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
“I know that there’s a thing called ‘writer’s block,’ but, just that term—if it becomes kind of a reality, if you believe that term—you could maybe get writer’s block. Fearing it, you would bring it to yourself. All it means is, the ideas are not coming. You’re out fishing, your hook is in the water, you’ve got bait on it, but you’re not catching anything today. It just means that: you keep fishing. You’ve got to have patience.” -David Lynch
Last week, I released a new music video of my big band, Big Heart Machine, performing “Unblock the Stoppage,” the first track from our newest album Live at The Jazz Gallery. I composed this piece in January of 2018 in the midst of the worst bout of writer’s block that I have ever experienced. I’m sure you, dear reader, have been in a similar situation: fretting about an impending deadline, wasting hours sitting at the piano, staring impotently at a blank piece of manuscript paper (or computer screen, or whatever), pacing around the apartment leveling silent invectives at your delicate inner self.
I’d had writer’s block before, but never in such a crippling way. In retrospect, I think I know why I couldn’t write. At the time, I had just finished recording my first album of large ensemble recordings. I was a budding composer. Not even, really. I was aspiring to become a budding composer. I had never had any real deadlines before. Nor had I ever had any real expectations for my music. But now, with a studio recording under my belt, I was certain that I would never again be able to match its success. I wanted everything I was writing to be “better” than my previous efforts. I was sure that my band would be disappointed in my lack of creativity. I was, clearly, lost in my own head.
Releasing “Unblock the Stoppage” to the world last week got me thinking again about writer’s block. My hope is that sharing a simple strategy for dealing with the inability to compose will be of use to you. You can actually hear this strategy at work in “Unblock the Stoppage”; in fact, that is exactly what I’ve come to love about the piece. Let me explain.
“Things’ll come to you”
I love what MF Doom has to say here, and if you find that you can’t write—and don’t have an impending deadline—I strongly cosign his advice to “leave it alone, do something else.” By all means: read, play with your children, sit in silence, go on a walk. These are certainly better ways to spend your time than sitting alone ruminating, and, as an added bonus, you may be struck by an idea when you are least expecting it.
But what about when a composition or arrangement is due soon? Maybe in a couple days? Tomorrow morning? You have to be able to deliver something at a professional standard if you’d like to build a good reputation and get more work. (Even if you don’t have a deadline, I think it’s a great idea to create artificial deadlines for yourself. Doing this will force you to at least write something. For example, scheduling a reading session with your friends is a great low-stress way to force yourself to finish writing something.)
In the case of “Unblock the Stoppage,” I took the advice of my former teacher, Jim McNeely (who incidentally wrote a beautiful essay for this very blog not too long ago). In a private lesson, Jim once told me to focus simply on filling as many pages as I could with notes. He instructed me to spin ideas out in any and every way imaginable without impeding myself by worrying about whether or not those ideas might be good or bad, useful or useless. I remember him saying, “Get a pencil in your hand, get your hand moving, and enjoy the process of exploration.” John Cage put it another way: “Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.”
So, years after that formative lesson, I took Jim’s advice to heart. I filled many pages with sketches of ideas. As it turned out, generating the raw material wasn’t the real issue for me; the problem was that all of my ideas were totally incoherent. I couldn’t find a common thread. I couldn’t imagine a form that could contain such a weird admixture of nonsense. Despite my best efforts, I was still blocked up.
Looking at my sketches today, it’s clear that I was grasping at straws. A lot of my first ideas are just geometric shapes, random sequences of notes, and vague instructions to myself.
On the third staff of this first page of sketches, I wrote a note to myself: “Vibes and piano have retrograde rhythms… one a composed accelerando, one a [ritardando].” This vague kernel of an idea would eventually become the culminating section of the entire piece! Except, instead of using only vibraphone and piano, I had the entire rhythm section slowing down while the horns simultaneously sped up, creating a novel and discombobulating effect.
On a subsequent page, I was further experimenting with temporal illusions. Look at the bottom left corner of the following page. I wrote to myself, “Each section [of the band] at [their] own pace.” This unclear instruction is followed by three staves of ideas that I spun out from the interval series of the composition’s main melody. Ultimately, I ended up freely presenting these at three structural junctures in the final version of “Unblock the Stoppage.” At these moments, the conductor cedes control of the band; sub-groups within the orchestra are instructed to listen to one another at proceed at their own unique pace, disregarding any musicians who are not in their indicated group.
On the same page, you’ll find a decidedly conventional harmonization of the main melody for the saxophone section. This bit made it into “Unblock the Stoppage” as well, in a moment where nostalgia for the classic big band sound is distorted by slow, microtonal undulations.
The following page just has a lot of scribbles and the instruction (in all caps) “THINK ABOUT MINGUS MEETS MESHUGGAH. SLOPPY GESTURES & TEXTURES.” I don’t know if I achieved the former, but I nailed the latter!
The point is, I had a plethora of ideas, but I hadn’t the slightest clue how they might work together as a lucid piece of music. Previously, my process had been more linear; idea A would generate the material for idea B, and these ideas would be clearly related by some common thread. The form would be obviously extrapolated from the inherent necessities of the material. But, in this case, I was a fisherman lost at sea, desperately searching for any beacon of light.
“Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time”
As my deadline approached, and my desperation peaked, I was struck with the most obvious idea. Why not just paste together all of the pages of random musical material strewn about my studio? Why not simply embrace—nay, exploit—the incoherence of my ideas? That, in and of itself, could make for an interesting formal device.
As it turns out (completely unbeknownst to myself at the time [which is so often the case]), I was not the first composer to build an entire piece of music around disorganized, unrelated materials. In fact, one of my favorite contemporary composers, Andrew Norman, reached the exact same conclusion in dealing with his writer’s block while writing his orchestral composition “Unstuck.” In that piece’s program notes, Norman explained:
I have never been more stuck than I was in the winter of 2008. My writing came to a grinding halt in January and for a long time this piece languished on my desk, a mess of musical fragments that refused to cohere. It was not until the following May, when I saw a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and remembered one of its iconic sentences, that I had a breakthrough realization. The sentence was this: “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time,” and the realization was that the lack of coherence in my ideas was to be embraced and explored, not overcome.
I only discovered Norman’s composition while researching this essay, and I was excited by a number of eerie resonances shared by our compositions. Most obviously, our titles are uncannily similar. Looking more closely, I discovered that Norman- who is ten years older than me- wrote “Unstuck” exactly ten years before I wrote “Unblock the Stoppage.” It seems that we both had a moment of crisis in our late twenties due to impending deadlines and lack of cogency in our pre-compositional ideas. And we both ended up with musical works whose raison d’être was, essentially, lack of coherence.
Upon further reflection, I realized that these commonalities are in no way surprising. In fact, it’s safe to assume that this very thing happens to people in all sorts of creative endeavors: after some initial career success, the desire to better oneself results in a lot of second-guessing, hemming-and-hawing, and stressing out. These emotional barriers make the act of creating something new all but impossible.
Norman and I found the same solution to our problem with compositional ineffectiveness. We simply embraced our impotence! In Norman’s case, it seems that through wrestling with an overabundance of seemingly-random ideas, he stumbled onto a mode of composition that resonated not only with himself, but with the modern zeitgeist of short attention spans and overwhelming streams of competing information. His recent orchestral masterpiece “Play” inhabits the same sound-world consisting of an immense amount of discreet ideas deployed in rapid succession.
In my own case, since those anxiety-ridden weeks during which I composed “Unblock the Stoppage,” I truly haven’t had an issue with generating new music. I hope I’m permanently cured, but most likely, I’ll find myself blocked up again. I’m afraid it might be the case that we must go through a dry spell or ten in order to learn for ourselves how to deal with writer’s block- just as Norman, McNeely, Cage, MF Doom, and Lynch have all done. Maybe my experience will save one or two of you from such a fate, but as I sit here typing, I admit I’m doubtful.
So, when that inevitable moment arrives (if it hasn’t already), I leave you with this advice: it ain’t that heavy, my friend. We have to stop putting unnecessary pressure on ourselves to write the Next Great Piece. Instead, I suggest that a more effective goal would be to just write Something. Anything. Then, do it again. And again and again and again. In other words, have patience and keep fishing.
About the Author:
“Perhaps you’ve heard about a new big-band resurgence in New York. Near the center of that wave is this 18-piece ensemble led by a Midwestern-born multireedist and composer named Brian Krock.” (Nate Chinen, WBGO) Known mainly as the brain behind the behemoth band Big Heart Machine, composer and multi-instrumentalist Brian Krock writes music that simultaneously embraces and transcends the diverse array of musical genres he works within. A fierce and probing improviser on the alto saxophone, he has also had the opportunity to make creative music in New York’s classical, theater, and pop music scenes playing all of the woodwind instruments.
