line that is bluesy in a less abstract way. This second line clearly suggests subtle chromatic motion away from the tonal center of Eb, to F# (bars 24-45), Ab (bar 26), Db (bars 27-29), C (bars 30-32) and F# (32-24), before concluding with a feeling of A (35-36). This second line was worked out by ear, although the sequence of intervals in the row was beginning to infuse the material with thematic unity s my ears more fully internalized the sounds.
The second theme of this movement is more romantic than bluesy, mainly to create contrast and balance. From this point until the return of the main theme near the end of the movement, the saxophones all switch to clarinets. Jens, the baritone saxophonist, enjoyed playing the little Eb clarinet, an instrument I was thrilled to be able to incorporate since hearing it in the music of Igor Stravinsky and Clare Fischer. The second tenor saxophonist, Rolf Römer, played Bb bass clarinet and the rest of the section played the normal Bb clarinets. I will come back to this section later on, in order to point out connections between the second themes of the second and fourth movements.
Because the first movement emphasized blues elements so strongly, I decided to develop the chord progression for the solos from the more romantic second theme. However, some elements from the second line of the first theme section return in a dialogue with the second theme. With the exception of the last two movements, the chord progressions for the solos in the concerto are never simply a repeat of progressions we hear earlier, but incorporate some of the same or similar harmonies to create a feeling of development and continuity rather than repetition. While repeating basically the same progression in small groups actually results in a high degree of freedom to alter and embellish that progression and still stay together as a group, the process of playing written music enables composers and arrangers to come up with much more unpredictable multi-layered musical stories with subtle connections and references in relation to different parts of a piece. The featured soloists in this movement are bass trombonist Lucas Schmid, valve trombonist Dave Horler and pianist Frank Chastenier. Dave was the lead trombonist, but loved to play solos on the valve instrument. Material from the second theme is used in further variation for backgrounds and interludes.
Between the valve trombone and piano solos the ensemble states a harmonization of the opening bass trombone solo line, scored for 5 flugelhorns, three trombones and bass trombone, followed by a rhythmically altered and melodically embellished variation of the same line harmonized for the clarinet choir. After the piano solo, a transition section for the ensemble leads back to the first theme section and a brief coda. The movement begins with a variation of the opening octatonic pyramid, but now on an Eb7 chord with the bass trombone providing an extra low Eb as a final solo statement.
As the third movement is a ballad, I wanted to feature our lead alto saxophonist, Heiner Wiberny. He is not only a beautiful lead player and consummate soloist, but he has a gorgeous ballad sound that can go more toward Charlie Parker or Johnny Hodges, depending on the repertoire. I was definitely thinking Johnny Hodges here. However, to provide contrast for a truly lush alto melody, I made an extended polytonal bluesy introduction that vacillates between brooding melancholy and dark humor. When the alto solo begins, the sun starts to peek out.
The main theme section of this movement uses extremely chromatic harmony that I first encountered in the music of Clare Fischer, from whom I learned that it is a hallmark of the symphonies and string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich, even in his first symphony that he wrote when he was nineteen years old. Voice leading is especially at the forefront here, and there are frequent nonharmonic tones that create tension, but they all resolved in a manner that is convincing to the ear. The alto melody is an inversion form of the row, transposed down a tritone. This melody is an exact inversion of the lead trumpet line of the chorale at the beginning of the concerto, although some pitches are repeated here for melodic interest and ornamentation. Although the alto line looks like it is in F in the first two measures, the key is actual Gb or F#, and the melody notes are altered tones or extensions.
Notice that, although the bass note in bar 24 is G, as in bar 16, the chord is C#m9-5 with G in the bass rather than a G chord. This begins a sequence of minor II-V progressions, which provide the harmonic content for the second theme. This theme features the expressive solo trumpet playing of Andy Haderer, who plays lead in the section. Most of the melodic content of the second theme is developed from the last two notes of the row used for the alto solo, E and G. Although the entire second theme is not shown here, bars 30-33 are mostly a sequence of bars 26-29, a whole step lower. The solo alto extends the second theme to ten bars with a two-bar extension that leads to the last statement of the main theme in the exposition, which is also extended from eight to ten measures.
At the end of the exposition a short section of the melancholy introduction returns, which is extended to lead to a solo by bassist John Goldsby. To contrast the warm romanticism of the main and second themes, I decided to come up with a chord progression that emphasized tonic minor chord types, which contrasts with the mood of the exposition. This progression returns in the final movement as the harmonic accompaniment to the second theme, and will be shown later in reference to that movement.
