Artist Blog

John Hollenbeck: You are your biggest influence! – An email discussion about arranging with John Hollenbeck and Matt Horanzy

This blog consists of an exchange of emails between Matt Horanzy, when he was a student at USF, and I discussing my approach to arranging for the albums “Songs I Like a Lot” and “Songs We Like a Lot.” Matt has agreed to share this email conversation with the ISJAC community. In the time since we had this conversation, I finished and recently released the album “Songs You Like a Lot,” so I have included an addendum to our original exchange to give you an explanation of the final album of arrangements. In rereading our emails, I felt I needed to include some clarifications to my original thoughts. These clarifications are labeled and appear in italics.

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From: Matthew Horanzy
Subject  – Research Project question
Date: February 5, 2018 at 4:48:23 PM EST
To: John Hollenbeck

Hi Mr. Hollenbeck,

I’m currently working on a research project focused around your music, specifically your arrangements from the Songs I/We Like A Lot albums. My topic is going to be on your influences from wind ensemble music/composers. Having heard you speak extensively on this topic, I was wondering if you could point me to a few pieces or composers that you believe played a great deal of impact on your music for these two projects?

Can’t wait to listen to the new album!

Best,

Matt Horanzy

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On Feb 6, 2018, at 9:09 AM, John Hollenbeck wrote:

Hi Matt,

I appreciate the interest and question. I have to stop you at your premise unfortunately, because I do not believe that you need to be influenced by something to do something. I hear too much of that in fact. When I write, I try to let the material itself influence me and guide me. While I sometimes do answer the “influences” question, I am increasingly hesitant. I know it is harder to start at “nothing” and not get a head start from another person’s work, but that is how I work the majority of the time. I know it does not make for a good paper, but that is the truth.  😀

Feel free to follow up!

LATER CLARIFICATION: I believe influences will always be present and what we do is based on what we take in. But I do not believe it is necessary to look for influences or spend a lot of time trying to get influenced. The process of being influenced and letting those influences flow naturally out can hopefully happen organically without conscious intent. I have always gravitated towards music where the influences are not quickly evident and I get immediately turned off if I feel someone is stealing someone’s music consciously or even unconsciously. I realize the frustration in my answer and the educational value of copying others, but I do want to continually stress the significance of trying to come at your work from “you” and not “in the style of” someone else, as a mature goal.

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On 06 Feb 2018, at 09:17, Matthew Horanzy wrote:

Hi John – I do appreciate the email! I won’t pry at the subject, but I am now curious about how your statement of treating the big band “as a wind ensemble” (something I recall from your ISJAC talk) can be true without some kind of influence by certain pieces or composers from the idiom?

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On 06 Feb 2018, at 15:58, John Hollenbeck wrote:

Hi Matt,

This issue is a big one for me. So let me try to clarify.

The “big band as wind ensemble” concept was an important thought, a “what if” moment for me, not related to a specific piece or composer, but simply what I had NOT yet heard based on my experiences playing big band and wind ensemble music.

It is also just a general goal of mine. If my vehicle was the wind ensemble then I might be thinking of it the other way around, e.g. “try to put ‘big band’ into a wind ensemble context!”

I’m a firm believer of looking within for the answers, not to other people…it is much easier to be ethical and true to yourself if you can deal with just the music and not with what others have done. I realize that this does not lead to good papers or scholarship if you are told to look for influences and write about them. I think this way of educating is emphasized in jazz education to a negative degree.

In the case of the arrangements that I wrote for these recordings, the answers you are looking for can be extracted by analyzing the arrangements, because everything is built on the DNA of the original songs.

LATER CLARIFICATION: I am trying to emphasize that instead of just asking the composer/arranger for the answers, there is much value in actually studying the music first, looking for the answers on your own, and then presenting the composer/arranger with some very specific questions. The process of looking for the answers will often bring up unexpected rewards. I have discovered the first gem of a piece when looking at some other music and having it lead me to a new place, and it should be noted, a new place for the material too!

An example is the last section (starting at 8:53) of The Shape of Spirit from the album, Tunnel Vision by Ansgar Streipens and Ed Partyka. This material came directly from analyzing and learning Satie’s Gnossiennes No.1. I do not think the result has a direct auditory or foundational basis in the Satie piece, but I found some “new” material while trying to figure out what the Satie piece was about. This process reminds of all the times I went to a library looking for a specific book or score, did not find it, but instead made an unexpected book/score discovery!