A recipient of a Master’s Degree in Composition from the Manhattan School of Music, Brian was a student of world-renowned jazz composer Jim McNeely and acclaimed opera composer Dr. J. Mark Stambaugh. Highlights from his long list of awards and honors include the Aaron Copland Recording Grant, the Manhattan Prize in Composition for his “String Quartet No. 1,” two ASCAP Young Jazz Composer’s Awards, a composer-residency at the Bloomingdale School of Music, and most recently commissions from the New York Youth Symphony and the Metropole Orkest with Grammy-winning R&B vocalist Lalah Hathaway. Krock’s music is notable for its seamless incorporation of contemporary classical techniques, heavy metal aesthetics, and free group improvisation. In this way, he hopes to continue the tradition of saxophonist/composers such as Anthony Braxton, Steve Coleman, Tim Berne, and Henry Threadgill. For Krock, composition is a daily practice that challenges him to continually rethink the norms of the jazz tradition whilst paying tribute to the daring iconoclasts who paved the way toward creative freedom.
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.
|↑1||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.|
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:
- alto saxophone
- 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.
|↑1||A 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|
|↑2||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.|
|↑3||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.|
|↑4||I.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.|
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.”
(All photos by Bryan Murray)
Thank you to the ISJAC for inviting me to contribute to the blog. I didn’t know about this resource before the invitation, and I’ve learned a ton since diving into the archives. I’d like to offer up a commentary on my journey through the world of composing creative music in a small group setting with the hope of inspiring those who are wanting to jump into the process but may not know a path to take.
I’ve been afforded the opportunity to present clinics on improvisation, composition, and everything in between over the past 20 years in places near and far. One of the proverbial questions that always arises is, “So how did you approach composing original music?” So here are a few ideas that I have been relaying to musicians getting their pens/keyboards wet in the composition game:
Composition as Improvisational Language
When I arrived in Boston in 1997 to attend my undergrad, I met Darren Barrett, the great trumpeter/composer who was just finishing his studies at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at the New England Conservatory of Music. I asked him about the idea of composing and how he approached it. He told me, “You know, when you’re composing, you’re documenting what springs from your improvising mind. It’s all improvisational language.” This idea initially sent me for a loop, but eventually made sense and settled in nicely. Darren later relayed a relating idea of writing out solos to tunes that you’ve been working on just to have something in front of you that you can play variations on. I started to really work on this and that’s when the idea of composing for small groups (what I was into at the time, and still am) started to take shape.
Contrafacts are our Friends
I took the idea “composing in real time” and locked myself in a practice room with a tape recorder, a pair of headphones, and my CD Discman. I brought recordings of songs that I really dug at the time on cd with me, put on headphones and started playing along with them (in many ways, that’s a lot hipper than playing with an Aebersold or iRealPro), while at the same time recording myself practicing in those sessions. I then listened back to the practice sessions and transcribed anything from my playing that I thought could become a composition. What I later realized was that by doing this, I was able to “creep” into the habit of writing out melodies that were already attached to a particular chord progression. Below are a few examples of contrafacts that I’ve recorded:
Found It (an original based on Myron Walden’s Like a Flower Seeking the Sun)
3rd Shift (an original based on Wayne Shorter’s Night Dreamer)
Learning Songs to Write Songs
As I began to write contrafacts, I did my best to become more mindful of making a stronger effort to learn about the art of composing interesting harmonic progressions for improvisers. At the time, I didn’t know many songs but I was attending a weekly jam session at Wally’s Jazz Café in Boston, where tunes that I didn’t know were being called left and right. I made it a point to go to the local record stores (there were about 5 really good ones in Boston/Cambridge at the time) and spend all of my work study money on records that had the quintessential versions of the songs that I had to learn on them. I then transcribed the song(s) on the record along with all of the other songs on the record, which built my repertoire immensely. It was there that I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the foundations of consonant/dissonant harmonic functions in this music. This gave me the ability to compose without relying on chord changes from other tunes and only returning to that idea when I feel the itch! I always tell my students that you don’t have to give up the idea of learning more standards if you want to start to compose original material and vice versa.
Have a Band/Gig? Write Flexibly for It!
I was lucky to have a steady gig on the weekends leading my own band for over 15 years in Boston at Wally’s Jazz Café. It was really an incubator for compositional experimentation for me. It was unique to me because I was able to test out new material constantly (with no artistic constraints whatsoever) for an audience that didn’t necessarily come to hear us play. While I found that to be a welcomed challenge, I also faced the challenge of writing music for great musical bandmates that juggled busy life/school schedules, therefore limiting available time to rehearse. There was also the aspect of hiring subs, which always altered the repertoire for any given night. I started to compose and organize older compositions of mine into 3 graded categories that I found to be useful. Examples are at the below the description:
Grade 1: Songs that are easily sight-readable by any competent musician, needing no rehearsal. Fun songs to improvise on (“blowing tunes”) that make the band sound like “a rehearsed band”.
Grade 2: Songs that would need to be looked at ahead of time for most competent musicians, but don’t necessarily need to be rehearsed beforehand. These songs strengthened the idea of what a “band” sounds like to novice listeners. These songs have unconventional song forms, challenging harmonic progressions, and melodies that need shedding before hitting the stage.
Grade 3: Songs that need a thorough rehearsing with the band. These songs are written to push and advance my technique and challenge my bandmates as well as the audience.
After you’ve composed pieces and considered what level of musicianship is required to have the songs come to life in a way that you’ve hoped for, considering organizing them into separate books that can be easily pulled out to match the appropriate personnel in your band for any given gig.
It’s my sincere hope that at least one person finds something helpful from post. I invite everyone reading this to take any or all of the information and run with it!
Sent with LOVE,
About the Author:
Jason Palmer was recently named to the inaugural class of the Boston Artist in Residence Fellowship for Music Composition. He also received a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works for 2019. In 2011 and 2017, he was named a Fellow in Music Composition by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. In 2014, Jason was honored as a recipient of the French American Cultural Exchange Jazz Fellowship where he collaborated with French pianist Cedric Hanriot, collaboration on an album and touring the United States and Europe. Jason won 1st Place in the 2009 Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition and was cited in the June 2007 issue of Downbeat Magazine as one of the “Top 25 trumpeters of the Future”.
In addition to performing on over forty albums as a sideman, Jason has recorded thirteen albums under his own name on labels Ayva, Steeplechase, Whirlwind, Newvelle, and most recently with Giant Step Arts. Four of his recordings were reviewed by Downbeat Magazine, all receiving 4 stars or better. Jason has toured in over 30 countries with saxophonists Mark Turner, Greg Osby, Grace Kelly, and Matana Roberts, and has been a featured guest artist on multiple projects in Portugal, Mexico, Canada and Russia.
In addition to a heavy performing schedule, Jason Palmer offers his passion for improvised music as an Assistant Professor of Ensembles and Brass at Berklee College of Music. Jason has also served as an Assistant Professor at Harvard University and at New England Conservatory. He has also served on the faculty at the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City.
Like most avid music listeners, music moves me in deeply visceral ways. Listening to music for me is just as physical an experience as it is intellectual, if not more so. The vibrations of Coltrane’s saxophone, the deep grooves of a Brazilian samba band, the emotional expressiveness of a perfectly delivered lyric, the tension, release and drama of a perfectly developed Maria Schneider arrangement, or the resonance of an expertly crafted Gil Evans orchestration, are just a few examples of how very real and measurable aspects of music making can emotionally and physically alter the music listener. Of course, most serious music listeners and musicians are aware of this kind of visceral musical power, however, it has been my experience that many people avoid making the kind of analytical observations mentioned above, perhaps in fear of ruining the musical “magic”.
As I delve deeper and deeper into the world of music creation which includes composition, improvisation, arranging, orchestration, post-production, and performing, I have found it enormously helpful to try and identify specific traits of the music that has profoundly moved me in an attempt to understand how that musical power operates. Why does Jimmy Cobb’s ride pattern FEEL so good and how does it differ from the ordinary ride pattern of aspiring jazz students? Why does Duke Ellington’s music elicit so much excitement and maintain the focus of the listener? Why does the voice of Milton Nascimento almost bring me to tears? I don’t pretend to have all the answers but I have found this process of musical interrogation to be incredibly inspiring and fruitful in my creative process, and l hope to inspire others to perhaps dig a little deeper and listen more carefully and thoughtfully to the music they love.