At the end of the bass solo a short transition leads to a reprise of the second theme, but now embellished and orchestrated as a brass shout section with octave melodic responses from the saxophones. The solo alto again plays the two-bar extension, now stretched to three bars, leading to the final statement of the main theme. However, the theme is now played in a higher octave by the trumpets and leads to the high point of the movement. The solo alto takes over one last time in the seventh bar.In this final statement of the main theme, which was originally eight bars and then extended to ten, it is stretched to fourteen bars. Introductory material returns with further development and leads to an unaccompanied solo alto phrase that ends on a bittersweet Gb6M7 chord with the blue third in the solo alto.
The drums establish the 12/8 Afro-Cuban groove in the first two bars of the fourth movement. The ensemble then comes in with a flourish, establishing the key of A minor. Although the introduction has little to do with the tone row, the rhythm section’s pickup measure in bar 8 is the retrograde of the same inversion form used for the alto solo in the previous movement. The form is like a rondo, with the feeling of a toccata.
The main theme is heard five times, each with a different orchestration. Where the second movement featured the saxophone section on clarinets, this movement features them on piccolo, flutes and alto flutes. As in a good portion of the second movement, I switched the trumpets to flugelhorns, preferring the darker sound for this movement, to contrast with the trumpets in the final movement. It is the flugelhorns that first state the main theme.
The primary melodic figure, E-D-B-C-A, comes from the retrograde of notes 6-10 of the inversion form of the row, transposed down a perfect fourth. The melody of bars 9-13 is simply rhythmic play with the first five tones of the A minor scale, especially the seven-beat cross rhythm from beat three of bar 10 through beat four of bar 13. The emphasis of the notes B and D moves the melody on to temporary resolution in bar 14. Once I had these first few bars, I eventually heard the rest, including the tonicization of IV in bars 14 -16 and the tonicization of III in bars 17-19. The use of the Ab on the A7 chord in bar 16 creates a pungent blues effect, but resolves convincingly to G before continuing on to the third and root of the D minor chord. The complete retrograde of the inversion form of the row recurs in bar 22, here as a pickup bar to the return of the bass vamp with colorful trombone chords announcing the next statement of the theme. On the repeat of the theme, the trombones contribute some counter lines and harmonic punctuation.
The second theme in this rondo is developed from the second theme of the second movement. The group of tones, C-Db-Bb-Ab-G-E in bars 42-46 of the second movement, and G-Ab-F-Eb-D-B in bars 36-38 of this movement are transpositions of notes 3-8 of the retrograde of the inversion form of the row. I have included chord symbols here to save space, while giving some harmonic and rhythmic context to the use of this common material. The eight bars of harmonized brass content beginning at bar 36 are followed by nine bars of more active melodic development for the flutes and piano (unison octaves) with brass accompaniment, all leading to a flute solo by second tenor saxophonist Rolf Römer. The chord progression is taken from the second theme, with a few small alterations.
The flute solo concludes with a brief interlude for brass and rhythm sections that leads to a statement of the theme by the trombones. Here the pickup material heard in bar 22 is played by the brass section, and the flutes and piano play the harmonic material heard in the trombones at bars 23-24. The trombone statement of the theme is followed by a short ensemble interlude that leads to the third theme of this rondo, a funky eight-bar blues form in the key of Ab that starts on the IV chord (Db7). This is, perhaps, the most extreme contrast in the concerto. For the only time in the movement, the feel changes from Afro-Cuban to that of a 4/4 shuffle groove, but still notated in 12/8. Here I decided to have a guitar solo by Paul Shigihara, and state the theme after the solo as a bridge to the next recurrence of the main theme. The melodic content of the blues theme comes from notes 3-5 of the inversion form of the row and notes 2-4 of the original form. The blues theme is played twice before a short ensemble interlude leads to the next statement of the theme. It should be noted that the interludes throughout the movement return to similar material that is reorchestrated or developed differently in each recurrence.
The next statement of the theme is made by the flute choir, with three flutes and two alto flutes. The flugelhorns play a counter line in the middle, and the entire ensemble comes together in a send off for a trombone solo by then second trombonist, Ludwig Nuss (he has been playing lead since Dave’s retirement several years ago). For contrast, I decided to start this solo off with a rhythmically open feel, still in 12/8, and sixteen bars of G#o7/A, which eventually leads to the chord changes of the second theme as heard in the flute solo. The trombone solo is followed by a short interlude that leads to a reprise of the second theme, exactly as heard earlier.