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On 06 Feb 2018, at 18:14, Matthew Horanzy wrote:
 

All too often, I battle the challenge of resisting the temptation to draw from my favorite moments of other music. I’d love to hear how you manage to stay truly original – because everything has to come from somewhere… no? I can’t say that anything I’ve done has been due to “musical spontaneous combustion,” but listening to your music, I would believe if maybe you’ve had those moments!

Back to a stronger paper topic, yes I think perhaps going the direction of how the original works affected your arrangements could be more interesting. I’ll be looking on my own, but if there are any particular ones that you think might have some ideas/techniques that would really stand out in a presentation, I’d love to hear it right from the source!

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On 06 Feb 2018, at 18:31, John Hollenbeck wrote:

“because everything has to come from somewhere… no?”

Yes! From YOU! (:

In other words, from an organic mix of all of your experiences. I’m not sure if one needs to try to, or can, be truly original, but I think the point is to be yourself and to work with the material and let it dictate what you do. This is jazz to me.

Coltrane, Miles, Monk and others are the epitome of jazz because they ended up creating something original by NOT using too many outside influences, but trying hard to create something that had not been done before and was personal to them.

About my SONGS I/We recordings:

Every piece has its own story, so it will be faster if you pick a few that you like or are curious about and then I may be able to help. (Sometimes I remember what I did, and other times it was done in a short period when I was in a zone so then I don’t really remember what happened!)

LATER CLARIFICATION: “Coltrane, Miles, Monk and others are the epitome of jazz because they ended up creating something original by NOT using too many outside influences but trying hard to create something that had not been done before and was personal to them.”

I’m arguing with myself on this a little when thinking of Coltrane because he was totally open to outside influences and looking for as much information as possible and then bringing it into his music pretty quickly. Yet despite that approach, the end result came through the Coltrane filter and therefore did not sound like a copy of someone else’s music.

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Feb 7, 2018, at 1:50 PM, John Hollenbeck wrote:

PS Rick Lawn transcribed the ISJAC talk for his insightful book, so here is more on the “wind ensemble” aspect that you asked about from his transcription:

Hollenbeck: It came down to not calling it a big band and not thinking of it as a big band. It has the same instrumentation as a big band, but it’s just a large ensemble. It could be a large chamber ensemble or a wind ensemble. But thinking of it like that helped me a lot because then I didn’t have to think about styles or conventions.  I just think of it as a group of people, and they play these instruments, and how could [I] deal with that. So that’s one thing that helped me a lot. Within that pretty traditional instrumentation that exists everywhere I just try to find a couple things that make it distinctive, that make it a little different. Having Theo Bleckmann in the band helps me stay away from what a traditional band sounds like.  He can sing like an instrument, he can sing with words, and he can make sounds. Having that one musician really helped me see how to open up the music.  And then having mallet percussion, nothing against guitar, got me excited about writing for the big band. It just wasn’t something I’d heard that much of. I’d heard some vibes before, but this allows me to incorporate things like crotales. It also gets me closer to that wind ensemble-like vibe that I wanted. And I think I haven’t even fully realized this yet. I have like 10 pieces that are sort of wind ensemble pieces.

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On 27 Feb 2018, at 13:53, Matthew Horanzy wrote:

I wanted to get your input about some analysis that I’m doing of a few of your charts. I was wondering if you wanted to provide a small blurb of what you recall regarding your thought process/motivic usage in each of these tracks, as well as anything you might find interesting to share!

From Songs We Like A Lot: Bicycle Race, Close To You, How Can I Keep From Singing, and True Colors.

These are some of my favorite recordings and pieces of music of all time… truly beautiful stuff.

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On Tue, Feb 27, 2018 at 4:34 PM, John Hollenbeck wrote:

At the moment, I’m drawing blanks on these arrangements. It would probably be better for you to ask specific questions and hopefully that will jog my memory. All of those arrangements were written in a short amount of time, so it is difficult to remember anything!

What I can say generally is that I look at the original melodies, sometimes the harmonies but usually just the melodies (maybe the bass lines occasionally) and then generate new material from them. I don’t usually bring new material into the arrangement.