To that end, I’ve compiled a short list of songs or albums that have moved me in deep and meaningful ways over the past two years, highlighting some of the traits that I found to be creatively inspiring. The result can be heard on our new full-length album, “The Hope I Hold”, featuring the indie jazz ensemble, Catharsis, just released on Greenleaf Music last week.
Every single musician around the world should know this album by heart. It is, in my opinion (and many other Brazilians’) one of the most important genre defining albums of 20th century popular music. On a short list that would include Louis Armstrong’s “Hot Fives and Hot Sevens”, Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”, The Beatles’ “White Album”, Joni Mitchell’s “Blue”, Jimi Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland”, etc… The music is drawn from the rich folkloric tradition of Brazil, and in particular the African and indigenous influenced music of Northern Brazil, and combines it with jazz in the hands of some of the greatest Brazilian musicians of that time. Two of those musicians, Hermeto Pascoal and Airto Moreira, would go on to make huge contributions to both Brazilian and American music. The album is widely regarded to have helped spawn the genre of Musica Popular Brasileira, or MPB, which has completely changed my life after falling in love with the genre in recent years.
Charles Mingus’ “Reincarnation of a Love Bird”
I might be preaching to the choir with this choice but, of all the great Mingus compositions out there to learn from, this composition is, in my mind, in its own special category. Talk about songwriting genius! Every detail of this extended composition (the tune itself is over 60 measures long!) is so uniquely thoughtful that just when you think you’ve figured out where the song is headed it makes an unexpected turn, constantly challenging the listener to follow along and in return provides such a rewarding listen. From a technical standpoint, this composition sets the gold standard for perfect thematic development on every level – melodic, harmonic and rhythmic. The arrangement changes tempos, meters, etc… in typical Mingus fashion but still feels so natural. The original recording features one of the more inspiring introductions I know of. The tune epitomizes the way in which Mingus pushes me to avoid the road most travelled as a composer and to always search for the best possible songwriting decision at each and every turn. Finally, the song is a great example of what the best jazz should be and almost always is – challenging to play yet so rewarding when done so at the highest level. I wish more current jazz music followed these maxims.
Antonio Loureiro’s album Livre
My good friend and colleague, John Ellis, introduced me to Antonio’s music while touring with Catharsis earlier this year. (side note: I’m not sure there is any better place to discover music than while touring with your favorite musicians!!). Some of you might know Antonio from the work he does playing drums in Kurt Rosenwinkel’s Caimi Brazilian project. However, Antonio is also an unbelievable keyboardist, beautiful vocalist, and absolute genius songwriter and producer. I have not listened to a recording more than I’ve listened to Livre in a very long time. He calls his music Brazilian pop, but to me it sounds like all the things great modern jazz can be in 2019 – sophisticated yet rewarding songs played by virtuosic musicians striving to make the most beautiful music possible. The opening track, “Meu Filho Nasceu!”, a song Antonio wrote dedicated to the birth of his child, gives me goose bumps every time I listen (even after months of daily listening!). The harmony is so fresh yet deeply rooted in the songwriting traditions of jazz and Brazilian music a la Milton Nascimento, Toninho Horta, Hermeto Pascoal, etc… and the arrangement and production of the track is genius-level good.
Milton Nascimento and Lo Borges’ album Clube da Esquina
This is the album that, along with The Beatles and Duke Ellington, completely changed the trajectory of my musical life more than any other. Technically this was a collaborative project between a number of soon-to-be major forces in the 1970’s Brazilian music scene including Lo Borges, Beto Guedes, and Toninho Horta, but the album is, for all practical purposes, a Milton Nascimento record featuring some of his most magical compositions, unbelievably virtuosic singing and guitar playing, glorious arrangements some of which include a full orchestra, and deeply poetic and insightful lyrics. I can’t imagine the minds that were blown when it came out in 1972 because, almost 50 years later, my mind and body was altered forever when I first heard it, and upon the next one thousand lessons I continue to hear new and compelling details.
JJ Johnson’s “Euro Suite #1”
JJ is, of course, known universally as the most important jazz trombonist in history, and I would whole-heartedly agree. However, what many people don’t know, or are just peripherally aware of, is that JJ was a master composer and arranger. In fact, JJ spent much of the late 60’s and 70’s living in LA composing for Hollywood and television shows including regular contributions to The Mod Squad and The Six Million Dollar Man. JJ’s composing reminds me exactly of his improvising (as it should!) – perfectly crafted to tell a compelling musical story, full of drama, yet utterly refined so as to not include any unnecessary excess or gimmickry. My favorite composition BY FAR, and something I was deeply inspired by while writing the music for our upcoming Catharsis album, “The Hope I Hold”, is his 6-minute magnum opus, “Euro Suite #1”. Actually, I recently adapted the piece for trombone choir to be performed at this year’s International Trombone Festival in Muncie, Indiana in honor of what would have been JJ’s 100th birthday. I’m told JJ”s widow will be in attendance which is SUPER exciting. This facet of JJ’s career is what has inspired me to develop my craft as a composer and arranger, in addition to instrumental performance technique, and something I return to on a regular basis.
Edu Lobo’s “Uma Vez Um Caso” from his album, Limite das Aguas
The Brazilian singer/songwriter, Edu Lobo, released the tune “Uma Vez Um Caso” in 1976, over 40 years ago, but the composition sounds categorically modern and fresh. Besides being an incredible composition (it reminds of me of Brazilian Mozart in that every detail of the recording is in its perfect place) the music also inspired me to do more singing in my own musical projects. I love the rapport he has with his female vocalist, the equally amazing Joyce, which is something that Camila Meza and I strive to do on our tune, “Campinas”.
Sami Joik Norwegian folk song tradition
– as sung by the Norwegian indie singer/songwriter, Marja Mortennson and her trio with Daniel Herskedal and Jakop Janssonn
I heard Marja and her incredible trio, all based in Norway, perform at the Katowice JazzArt Festival in Poland. I was totally oblivious to the Sami Joik folk singing tradition of northern Norway and was utterly captivated by both the tradition and its interpretation in the hands of Marja, Daniel and Jakop. The tradition, like so many folk music traditions, uses music to tell the story of the Sami people and their culture and history. However, what makes this vocal tradition unique is that it is a word-less music, relying on the expressiveness of the human voice and the power of MUSIC (music does not include lyrics in my definition) to capture the essence of important individuals, family members, etc… of the Sami people. Marja pointed out in their set that while music with words are limited to the specific verbal language used and the serious expressive limitations of that language, the Joik tradition can capture the essence and unique qualities of its subject by relying on the power of MUSIC and SOUND bypassing the limitations of verbal language.
As you might have noticed, many of the artists on this list are part of an incredibly rich Brazilian musical tradition from the late 1960’s and 1970’s called Musica Popular Brasileira, or MPB. Below is a playlist featuring my favorite songs from the MPB genre that I discovered while falling down the rabbit hole that is Brazilian music. These songs, albums and artists have completely transformed my musical world over the past two years.
About the Author:
Hailed in the Downbeat International Critics Poll as #1 Rising Star trombonist, a player “of vision and composure” according to The New York Times, Ryan Keberle has developed a one-of-a-kind voice both on his instrument and as a composer, earning distinction among jazz’s most adventurous new voices. Keberle’s music integrates his wide-ranging experiences into a highly personal vernacular — immersed in jazz tradition, drawing on world music, rock and other influences, seeking fresh and original pathways. His flagship ensemble, Catharsis, has released five albums, three on Dave Douglas’s Greenleaf Music record label, to worldwide critical acclaim.
In 2017 Catharis turned its attention to political turmoil in the U.S. with the protest album Find the Common, Shine a Light, praised by The Nation as “unpretentiously intelligent and profoundly moving.”
Keberle has also worked in endlessly varied settings with musicians ranging from superstars to up-and-coming innovators, in jazz, indie rock, R&B and classical music. As a featured soloist with the Maria Schneider Orchestra, he collaborated with David Bowie on his 2015 single “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime).” He has performed extensively with the acclaimed songwriter Sufjan Stevens, with Brazilian superstar Ivan Lins, and with the Saturday Night Live house band. He has accompanied soul hit-makers Alicia Keys and Justin Timberlake as well as jazz legends Rufus Reid and Wynton Marsalis.
Recording technology has provided the arranger/orchestrator with alternative possibilities. The studio environment in contrast to live performance is analogous to making a film versus creating a stage production in a theater. The film maker can use techniques that transcend the normal capabilities of live production which must occur in real time.