The movement concludes with a full ensemble orchestration of the main theme. Two flutes and two alto flutes double the harmony of four of the five flugelhorns, but an octave above, while a piccolo doubles the lead flugelhorn two octaves above. The trombones play the accompanimental material heard in the opening statement by the flugelhorns. A brief and slightly humorous coda ends with a diminuendo and a final statement by the trombone and rhythm sections of the opening five notes of the main theme: E-D-B-C-A.
The fifth and final movement starts exactly like the first, with the brass choral and saxophone responses. However, when the fast tempo begins, it is a bit faster than in the first movement. Here it initiates dissonant pyramids alternating with eight-bar drum solos. These lead to a polytonal vamp section emphasizing a G pedal, which serves as a second introduction before the opening theme is stated. While the fourth movement made references to material from the second movement, the fifth movement refers back to material from both the first and third movements. Here, the saxes develop a figure from notes 1-5 of the original form of the row, transposed down a major third. This recalls the Ab blues line of the solo trumpet in the main theme of the first movement (Ex. 3), again creating a polytonal texture.
As the saxophone lines develop, the polytonal vamp starts to move up by half steps, with the implied key center of the sax lines moving along with it. This continues to build tension until the vamp reaches a B pedal (the leading tone in the key of C), which sets up a G altered dominant chord that leads to the main theme.
The theme is stated by trumpet and tenor saxophone, as the movement features trumpeter John Marshall and tenor saxophonist Olivier Peters, along with drummer Hans Dekker. The melodic content comes from the baritone melody of the main theme from the first movement (Ex. 3) Here, the twelve bar melody is divided into two six-bar sections, rather than the three four-bar sections of a blues. In the solo section however, the form sounds more like a conventional minor blues, with Ab9+11 substituting for Fm7. This move from tonic minor to the dominant on the lowered sixth degree of the key, and back to the tonic is heard in compositions from Duke Ellington (The Mooche, The Shepherd, etc.) to contemporary jazz composers. The last four bars (90-93) are a variant of bars 37-40 of the main theme from the first movement (Ex. 3).
In the repetition of the theme, the sequence from bars 90 and 91 to bars 92 and 93 is interrupted, recapturing the listener’s attention with the start of an eight-bar stop time transition. This is a variant of the material that started in bar 49 of the first movement (Ex. 4). Here, however, the stop time material continues in regular two-bar phrases, as I wanted to keep the rhythmic momentum going to set up the second theme, which begins in bar 102.
The second theme is based on the chord progression used for the improvised bass solo in the third movement. This eight-bar progression emphasizes tonic minor chords, beginning with A minor. In this movement, going from C minor to A minor brightens things up as we move to a key that takes away flats (or adds sharps) to the tonic scale. Occurring rather suddenly, the key change is also a dramatic gesture. In the slow movement, whose home key was F# or Gb major, the move to A minor has a much different psychological effect.
The final statement of the main theme in the exposition, which follows the second theme, leads to a variation of the earlier polytonal vamp. This time, however, it emphasizes FmM7 with the third in the bass. The saxophone material from the earlier vamp is further developed here, and eventually leads to a G altered dominant chord that sets up the improvised solo choruses for trumpet and tenor saxophone. In the bridge, or second theme area of the trumpet solo, the piano plays the harmonic accompaniment from the bass solo of the third movement, but in this fast tempo (Ex. 11). In the tenor solo, the same content is orchestrated for the ensemble. Both solos end by returning to the vamp material from the end of the exposition. At the end of the tenor solo, however, the harmony leads to the same vamp material a whole step higher, on GmM7 with the third in the bass. This heightens the tension, which is gradual resolved as the vamp material descends chromatically, returning to the earlier FmM7. The ascending quarter note lead lines at the end of this section emphasize minor thirds and whole steps, as in notes 1-3 of the inversion form of the row. This is followed by exchanges between the drums and the ensemble, with the melodic content coming from different transpositions of notes 1-5 of the inversion form. The ascending sequences build to a resolution on a powerful E altered dominant voicing that leads to a full ensemble statement based on the chord changes of the second theme.
Because there was so much harmonized material in this movement, I decided to orchestrate this ensemble statement as full ensemble unison with bass and drums accompaniment. Although Ellington used this texture effectively throughout his career, it is surprising that it has been used so seldom in recent decades. The melodic vocabulary is that of basic swing and bebop that just felt right as a contrast to the thick ensemble writing and harmonic tension. At the end of this unison passage, the G altered chord is extended for two extra bars in order to draw attention to the final statement of the main theme. The main theme returns in its original small group orchestration, leading again to the vamp on FmM7/Ab with the bluesy saxophone lines on top. A brief extension of this material leads to a powerful full ensemble G altered dominant chord that sets up the coda.