To give you some more specifics, I will usually take the melody, retrograde it and then turn this line into something vertical (chords/harmony). Or I might take the interval set from a melody and process that into more sets and then use that. (ala Bob Brookmeyer)

In True Colors, Theo is singing the original melody, but very slowly, so it ends up sounding like a chant. The piano is also playing the melody and/or some material that was generated from the melody, but much faster, so it also does not overtly sound like the melody, but actually is! The hi-hat part accentuates the piano part and fills in the sub-divisions in a typewriter-like fashion. My goal was to create something that sounds free and not in an obvious meter.

 

The processes when I’m arranging are virtually the same when I’m composing. This article will give you more insight into “the process of processing”:

Click Here to View the Full Article

 

Also, I wrote an extensive analysis of Drewslate, a Claudia Quintet piece, that demonstrates in depth the composition process for this particular piece. It has been published in Arcana VIII, one edition of a series of journals that John Zorn has put together.

I would like to note that with most arrangements, I’m trying to keep the essence of the songs intact while giving them new life, like a new coat of paint or a renovation. The songs are still there but might sound quite different than the original.

LATER CLARIFICATION: The way I look at it, there is a scale of how much something can be arranged. In Imogen Heap’s “Canvas” from Songs I Like A Lot or “Blue” from Songs You Like A Lot, I felt like I just orchestrated the songs according to the players and instrumentation on this project. On the other end of the scale are “Get Lucky Manifesto” from Songs We Like A Lot or “Knows Only God” from Songs You Like A Lot which were arranged to the extreme, to the point of “re-composition,” which is why I re-titled them.

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On Apr 15, 2018, at 11:36 PM, Matthew Horanzy wrote:

Hi Mr. Hollenbeck,

Thank you for writing me several weeks (months?) ago! I’ve been digging deeper into your charts, and your words continue to ring true, with the majority of these works being creative manipulations of the melody.

I wanted to ask some questions that were less technical in terms of analysis, but more conceptual. First and foremost, I wanted to know if there were any differences in your approach when writing arrangements for Songs I Like A Lot compared to Songs We Like A Lot. Did you notice any tendencies when tasked with re-arranging music that was not as dear to you?

And last, what pieces did you also consider for these two albums that did not make the cut? I’m very curious about your thought process when choosing pieces to arrange for projects such as these!

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On Apr 16, 2018, at 9:56 AM, John Hollenbeck wrote:

“First and foremost, I wanted to know if there were any differences in your approach when writing arrangements for Songs I Like A Lot compared to Songs We Like A Lot.”

Not really, it felt similar – the main difference was in how the material was selected. I liked more of the material from the 1st project since I selected most of the pieces! But what I learned in the 2nd project was that I did not need to like a piece in order to make a successful arrangement out of it!

“Did you notice any tendencies when tasked with re-arranging music that was not as dear to you?”

I learned that it might even be easier if I did not like the original piece, because then there was less pressure on myself to do it justice. Also, if I did not like it, I did not listen to it much ahead of time, so it was easier to make it my own.

“And last, what pieces did you also consider for these two albums that did not make the cut? I’m very curious about your thought process when choosing pieces to arrange for projects such as these!”

Many, many pieces, but alas that list was on paper, and while I’m sure I still have it, I’m not sure where it is! For the last album in this trilogy, “Songs You Like A Lot,” we are inviting anyone to suggest a piece that they want me to arrange. We will then have an internet-wide vote, so I’m taking myself out of the selection of pieces!

To re-iterate, the process once I start arranging a piece is the same as my compositional process:

  • Find the core/cell
  • Process it and try to find the “gold” that is hopefully embedded in the material, something that speaks to me and gives the material a new life.

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August 9, 2020

An update to this email exchange: Songs You Like A Lot is done and is about to be released (August 14th) so I can conclude this conversation with Matt by giving you some insight into the whole project with the liner notes to this final album:

 

SONGS YOU LIKE A LOT

with Theo Bleckmann, Kate McGarry, Gary Versace and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band.