There are situations where recording in a studio can be done as if it were a live concert but it can also be quite expensive. Most budgets cannot typically accommodate a full orchestra recording simultaneously in a studio. As an alternative, many productions (especially commercial ones) overdub various groups of musicians who may never see each other while others mix MIDI production with only a few live players.
Jazz projects today often require alternative thinking. This is especially true where strings are employed. The sound of a string quartet and a string orchestra are quite different. (Listen to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio For Strings” as performed by a string quartet versus a string orchestra to appreciate the aesthetic difference). When arranging strings for someone, this is an important distinction. Sometimes a client has the sound of a lush string orchestra in mind. It’s important that the person realize the cost that is generated to accommodate the latter choice.
To illustrate these alternative strategies, I will discuss two projects where the featured artist wanted the large orchestral sound and how the use of technology in the recording studio can satisfy the client’s preference while respecting the budget.
The first project is from the CD Lovers, Tales, and Dances which features trumpeter Dominick Farinacci. The selected example from the CD is an aria titled “E Lucevan Le Stelle” from Puccini’s opera, Tosca. Although Dominick had a record company supporting his project, the lion’s share of the budget was allocated to the studio (Avatar, NYC) and multiple jazz guest stars (Kenny Barron, James Genus, Lewis Nash, Jamey Haddad on this track with Joe Lovano and Joe Locke on others). Dominick at the time was a recent graduate of the Juilliard program so it was most economical for him to hire his student friends to cover the orchestral parts which included two quintets (string and WW) along with a harpist.
The WW and harp parts weren’t an issue as these instruments sound wonderful as solo voices. But the strings needed to sound lush so multiple layers would be necessary. This requires overdubbing. The first layer must be as good as possible with respect to intonation and timing. It usually takes three layers with a small group (6-10 players) so this project would require even more. In general, a string quartet or quintet is not ideal because the tonal identity of the individual player is still rather present. With slightly more people in the basic layer it is easier to get a homogeneous sound. But the budget could handle only the smaller size.
If you’ve read my two previous blogs for ISJAC you’ll remember how I used MIDI mock-ups effectively to forecast the sound of the arrangement to be performed live in a concert hall. The mock-up would also be as effective for the recording studio.
First, the product needed to be presented to Dominick. He came to my home studio to hear the MIDI orchestra laid in with his quartet tracks from a previous CD recording. Dominick had created a unique arrangement of Puccini’s aria with his quartet. I used that recording and scored the orchestral arrangement around it.
Here is Dominick’s quartet recording blended with the orchestral MIDI instruments. You’ll notice the MIDI trumpet in the beginning and then Dominick’s entrance at 1:07 where I cut into the quartet recording. On the back end you’ll hear where the MIDI tracks (including the MIDI trumpet) provide the arrangement’s ending (at 3:07). Dominick was thrilled with the result; unbeknownst to me at the time, he decided to share this version with the producer who also became excited about the project because he now knew what to expect at the recording session.
Another aspect of recording projects is that they are often done in fragments. Much like a film production, where scenes are shot not necessarily in chronological order but more in accordance with location (at the beach, in Paris, etc,) or based upon an actor’s availability (a cameo star is available during a certain time when his/her scenes must be shot), the same occurs with music production. The rhythm tracks would be recorded first and those players would be long gone before the orchestral players arrived.
Here is another invaluable advantage with a MIDI mock-up. When the rhythm section players were getting ready to record, I had them come into the control room with their respective parts and follow along as they listened to the MIDI mock-up. This enabled them to hear their (accompaniment) part in context with the orchestra tracks that didn’t exist yet.
In anticipation of the recording production schedule, I needed to record the music sections out of chronological order. We would begin recording with the jazz group at bar 17. But also notice that Dominick finishes Puccini’s melody in bar 16 which sustains into bar 17. As a future marker for the ProTools engineer, I had Dominick record the phrase “wild” which means with no reference to tempo. While Dominick sustained the last note, I conducted (and spoke “3-4”) to bring the rhythm section into bar 17. (The count-off, which would ultimately be erased, functioned as an important aural reference during the overdubbing process for the orchestra to match tempo immediately.) Once the rhythm section entered, the process was relatively straight-forward for this stage of the recording.
When the orchestral players arrived, it was most sensible to start recording at bar 17. The main reason was to get their intonation to match the pre-recorded jazz musicians. With one layer established, we did several more while in this location. As the layers accumulated, one concern would be the skewed balance of the string instruments: the low strings would eventually outbalance the violins. When inquiring with the engineer, he assured me that, during the mixing phase, there would be enough isolation to bolster the violins as necessary without automatically raising the level of the lower strings. I could have asked the lower strings to tacet in subsequent layers but it’s nicer for the players to perform together. Their individual passes would also provide more choices for the engineer and producer.
With the main body of the chart recorded, it was time to record the introduction. The tempo fluctuates dramatically, so entrances were determined by listening to a melodic phrase and then responding. It was more effective to stop conducting (similar to a fermata) and let Dominick or one of the WW players perform a phrase with a full sense of rubato and then bring in the next important down beat for the strings.
Although Dominick had already recorded bar 16 for the rhythm section recording, I asked him to record it once again within the context of the orchestra. The ProTools engineer would now have a more solid marker to unite both segments of the chart and also have two choices to consider for this important melodic phrase.
With Dominick, the WW players, and the harpist recorded, it was time to add the layers of strings. The melodic phrases in the wind parts would help the strings find their entrances and unite with their first layer. You can hear the results of the studio recording directly below.
As a reminder from my previous blogs, the MIDI mock-ups of the arrangements for this CD production also helped the orchestral musicians prepare their parts in context with the jazz group. They would ultimately have to play to a pre-recorded rhythm section so this also helped them get acclimated to that situation.
There were also some unforeseen issues that caused significant delays in the production schedule. As the orchestral overdubs were scheduled late in the series of events, the allotted time became much less than anticipated. Although this was stressful, the players’ previous preparation with the MIDI demo enabled us to get a satisfactory product.
* * * *
The other studio production was for a CD titled When Winter Comes which features guitarist Fred Fried. Fred had heard my work on the Dial and Oatts project, Brassworks, and wanted me to do something similar for his compositions but showcased with strings instead of brass. I knew that Fred had a large string orchestra sound in mind. But his project was self-produced so it would be important to work within Fred’s personal budget.
We agreed that six tracks would feature strings (recording one tune per hour for a double session in one day). I used eleven string players (6 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, 1 bass). Fred’s trio consisted of Steve LaSpina on bass and Billy Drummond on drums. They would record first. (Steve would then join the orchestra as the sole double bassist on a subsequent day several weeks later and Fred would add guitar parts where he was alone with the strings).
With the jazz trio tracks recorded, I began to create the string arrangements and MIDI mock-ups for Fred to hear. These recordings would ultimately be used for the string players to practice with. There would be no rehearsal. These players were NYC pros and it would have been quite difficult to assemble a mutual time to rehearse. Besides, there was no room in Fred’s budget to pay for a rehearsal. We would meet in the studio and perform each piece within a designated hour.
The first layer of string parts is always most challenging because of coordinating with the pre-recorded tracks and getting adjusted in general to the studio environment. After the first layer was complete, I added two more layers to create a 33-piece orchestra.
As mentioned previously, it was practical to record the strings primarily where the rhythm section already existed. Then we would deal with any other sections that featured the strings alone.
As with the Joey Alexander project, my strategy for the arrangements was to feature the strings in various ways that would best compliment Fred’s compositions. For the title track, Fred’s tune is set for a fast swing tempo as the melody moves slowly above the groove; it is strong and memorable.
To create a dramatic contrast, I decided to feature the strings in an extended prologue to suggest a programmatic image of the onset of winter in New England (Fred lives in Cape Cod, MA). The jazz trio would represent the arrival of winter’s first snowstorm. The strings would represent the intrinsic intensity of the atmosphere just prior to the storm’s arrival.
The prologue features Fred’s melody but it is re-harmonized in a modern, abstract way. To keep the focus on the “atmosphere” I refrained from using the double basses until bar 26. In general, notes in the bass register usually clarify a harmonic impression and also add significant weight or anchorage to any sound. I wanted the music to “float” and have the harmony be more vague. The rubato tempo was very important as well. The mood of the prologue would be tenuous and unfold one phrase at a time. To control the pacing, you will notice a fermata placed in strategic locations.
You may be wondering how the prologue could be layered. Unlike the arrangement for Dominick where melodic phrases helped the players navigate through the bars, there was no strong aural reference. I would need to rely on a click track to guide my conducting which would then help the string players during the overdubbing process.