The concluding section begins with a loud descending statement of the first six notes of the original form of the row (Eb-C-Bb-G-F#-E) with high register trumpets and altos in octaves, together with low register trombones, tenor and baritone playing the inversion of the same line starting on C# (C#-E-F#-A-Bb-C). This is followed by exchanges between the drums and low register sax and trombone chords. In the final gesture, a harmonized statement of the retrograde of the original row form gradually ascends to a climactic Cm11 chord. The final descending and ascending gestures heard in the coda seemed like the perfect conclusion to the final movement and to the entire work.
In retrospect, I realize that the creation of this large-scale piece was a summation of my composing experience up to that point. I can hear the influences of all my major jazz and classical composers, brought together for the first time in a single work while being expressed in a personal voice and from a personal point of view. Because of this, I always look back on Concerto for Jazz Orchestra as one of the most satisfying pieces I have written. I’ll always be thankful to Wolfgang Hirschmann, the West German Radio and the WDR Big Band for providing me with the opportunity to direct and write for a world-class jazz orchestra for eight unforgettable years.
Concerto for Jazz Orchestra
Movement 1: Maestoso; Medium Swing
Movement 2: Jazz Waltz
Movement 3: Ballad
Movement 4: Toccata; Latin
Movement 5: Maestoso; Fast Swing
About the Author:
Bill Dobbins is professor of jazz studies at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where he teaches the jazz composing and arranging courses and directs the award winning Eastman Jazz Ensemble and Eastman Studio Orchestra. As a pianist, he has performed with orchestra and chamber ensembles under the direction of Louis Lane, Pierre Boulez, Lukas Foss and Frederick Fennell, and he has performed and recorded with such jazz artists as Clark Terry, Al Cohn, Red Mitchell, Phil Woods, Bill Goodwin, Gary Foster, Dave Liebman, John Goldsby and Peter Erskine. He joined the Eastman faculty in 1973, and was instrumental in designing both the graduate and undergraduate curricula for Eastman’s Jazz Studies and Contemporary Media program. Many of his students have been heard in the big bands of Count Basie, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Chuck Mangione, Maria Schneider, and Bob Brookmeyer’s New Art Orchestra.
From 1994 through 2002 Mr. Dobbins was principal director of the WDR Big Band in Cologne, Germany, and he headed the jazz studies department at the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne from 1998 to 2002. Concert, radio, television and tour projects under his direction with the WDR Big Band included internationally acclaimed soloists Clark Terry, Dave Liebman, Randy Brecker, Gary Bartz, Kevin Mahogany, Art Farmer, Steve Lacy, Paquito D’Rivera, Mark Feldman, Gary Foster, Claire Fischer, Peter Erskine, Nicolas Simion and the Kings Singers. As guest director, he continues to write and direct projects for the WDR Big Band, the Netherlands Metropole Orchestra and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.
Advance Music, Mainz, publishes Mr. Dobbins’ compositions and arrangements for big band, chamber music combinations and solo piano. Jazz education programs worldwide have adopted his volumes of transcriptions of classic jazz piano solos and jazz textbooks for use in their courses. These include Chick Corea: Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, Herbie Hancock: Classic Jazz Compositions and Piano Solos, and Clare Fischer: Alone Together/Just Me, Jazz Arranging and Composing: a Linear Approach, A Creative Approach to Jazz Piano Harmony, and Arranging for the Contemporary Big Band, and a DVD, The Evolution of Solo Jazz Piano. Recent CDs include J.S. Bach: Christmas Oratorio, with the Kings Singers and the WDR Big Band, arranged and conducted by Bill Dobbins (Signum Classics) and Composers Series (solo piano) Volume 1: the Music of Clare Fischer and George Gershwin, and Volume 2: the Music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn (Sons of Sound).
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:
make the complete thing
bring it to the World
hear it back and live with it
edit as necessary
DONE now start a NEW CYCLE!
So, if you’re writing Hot Jazz Tune, this would mean:
write a complete piece
bring it in to your Hot Jazz Combo
hear them play it, record it, play it at a few gigs, etc
make some tweaks if it needs it
DONE now write a NEW HOT JAZZ TUNE!
Or, if you’re writing Sick Beatz for Partiez this would mean:
make a complete piece
release it on the internet, play it at shows, have a sick MC spit over it, etc
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
make some tweaks if it needs it
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 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.