This is the final chapter of a trilogy of albums in which I explored and arranged popular songs. The entire project was made in collaboration with vocalists Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry, pianist Gary Versace, and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. For the first recording, Songs I Like A Lot, I selected the majority of the songs for the album. Many of the songs I chose were from my childhood, and as I started to really listen to them again, I was surprised by how well I actually knew them. The second recording, Songs We Like A Lot, is composed primarily of songs that Theo and Kate liked and chose for me to arrange. Uri Caine held down the piano chair on this recording. And for this third and final recording, Songs You Like A Lot, we asked listeners to nominate their favorite songs for me to arrange. We then had an internet-wide vote on a list of nominated songs, and I chose (with the help of Kate, Theo and Gary) from the top 20 most popular songs.

This project brought up questions I asked myself numerous times: What is arranging? Why arrange? Why arrange popular songs? Is it still a “pop” song if it was not “popular”? Must the original still be recognizable in the arrangement? What can you arrange and what must be left intact so that the original is still there? When does it stop being an arrangement and transition to being a re-composition or original-composition-based-on-another-piece? And, do you have to like a song or composition to be able to create a good arrangement of it? Going into the project, my answer to this last question was “yes,” but now at the end of this project, my answer has changed to a definite “no.” As it turns out, for this recording, I was able to enjoy arranging pieces that I did not know or, in some cases, even like. This brought up subsequent questions: What does it mean to “like” a song? Is it possible to know a song so well, so completely, that even though you don’t really like the song, you realize that because you have heard it so much and know it so well, you end up kind of liking it anyway? (Yes!) And finally, how do you arrange something that you really do like, that you’re not sure you should even try to change?

What I do know is that above all, I want the listener to be reinvigorated and have their interest in the original versions of these songs revived! Through the course of this entire project, I have come up against many listeners that are so attached to the originals that any changes are considered blasphemy! I understand their feelings, but I also believe that this could be a great lesson in non-attachment? The Buddhists would say non-attachment is the key to happiness, so for the “poo-poo’ers” out there, consider this a path to enlightenment!

My arrangements may also highlight facets of these songs that were not obvious to the listener in the original, perhaps revealing hidden and exciting new layers. I sought to emphasize material that is present in the original, but not featured or in the foreground. I also tried to rewind what I perceived may have been the original compositional process to then figure out what I would do from that same point of departure. This approach always brought me down a much different path than the original composer. Throughout the course of this entire project, I also learned new methods of arranging that center in on how to change the original as little as possible while still achieving something “new.”

To give you some specifics on my process: in “Down by the River to Pray”, I let each verse exist organically in its own “room”, culminating in the last verse where all the “rooms” come together simultaneously. Keeping in mind the deep meaning this piece has to Kate, and many others, including myself, I tried to be very careful in not forcing the material, but allowed it to be what it wanted to be.

The Refuge Trio, a collective trio I have with Theo and Gary, was originally formed to perform in a Joni Mitchell tribute concert in New York City. In fact, the name of the band comes from her song “Refuge of the Road”. Having performed her work extensively, I knew that Theo could make “Blue” come to life in his singular way. I tried to do as little as possible with this one and mostly orchestrated the original piano part.

“How Deep is Your Love?” is a nostalgic tune for me. All of the Bee Gees tunes remind me of what was on the jukebox in the local bowling alley where I would bowl on Friday afternoons as a kid. Looking at the song many years later, the title’s question “How deep is your love?” took on an even deeper meaning to me and I heard an urgent intensity in these words, which I chose to emphasize.

The classic “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor was one of the most challenging pieces to arrange because I’m simply in love with the original and was reluctant to even touch it. I imagined how Kate would bring her own magic and then subtly shaped the original by accentuating certain qualities that were present but not explicit.

The Kate Bush/Peter Gabriel pairing in “Don’t Give Up” seemed very suitable to Kate and Theo, but in order to get away from the original, I thought it would be interesting to have them switch parts. This concept of switching is explored also in the last section of the song with an escalation of intense vocal hocketing. While the original version of this song fades out like a gentle pat on the shoulder, I chose to end this arrangement with a coach-like fervor, imploring: “DON’T!” (GIVE UP)

“Kindness” doesn’t officially belong on this album of arrangements because it is an original, but I love this magical poem by Naomi Shihab Nye and want more people to hear it!