With my MIDI strings recorded in Digital Performer (it’s important to stay on the digital grid by first recording to a steady tempo), I recorded a rubato tempo in the Conductor Track (remember to use the Tap Tempo tool). I would use the recorded (rubato) click track in the studio and conduct the strings to it. But the problem remained with the random number and speed of the clicks inside any given fermata. There was a significant chance that I could lose track of beat 1 in any given bar or inside a fermata. I decided to record my voice reciting the beat numbers in each bar and the “extra beats” within each fermata. To prepare the entrance for the first bar, I also needed warning clicks as a count-off to establish adequate precision within each layer.
With headphones to broadcast the click and my vocal beat numbers, I was able to conduct the strings effectively to create a dramatic rubato tempo and also align the subsequent layers to create a lush string orchestra sound.
You can hear the results below:
I hope you enjoy listening to this music.
If you have questions, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Featured image credit: Sopon Suwannakit
About the Author:
Richard DeRosa received a Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Composition in 2015 for his big band composition “Neil” which is dedicated to Neil Slater: the director of the One O’Clock Lab Band at the University of North Texas from 1981-2008.
Since 2001 Mr. DeRosa has arranged and conducted music for Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to feature Toots Thielemans, Annie Ross, Willie Nelson, Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson, Roberta Gambarini, and Renée Fleming among several other notable artists. He was a prime arranger for the theater project (A Bed and a Chair) featuring the music of Stephen Sondheim and created an arrangement of Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea for the swing jazz Broadway show After Midnight. Mr. DeRosa was also a featured arranger for the Wynton with Strings concert celebration in 2005. His most recent project as a featured conductor and arranger for the LCJO was Bernstein at 100 which premiered in November of 2017.
In October, 2018, Mr. DeRosa was the featured conductor and arranger for the concert productions of Joey Alexander with Strings which also premiered at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
In 2012 the WDR Big Band in Cologne, Germany, invited Mr. DeRosa to conduct and present his music in concert. After several other engagements with the prestigious ensemble, he served as their chief conductor and musical arranger from 2014-2016. He arranged and conducted the CD/DVD recording My Personal Songbook (released in 2015) which features the music of legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter who is featured with the band. A second CD titled Rediscovered Ellington (released in 2017) features his longtime music partners Garry Dial and Dick Oatts. Together they created unique and modern arrangements of Duke’s rare and unheard tunes. Mr. DeRosa’s newest CD release (2019) is Crossing Borders which features Gregor Huebner (violin) and Richie Beirach (piano) that includes new arrangements of several Beirach compositions. WDR projects with other guest artists include Joshua Redman, Stefon Harris, Kurt Elling, Patti Austin, the New York Voices, Ola Onabulé, Ute Lemper, Bill Mays & Marvin Stamm, and Warren Vaché.
Other commissioned arrangements have been recorded by the Mel Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, and Glenn Miller big bands, vocalist Susannah McCorkle, trumpeter Dominick Farinacci on his CD Lovers, Tales, and Dances, and acclaimed solo violinist Anne Akiko Meyers on her CD Seasons….Dreams. Mr. DeRosa has also served as co-arranger, orchestrator, and conductor for the critically acclaimed recording projects When Winter Comes featuring guitarist Fred Fried, Dial & Oatts: Brassworks, and a double CD project That Music Always Round Me which Down Beat Magazine selected as one of the top recordings in 2015. Dial & Oatts composed music to fifteen poems by Walt Whitman and brought in DeRosa to create the arrangements for choir to be featured with a jazz chamber group that included Dial on piano, Oatts on saxophones and flute, and guest trumpeter Terell Stafford.
Mr. DeRosa’s arrangements for orchestra have been performed by the Kansas City Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Pops, the Portland Maine Pops, the UNT One O’Clock Lab Band with the Houston Symphony Orchestra, the Metropole Orchestra in Holland, the Czech National Symphony, and the Swedish Television and Radio Orchestra in Stockholm. Other European jazz bands, including the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra, have commissioned his compositions and arrangements.
Mr. DeRosa’s compositions for television, film, and theater include background music cues for Another World, As the World Turns, The Guiding Light, commercials for Telex, Bristol-Meyers, and Kodak, various documentaries broadcast on PBS, orchestrations for independent films Gray Matters, Falling For Grace, and Standard Time, and more than twenty original music scores for the national touring U.S. theater company ArtsPower as well as orchestrations for Frankenstein, the Musical. He has also composed scores for videos and hundreds of audiobooks for publishing companies including Bantam Doubleday Dell, Random House, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster, and Prentice-Hall.
Earlier in his career as a performer, DeRosa toured and recorded with Gerry Mulligan, Bob Brookmeyer, Susannah McCorkle, Jackie Cain & Roy Kral, Chuck Wayne, and Marlene VerPlanck. Other employers include Marian McPartland, Gene Bertoncini, Warren Vaché, Larry Elgart, Peter Nero, and vocalist Chris Connor.
Mr. DeRosa is a recipient of UNT’s Presidential Faculty Excellence Award. In celebration of the university’s 125th anniversary, he composed a work for orchestra and jazz quintet titled Suite for an Anniversary. Mr. DeRosa is a full professor and the director of jazz composition and arranging. His former teaching positions were at William Paterson University, Manhattan School of Music, and The Juilliard School where he taught advanced jazz arranging for studio orchestra.
He is the author of Concepts for Improvisation: A Comprehensive Guide for Performing and Teaching (Hal Leonard Publications) and Acoustic and MIDI Orchestration for the Contemporary Composer (Focal Press) co-authored with Dr. Andrea Pejrolo. The latter book has experienced worldwide success, having been translated into Chinese in a subsequent edition. An expanded 2nd edition was published in November of 2016.
Mr. DeRosa’s publications for public school jazz ensembles are available through Alfred Music (Belwin Jazz), Smart Chart Music, J.W. Pepper, Barnhouse Music, while several of his works for professional-level bands are available through Sierra Music. All of this music is available through e-Jazz Lines. Mr. DeRosa remains active as an adjudicator and clinician for music festivals and is the artistic director for AJV (American Jazz Venues), an organization created by his late father, noted jazz education pioneer, Clem DeRosa.
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 a tree 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 4/4 and 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 are tempted 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.
There is one more device – melodic variation.
“Hey, that’s the composer’s job!”
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 reharmonizing are 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.
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 tune with 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 possible while 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 as a 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.
Listen to Warped Cowboy:
About the Author:
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”, and The 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.com Other publications are available through UNC Jazz Press as well as EJazzLines.
I grew up in a house full of love of melody. My mother was an accomplished pianist, performing everything from Chopin to cowboy tunes, and I was pushed through piano lessons that were full of the works of classical composing masters. My sister Ingrid was always interpreting melodies on the trumpet, and my oldest sister Janet was consistently keeping us in check of the current Top 40 hits on the radio, all full of melody. These are all scenes that added to my character development as a musician. Once I switched to saxophone I started playing in the school big band, where I aspired to play like Phil Woods and Cannonball Adderley as a soloist. They really knew how to project their gorgeous sounds through phrases full of melody.
Through my university studies, I was pushed to be the best player possible, and was given the tools to improvise by understanding concepts of jazz harmony. The lights went on once I really applied myself to voice leading between each vertical harmonic movement. It was so exciting to hear rich harmony connect through close relationships in jazz, and a bonus seeing it move on the piano. My ears opened up, shooting me into the world of composition. If I were to sum up my life as a musician, I am constantly intertwining the act of composition and improvisation, with composition being improvisation slowed down, and improvisation being composition sped up at lightning speed. Masters of improvisation always humble and inspire me for this reason.
All jazz composers that I have really researched have developed their own process. I hope I can share a bit of mine here. I am only scratching the surface on elements that I try to apply in my process of creating a new story.
Some starting notes about character development in my approach to composition:
- I love creating melodic statements in the way that they become leading characters in a story. Once I have created a character statement, I look toward my harmonic and rhythmic palette in terms of support. However, melody, rhythm and harmony are all interchangeable in terms of the conception of my character. For example, I may first come up with a harmonic movement or a rhythmic idea that is the basis in creating the piece. I credit my lessons with Jim McNeely, both privately and with BMI, where he encouraged me to be aware of character entrances (and possible exits).
- As an eternal student in the study of composition, I am constantly trying to expand my palette of colour through harmony and rhythm. I want each character to take a voyage that is full of interesting twists and turns in its development. In my journey as a jazz composer and improviser, I continue to research harmonic and rhythmic approaches that are beyond my comfort zone. This includes ear training through transcribing sounds that interest me. For example, I might try to challenge myself with tempos that I have not explored enough, rhythmic feels that are deceptive to the ear, and harmony that I am not comfortable soloing over. I have some technique to rely on, but I really enjoy combining it with the risk-taking of attempting the creation of something new. At times I must remind myself that even if it is a total failure, I can take satisfaction in the fact that I tried.
- Applying orchestration techniques add technicolor to my story. The more I learn about orchestration, the more colourful the journey for my character development. Balance and weight are two things that I focus on in large ensemble especially. How much density can occur and what is the weight between various instruments? For example, the drums can overtake any sort of light woodwind and muted passages if not balanced properly. This means studying the various techniques that the percussionist can apply to highlight the delicate passage you may have orchestrated. Understanding instrument range and timbre can also support the journey of the piece. This is where score analysis is essential.
- Some of my favourite music contains the strong element of counterpoint. This is when the characters really get into two or three-part conversation that flows because of phrasing ideas (please see excerpt of Red Cedar that is included). This is also where I might apply more atonal concepts, with focus on rhythm and melody over harmony.
- Most important, FORM is always at the top of my mind. How will my form evolve? My character or characters will navigate through an introduction, a large body of the piece and a conclusion. There are countless variables in navigating form. Where do I balance the structured composition with the important act of improvisation within the form? I do not always pre-conceive the form, but I do create a wish list of what should happen in my story in terms of development. Repetition, variation and new material being introduced is always being questioned as I work through my form.
I have included an excerpt of Red Cedar, from my recording Treelines. This is an example of my melody in full character development, with 2-part counterpoint at letter B (melody and bass line), and Three-part counterpoint at letter C (melody, supporting melody line, and bass line).
Here are my top three composition book desert island picks that I love to go to because of their content that contains insight into the process of the jazz composer:
- Inside the Score – Rayburn Wright
- The Jazz Composers Companion – Gil Goldstein
- Modal Composition I & II – Ron Miller
Score: Click here to see the score
About the Author:
Montreal-based saxophonist, composer and conductor Christine Jensen has been described as an original voice on the international jazz scene, while being regarded as one of Canada’s most compelling composers. She is a recent winner of the Downbeat Critic’s Poll for Rising Star Big Band, Arranger, and Soprano Saxophonist, as well as being a recipient of the Montreal International Jazz Festival’s 2017 Oscar Peterson Prize. She currently leads her own jazz orchestra as well as other diverse ensemble projects featuring her saxophone playing. “Jensen writes in three dimensions, with a quiet kind of authority that makes the many elements cohere. Wayne Shorter, Maria Schneider and Kenny Wheeler come to mind.” –Downbeat.
Jensen has won two Canadian Juno Awards for her recordings with her jazz orchestra, including Habitat (2014) and Treelines (2011). Four of her albums have been nominated for jazz album of the year with Quebec’s ADISQ awards. Habitat received five stars in Downbeat, along with being included at the top of several international critic’s polls, including Jazz Album of the Year in 2014. She was also profiled on NPR’s All Things Considered for her work with Habitat. She has topped 2014 critic’s polls for Album of the Year with CBC, Downbeat, NPR, Ottawa Citizen, and JazzTimes. A two-time recipient of the Hagood Hardy Prize for jazz from SOCAN, she has also received two Quebec Opus Awards for her big band recordings and concerts. Her recent collaborations as conductor and composer with Orchestre National Jazz Montreal have included conducting Terence Blanchard, Oliver Jones, the music of Carla Bley, as well as recording her suite Under the Influence, which won the 2017 Prix Opus for jazz recording of the year.
As a leader, Jensen has released three small ensemble recordings between 2000 and 2006. Along with her sister, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, she has co-led Nordic Connect, where they released two recordings, as well as touring Canada, US, and Scandinavia numerous times. Over the past two years, they have toured Canada, US and Europe extensively with Infinitude, featuring NY guitarist Ben Monder.
Jensen’s music has taken her all over the world, where she has received numerous commissions and conducting opportunities with jazz orchestras in Canada, the US and Europe. Recent residencies include Frost School of Music, The New School, Dartmouth College and MacEwan University. She works extensively with her sister Ingrid, and her partner saxophonist Joel Miller on projects of varying sizes. Collaborators have included Phil Dwyer, Ben Monder, Gary Smuylan, Geoffrey Keezer, Lenny Pickett, Gary Versace, George Colligan, and Donny McCaslin. She has studied with Kenny Werner, Jim McNeely, Dick Oatts, Remi Bolduc and John Hollenbeck.
Jensen has released three recordings for jazz orchestra on Justin Time Records:
- Under the Influence- Orchestre National Jazz de Montreal
- Habitat – The Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra
- Treelines -The Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra
Jensen’s published works for jazz orchestra are available at Whitewater Music Publications: https://whitewatermusic.ca/
It was probably roughly 25 years ago, when I fell in love with the sound of the big band for the first time. At that time, at the age of just under 18, I was one of the a pianists rehearsing with the Youth Jazz Orchestra of Baden-Württemberg (German province/state) and simply enjoyed bathing in that sound… even in the sound of a youth orchestra! And I still love it.
Over the years I have struggled through many ups and downs, learned to deal with the high pressure of being a bandleader, and learned to endure and positively redirect the blunt (and mostly justified) criticism of the orchestra musicians. I have internalized that musicians lend me their talent, bring my music to life – and for that I am always grateful when I’m standing in front of a band.
I have learned the trade. I know how and for whom I have to write so that it sounds like I want it to sound. I write fast and hardly ever out of context. There are little if any surprises when rehearsals begin. Alterations in the pieces are seldom necessary. The notation is legible and playable (although I am still eager to learn), and reality matches my imagination. In other words, I am happy to have arrived here after many hard lessons and efforts: The Big Band has become a reliable tool for me to awaken my music.
What do you do next when your craft has reached a certain level? One should take care of what was most important even before climbing the base camp of the Ability Mountain: the music! But what is that, exactly? Skills are only tools that help to materialize creativity.
I find music should include aesthetics, surprise, fun, drama, (and architecture, but that’s just me). Music that inspires me contains these ingredients. When I listen to music nowadays (any style), it’s neither clever time signatures nor interesting voicings or instrumentations that touch me. It’s the things that are not so easy to grasp.
As in any art form, I believe, the goal should be to create something that is more than the sum of its parts. I am afraid that the effort to learn and understand any art form can lead to losing oneself in the eagerness of this (craftsmanship) battle. It can happen that you divert your focus from the music to the technicalities of it without even noticing. Losing oneself can happen especially if you have worked your way through academia, which can ultimately lead to a loss of awareness of aesthetics and tensions of the ‘whole’ – however, in my opinion this is really the core and definition of good music.
Nowadays, a good part of my everyday life consists of passing on this message to the younger generation, be it as a piano teacher or in the field of composition. Especially through the regular encounters with young instrumentalists and composers, it is becoming increasingly clear to me what is all too often forgotten: The return to the core of music creating and music making!
The “skill first, then creativity” approach is just as wrong as the “creativity first, skill not
needed” approach. However, much of young composers’ works sound as if they are following either of these two polar positions. Of course, just as it took me decades to understand this, you can’t blame the youngsters – but you can blame the old guys!
It should be our task to ask the next generation of Big Band composers’ questions continually:
- Do you know what you want to achieve with your piece?
- Which story do you want to tell?
- Is it the words that interest you or is it the story?
- When and why do you want to surprise?
- Are you writing a poem, or just a collection of beautiful words?
- What’s more important? The construct or the content?
These are just a few of the questions that, in my opinion, often fall far short of the mark. As a result, many young composers paint with an abundance of colours, but don’t know whether they’re painting a portrait or a landscape. I hear many interesting words, sometimes sentences, but few stories – especially not those that are personal and different from other stories. I hear music so overloaded with tension that it becomes boring and superfluous. Yes, even a 10/8 beat and quartertones can be dull.
There’s also a lot of stealing going on, which I usually approve of and even encourage my students to do. However, there is nothing worse than cheap stealing – or just stealing gestures instead of story telling.
On the other hand, I also come across stories in which the definitions of words are not clear, grammar is erroneous and punctuation is incorrect – although, this seems to happen less often, nowadays.
One needs both: tools to build and a plan what you’d like to build, and why – only then will one be lucky enough to create something meaningful. It would be a mistake to concentrate on either or the other, especially at a young age. One should always look at the ground and at the sky.
Especially now, when I had assumed that I could relax a bit after many years of struggle with the acquisition of skills, I have to realize that a new mountain appears on the horizon: the recollection of the beauty, the ugliness, love, aggression and drama of music – all that I had always loved. A new, old task that is worth mastering.