“Pure Imagination” was arranged with Gary Versace and Theo Bleckmann in mind. These two musicians embody pure imagination to me, so I created a musical fantasy world as described by the lyrics for them to explore and make magic in!

The easiest solution to arranging extremely popular songs like “God Only Knows” (which was #1 on the voters’ list), is to simply re-orchestrate it. I chose instead to challenge myself to re-cast this classic in a new light. I had such a great time re-arranging the lyrics that this became the key to finding what often sounds like a completely different piece, which I call “Knows Only God.” Perhaps after several listenings of both versions, you will start to hear that “God only Knows” is still totally present and intact!

Songs You Like A Lot along with my other albums can be found on Bandcamp (the most friendly platform for musicians) in physical or digital formats. Because I know it is a challenging time currently for musicians and composers, if you would like a digital copy of SULAL but can not afford it right now, please write to: flexatonicarts@gmail.com with  “SULAL ISJAC SPECIAL” in the subject and we will send you a free download code.

In the years since this conversation, Matt Horanzy has moved to Washington DC where he enjoys staying busy as a guitarist, composer, and educator. He’s currently a member of the BMI Composers workshop, and his latest quarantine project entitled “Quartz” can be heard here:

 

I hope this article clarifies a process that is often mysterious and solitary.

John Hollenbeck


About the Author:

It’s traditional, when paying compliment to drummers, to draw comparisons with the octopus, implying agility beyond the means of a paltry pair of human hands. But when considering John Hollenbeck, the multi-limbed creature that seems most appropriate to invoke is the mythical hydra; for while Hollenbeck is certainly no stranger to rhythmic intricacy, it’s ideas that seem to spring forth like so many heads, two more arising as one falls away.

Hollenbeck is a composer of music uncategorizable beyond the fact of being always identifiably his. A conceptualist able to translate the traditions of jazz and new music into a fresh, eclectic, forward-looking language of his own invention, intellectually rewarding yet ever accessibly vibrant. A drummer and percussionist possessed of a playful versatility and a virtuosic wit. Most of all, a musical thinker – whether putting pen to paper or conjuring spontaneous sound – allergic to repetition, forever seeking to surprise himself and his audiences.

The prolific and unpredictable nature of Hollenbeck’s output has been evident since he first emerged as a leader in late 2001, releasing four completely different albums within a matter of months. Three of them (Quartet Lucy, the duo CD Static Still, and no images, featuring several different configurations) introduced the partnership of Hollenbeck and iconoclastic vocalist Theo Bleckmann, who continue to collaborate in a variety of offbeat settings. Along with keyboardist Gary Versace, they form the Refuge Trio, as boundary-free a small group as one is likely to find.

The last of that initial burst of creativity was the self-titled debut of the Claudia Quintet, Hollenbeck’s longest-running ensemble. Over the course of its eight CDs, Claudia has cemented its reputation as one of the most innovative and adaptable units in modern jazz, so deftly attuned to one another that Hollenbeck’s most dizzying compositional leaps are taken with an air of playfulness and skewed humor. Claudia’s latest release, Super Petite, is a potent package that condenses virtuoso playing and a wealth of ideas into ten compact songs.

Claudia has received grants from the Chamber Music America New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development program to compose a suite which was recorded for 2009’s Royal Toast, and from Arts International and the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation to travel to Brazil, Nepal, and Canada for performances. The quintet was commissioned by the University of Rochester to set the work of Kenneth Patchen as part of their 100th birthday celebration of the ground-breaking poet, which can be heard on the 2011 release What Is the Beautiful?, featuring vocals by Theo Bleckmann and Kurt Elling. The Claudia Quintet can also be heard performing the theme music to Poetry Off the Shelf, a weekly audio program on PoetryFoundation.org.

Hollenbeck has been acclaimed for his unique twist on big band music – most notably through the work of the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, which trades the gale force blowing of most such bands for a multi-hued palette of tonal colors and rich, evocative atmospheres. Their third album All Can Work, pays tribute to the Large Ensemble’s late trumpet player Laurie Frink, a key force in the group and the jazz community. The JHLE received GRAMMY nominations for all three of its releases: All Can Work in 2018, A Blessing in 2005, and eternal interlude in 2008. John was nominated again in 2013 for his arrangement of Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress” from the album Songs I Like a Lot, commissioned and recorded by the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, featuring vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckmann, and pianist Gary Versace. That album and its companion piece, 2015’s Songs We Like a Lot, puckishly reimagine pop songs by the likes of Cyndi Lauper, Daft Punk, Queen and Burt Bacharach with big band arrangements, transforming familiar songs with surprising insight and audacious wit.