About the Author:
Florian Ross likes travelling unusual paths. Born in 1972, he studied piano and composition in Cologne, London and New York with John Taylor, Joachim Ullrich, Bill Dobbins, Don Friedman and Jim McNeely.
The first of Ross’s numerous albums was released in 1998 under his own name. Ross’s recordings look closely at both the multifaceted jazz tradition and his extraordinary handling of contemporary material. In all formations, from trio to quintet, from string orchestra to brass ensemble, Ross succeeds in reconciling two seemingly different musical forms: improvised and composed. While many of his European colleagues consider it a virtue to distance themselves from the mainstream, another camp makes an effort to continue the American jazz tradition in Europe as authentically as possible.
Florian Ross’s music is a refreshing break from this often embarrassing programmatic context. Ross not only ignores the demarcation line but translates traditional aspects into a language of the present. His lack of interest in the idea of “higher, further, faster“ corresponds to his fondness for deeper sound regions and warmer timbres, as sounds oscillate between blue, orange and terracotta.
This foundation invites inspiration: the architecture is occasionally daring but never cool. Intellect and feeling do not exclude each other; the head listens to the stomach and vice versa. The music radiates balance, something that is often propagated but seldom achieved. The stark and songful does not trigger disquietude within Ross; on no account edgy actionism. He knows that it´s not what you say but how you say it, and that less is (sometimes) more.
It is impossible to simply reduce Florian Ross to a pianist or improviser, or even an arranger and composer, as his work cannot be limited to a single genre or category. He is much too much the pianist to abandon himself solely to the compositional architecture, and much too much the composer to succumb to a mere fascination of the piano. He is a musician who thinks, hears, writes and plays musically.
When I teach arranging at Queens College I like to use lots of analogies, mostly having to do with cooking or architecture. As musicians it’s very easy to get caught up in the technical aspects of the music and lose our connection with the human experience. Everyone eats and everyone needs a place to live so cooking and building make for good points of reference. Particularly, I think of arranging as preparing a meal for friends. If I knew I had a group of vegans coming over for dinner I could buy the choicest cut of meat available and grill it to perfection yet my dinner would be a failure. Similarly, if I had a group of cattle ranchers over, tofu as the main course might disappoint. So before I start a project I like to take some time to think about who will be involved and what would fulfill or exceed our needs. What can I prepare that will bring out the best in all the participants? These include the performers, sometimes a featured guest artist, the audience, the promoters, perhaps a publisher and certainly myself.
In some cases thought alone will get me there but in other cases I need to do significant homework to get to know the participants better. In this way I can create something original yet take into account the particular talents and abilities of the people involved. This is similar to the architect who designs an house based on its setting, the surrounding environment, the needs of the owner and those of the town while still staying true to his/her own standards of design and style.
The homework process isn’t always easy.
My first experiences as a professional arranger came writing for Mario Bauza and his Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. I was the jazz soloist in the trumpet section and was probably one of the least savvy when it came to understanding how to arrange music for a band with an Afro-Cuban rhythm section. I had studied composition with Wendell Logan at Oberlin Conservatory and had taken arranging lessons with Don Sebesky in New York so I had some idea how to write but was way out of my depth when it came to these styles at this level of collective expertise. In addition to the technical issues there were cultural and personal skills to learn as well. We used to rehearse in the basement of Boy’s Harbor, an institution in East Harlem. Everything about these rehearsals was inconvenient. Getting there from Brooklyn was inconvenient. Waiting for everyone to show up was inconvenient. Arguing over the figures and whether they were in clave was inconvenient. Some of the band members were real characters with musical talent but had odd personal traits. There were many egos as well to navigate amongst the musicians, whose approval of the music meant a chart’s adoption or rejection. Inconvenient!
Its much easier to just work everything out in your head and enter the music into a notation or sequencing program and just hope the musicians play their parts right.
But the magic in music is when all these inconvenient individuals bring all their voices and opinions together and we work through difficulties and possibilities together. The wisdom and experience of each musician in that band, along with the opportunity Mario gave to me as a young arranger were among the greatest gifts one can receive. The extended family that was Mario Bauza’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra taught me how to arrange for that band by sharing their knowledge. Bobby Sanabria showed me numerous bell patterns to learn and recordings to listen to. Victor Paz shared his unique philosophy of what makes for good section writing in that context. Patato Valdez reminded me how much deeper the tradition was than could be captured in any chart. Still, when I arranged a melody given me by Mario in a style that was a bit off center from the band’s repertoire, they trusted me.
Example track “Lourdes’ Lullaby” from album 944 Columbus:
The sharing process is not always pain-free! Once I transcribed a vocorder recording Joe Zawinul gave me to orchestrate for the album “My People.” I didn’t understand the groove under it but was too timid to ask for an explanation. I wrote it out mistaking where the downbeats in the bars were! Yikes! But the experience reminded me never to be either too fearful or pompous to ask questions and seek help from performers. Making and correcting errors, however frustrating and sometime embarrassing is essential for growth and is sometime necessary do arrive at the best work possible for the people involved. I regularly consult with performers about bass lines, piano figures, percussion breaks, section orchestration, etc. In the process I have learn new techniques and also history, language and a greater cultural awareness through these personal interactions. Personality is the essence of style! An orchestra is made up of people, not just instruments.
As I teach my students: “The audience does not hear your chart. They hear people playing your chart.” If the music fits the performers and brings out their best, that’s what the audience hears. (Perhaps the best example I have experienced as a performer is when I have played with Jimmy Heath’s band! Love is in every part in every chart.)
Another part of the homework process is transcription, including transcribing grooves (including bass lines, cymbal patterns and drum, piano voicing styles, particular harmonic languages) and melodic construction. A recent album I did with the WDR bigband with Mohktar Samba and friends as guest artists required a great deal of transcription. The Senegalese and Morrocan grooves we were using were new to me and to learn them meant a massive immersion into listening and transcribing as much as I needed to get the grooves right. As I teach my students: Get ahold of any material you can to learn what you need to get the groove right so what you do with the winds doesn’t crush the groove! In this case Mohktar had a book with examples of the grooves, recordings and video to check out. And I asked him questions, directly, which is by far the best way to learn. A ten-minute conversation with a real artist is worth hours of “Googling” stuff!
Still we had to resolve issues in rehearsals, which involved listening to one another and negotiating solutions. More human stuff! Inconvenient! But the growth offered by such work is enormous and mirrors the very process we need in all forms of human engagement.
Link to example, WDR rehearsal with Mohktar Samba, directed by Michael Philip Mossman:
As terrifying and painful transcribing unfamiliar material can be, the practice leads rewarding artistic growth. The truly terrifying thought for me is churning out the same kind of stuff the rest of my life!
While composing and arranging can be a solitary pursuit, learning to share ideas and collaborate can also lead to larger opportunities such as ballet, Broadway and film scoring. It can be inconvenient sometimes, to bend your ideas to include the needs and opinions of others. But with practice their knowledge and experience can become yours in the process. Here is a clip I scored for the animated film “Chico and Rita,” nominated for an Academy Award in 2012. The director, Fernando Trueba is a walking encyclopedia of Afro-Cuban jazz and its historical context. Working with him was as much a learning experience as a creative one. Music is essential to most movies. Yet the role of the composer/arranger/orchestrator is subject to the needs of the action on screen and succeds or fails on that basis.
Clip from Chico and Rita:
Perhaps not as flashy as film scoring and recording albums is the kind of collaboration I do with my publisher, Hal Leonard (which is really the people who work at Hal Leonard… corporations are made of people!) I have gained an enormous amount of respect for the work publishers do to keep music strong in our schools. To produce work for a school market means listening to the needs of directors and state boards of educators. This can be the most difficult of all for creative artists! Arranging under technical and range restrictions is very challenging. Writing for Jon Faddis and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band was easy in comparison… they could play anything! But answering the needs of a director in rural school district who may or may not have a strong lead trumpeter or who might have a freshman bassist means preparing music that can teach as well as sound good. If there is anything I am proud of its seeing videos of bands across the US playing charts I arranged and learning how to play a Mambo or Partido Alto. Without music in schools we have no public to enjoy hearing jazz in the first place! No question, it is inconvenient to get a score back with 50 questions about articulations, range decisions and rhythmic quantization. But the expertise and experience of editors I have shared has raised my work considerably and has helped me become a better professor of arranging!
So, in summation, we all celebrate creativity and innovation. Individual achievement in the arts is what we strive for. But my long-winded rant has been one of listening and learning from others in the pursuit of a collective result. It’s the Yin and Yang of jazz arranging: We strive for individuality but we depend upon the work of others to realize what we have created. Gaining the full value of the performers and the satisfaction of our audience depends on our level of understanding and respect for their work and needs as well.
About the Author:
Michael Philip Mossman has been active on the international scene since the age of 17. And has recorded with his own groups and with a virtual “who’s who” of the music industry.
Michael was nominated for a 2013 Grammy Award for “Best Instrumental Arrangement” for his “Afro-Latin Ellington Suite.” Michael has composed and arranged music for the films “Bossa Nova” and “Chico and Rita,” which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2012. His ballet “Beneath the Mask” was performed by Jon Faddis and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra with the Deeply Rooted Dance Company. His ballet, La Cova do Rey Cintolo was premiered in 2010 in Mondoñedo, Spain.
Mr. Mossman has conducted the Bilbao Symphonic Orchestra in Spain, and has composed and arranged scores for the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Louisiana Philharmonic, the Tri-Cities Symphony, Joe Henderson’s Grammy winning Big Band album, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra, the Count Basie Orchestra, The Charles Mingus Orchestra, Tito Puente, Mario Bauza, Slide Hampton and the Jazz Masters Orchestra, Paquito D’Rivera, the UMO Orchestra of Finland, the NDR Big Band of Hamburg, WDR of Cologne, HR Bigband of Frankfurt, HGM Bigband of Zagreb, Danish Radio Big Band, the Andalucia Latin Jazz Big Band, Heineken Jazz Festival Orchestra in Puerto Rico, Granada Bigband, Sedajazz Latin Jazz Ensemble, and Ray Barretto’s New World Spirit.
Following stints as lead trumpet with the Machito Orchestra, Toshiko Akiyoshi, and with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, Michael became the musical director of Blue Note Record’s “young lion” group, Out of the Blue. He recorded four albums for Blue Note with this group before joining the Horace Silver Quintet. Michael has toured and recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Joe Henderson, McKoy Tyner, Gerry Mulligan, Joe Zawinul, Slide Hampton, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Jon Faddis, George Gruntz, Bob Mintzer, Steve Turre, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Tom Pierson, The Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra, the Charles Mingus Orchestra, Benny Carter, the Gil Evans Orchestra, and the Count Basie Orchestra. Michael has played lead trumpet with the Michel Camilo Bigband, the Jon Faddis Orchestra, the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra and the Jimmy Heath Bigband among many others.
Michael has also been a key performer in Latin Jazz since his days with Machito. Mr. Mossman has performed and recorded with Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Chico O’Farrill, Ray Barretto, Daniel Ponce, Israel “Cachao” Lopez, Paquito D’Rivera, Bebo Valdez and Michel Camilo (including a screen appearance in the motion picture “Two Much”). Michael is featured in director Fernando Trueba’s highly acclaimed documentary on contemporary Latin Jazz, “Calle 54” as both performer and commentator. He also served as arranger and trumpet soloist for the legendary innovator of Latin Jazz, Mario Bauza and his Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra.
Michael is featured as lead trumpet and arranger on the Grammy winning album, “Song for Chico,” by the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra as well as on “Un Noche Inolvidable” and “40 Acres and a Burro.” Solo releases by Michael Philip Mossman include “Springdance,” “Mama Soho,” “The Orisha Suite,” “Missa Afro-Cubana,” “Soul con Timba Live at Bohemian Cavern.”
Michael, a Yamaha Artist, is currently Professor and Director of Jazz Studies at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College in New York City. Michael’s music is published by the Hal Leonard Corporation.
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.
You’d like to cook? OK. Why? Is it because you like food and would like to prepare it yourself, or maybe because you would like to impress someone? Perhaps you would like to become a famous chef.
All of the above are good reasons to start cooking – and there’s an abundance of more good reasons. In fact, I don’t think there are any bad reasons to start cooking, as long as there is at least one.
So, please make up your mind about why you’d like to do it. This is not a permanent decision and it might change rapidly during the course of your experiments. Still, make up your mind for now. Write your ideas on a piece of paper and put them somewhere safe.
There are many ways to start. You could just wander through your kitchen, pick up some things and throw them together, heat up the stove and go for it. Things might work or it might not.
The next thing you are probably going to do is either watch or ask a friend, mother, or grandpa how and what they cook. At first, you will most likely choose a dish you love and would like to make it yourself. Maybe granny isn’t around at the time when you have a craving for pancakes? That also might be one of the reasons you
If you don’t know anyone who can cook a little, you might have to start searching for someone or something that could help you reaching further than your first attempt of boiling toast and ketchup. That something could be the first cookbook you pick up from a bargain bin at your local bookstore. It might read something like: 50 Delicious, Simple Dishes for Absolute Beginnners.
You might succeed or you might not, but if you’re still into it, you are bound to upgrade your knowledge. You might take a cooking class, buy more advanced cookbooks, cook with friends and exchange ideas and knowledge. This is going help you take a great step forward.
Soon you’ll be interested in not only recipes, but detailed information about the chemical and physical processes involved in cooking, why some pans stick and others don’t, and why you shouldn’t work with sharp metal tools in a non-stick pan. Where and when certain produce grows and where to get the freshest fish might be other great things to find out about.
You will analyse recipes, watch friends cook, travel and take down ideas from other chefs, be aware of certain styles, cultures and countries. You will learn about them and start combining ideas from Japanese cuisine with Peruvian styles.
Now, you’ve come far from your initial attempts and years will probably have passed.
If you keep this up, and you still have the piece of paper that tells you why you wanted to cook in the first place, you will realize that you have come a long way. Your goals may have changed, but you will be able to see, from what you originally wrote in your notebook, why you want to start cooking and to keep doing it.
All is well.
What could go wrong?
Of course, a lot can go wrong, but one of the saddest and dumbest things that can go wrong, is that you lose track of the initial reason why you even started.
You read many books about molecular cooking, about complicated, weird ways of chopping fish. You’ve learned so many rules, you have analyzed and tried to understand everything. You even spend some time in China and Italy to learn from master chefs. You studied, you took courses, you practised…, and?
You forgot why you are doing it. And suddenly all the things you’ve learned replace your original incentives and why you wanted to learn how to cook in the first place.
You were told that you cannot combine milk and lemon – so you don’t. But have you ever tried making paneer? You have checked out Malaysian and Austrian cuisine, so you might combine coconut milk and fish sauce with apple strudel – because you think it’s hip and new and interesting.
But, do you step back and check if this is what you want? Is this the taste you like? Is this part of your goal? Probably not.
So step back and rethink why you do all of this. What do you need in order to achieve which goal? Which techniques do you need? What should you focus on? Ever ordered from a take-out that offers Chinese-Grill-Italian-French-German-Taiwanese-Crossover? Did you like it?
Ask yourself these questions:
Why did you want to learn to cook?
Why did you want to understand how to cook?
Why did you copy chefs?
Why did you experiment?
If you reach a point where you feel any confusion , I’d recommend focusing on eggs for a while. Scrambled eggs, boiled eggs, fried eggs, eggs benedict, pancakes with eggs, eggnoodles, egg on steak, egg nog, foamy eggs, real pudding made of eggs, sauce hollandaise, spaghetti carbonara…
That should get you back on track.
About the Author:
Florian Ross is a musical explorer.
His journey into the many lands of jazz began with studies in Cologne and later London and New York, where he honed his skills both as a pianist and a composer. Florian’s special area of devotion and expertise was post-bop, which flowered into his remarkable ability today to handle all forms of contemporary and improvised music.
His first album as a leader appeared in 1998. Now he has a dozen to his name, with more on the way!
Florian’s music comes from a deep synthesis of heart and mind, of feeling and intellect. This is why he can so effortlessly span the realms of improvised and composed jazz. His gifts as a piano player prevent him from being seduced into the abstract theory of purely intellectual composition, while his instincts as a composer enables him to steer clear of self-indulgence on the keyboards.
He leaves to others the boring arguments about traditional jazz versus the avant-garde. Florian’s too busy making music.
And it’s music of a breathtaking variety. The diversity of formats he works in is simply dazzling. Just listen to the samples http://www.florianross.de/#media to hear Florian casually excel in every combination from solo, duo, trio and quintet right up to big bands and string orchestras.
He has taught at many German universities and academies and is currently teaching Piano and Composition at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz, Köln. He has also been involved in teaching clinics and workshops all over the world.
He has played, composed and arranged for many orchestras across Europe including the Metropole Orchestra, WDR and NDR Big Band. Florian’s international awards for playing and composing are too numerous to list, but among them are the coveted first prize in the Danish Radio Big Band International Thad Jones Competition and the prestigious WDR Jazz prize for composition.
– Andrew Cartmel, Spring 2014