The composer’s large-band pieces have also been recorded by Austria’s Jazz Bigband Graz on 2006’s critically-acclaimed Joys and Desires. In 2010, the CMA/FACE French-American Jazz Exchange Program awarded Hollenbeck a grant to develop work with Daniel Yvinec and the Orchestre National de Jazz of France, resulting in the release of Shut up and Dance (Bee Jazz, 2011), which includes the GRAMMY-nominated composition “Falling Men.”

If these projects can safely be termed “jazz” (at least by those comfortable with the label’s more progressive interpretations), they should by no means be taken as indicating that Hollenbeck’s output is limited to even that genre’s most elastic borders. His growing body of commissioned compositions relate just as obliquely to the “new music” tag, exemplifying his ability to not so much defy categorization as to evolve beyond its necessity. One of Hollenbeck’s earliest appearances on record was as the composer of “The Shape of Spirit,” a piece for wind ensemble issued on the Mons label in 1998. The following year he composed “Processional and Desiderata” for wind ensemble and orator (released by Challenge Records in 2001), written for and featuring the voice and trombone of John’s mentor, Bob Brookmeyer.

John’s piece “The Cloud of Unknowing,” commissioned by the Bamberg Choir in Germany, fit comfortably alongside works by J.S. Bach, Igor Stravinsky & Paul Hindemith when it was released in 2001 on the Edel Classics label, while his 2004 chamber piece “Demütig Bitten,” commissioned by Germany’s Windsbacher Knabenchor, was released on the Rondeau label along with works by Giovanni Gabrieli, Josquin des Prez and J.S. Bach (again).  In 2002, his IAJE Gil Evans Fellowship Commission piece, “A Blessing,” featuring Theo Bleckmann’s stunning vocals, was performed to critical acclaim at the IAJE Conference; and in 2003 his IAJE/ASCAP Commission, “Folkmoot,” was premiered in Toronto, Canada.

In 2009, John compiled several recordings of his chamber pieces on the CD Rainbow Jimmies, made possible by his 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship. The disc includes commissions by Bang on a Can and the People’s Commissioning Fund; Ethos Percussion Group funded by the Jerome Foundation; Youngstown State University; and a piece written for the Claudia Quintet’s cross-cultural educational journey to Istanbul, commissioned by the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall. Hollenbeck’s other notable works include commissions by Melbourne Jazz Festival; Edinburgh Jazz Festival; University of the Arts, Philadelphia; and Ensemble Cairn, Paris, France.

Hollenbeck received degrees in percussion and jazz composition from the Eastman School of Music before moving to New York City in the early 1990s. He was profoundly shaped by the mentorship of two hugely influential artists: trombonist/arranger/composer Bob Brookmeyer and composer/choreographer Meredith Monk. His relationship with Brookmeyer reached back to the age of 14, when he attended the SUNY Binghamton Summer Jazz Workshop, and continued at Eastman, through NEA-funded composition study, and finally on the bandstand with Brookmeyer’s New Art Orchestra and in the studio with Brookmeyer and trumpet great Kenny Wheeler. For Monk, Hollenbeck composed and performed the percussion scores for five of her works: “Magic Frequencies,” “Mercy,” “The Impermanence Project,” “Songs of Ascension” and “On Behalf of Nature.”

Hollenbeck’s awards and honors include five GRAMMY nominations; the 2012 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, the 2010 ASCAP Jazz Vanguard Award and a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship; winning the Jazz Composers Alliance Composition Contest in 1995 and 2002; Meet the Composer’s Grants in 1995 and 2001; and a Rising Star Arranger win in the 2012 and 2013 DownBeat Critics’ Polls as well as in 2011 for the JHLE as Rising Star Big Band. John was a professor of Jazz Drums and Improvisation at the Jazz Institute Berlin from 2005-2016 and in 2015 joined the faculty of McGill University’s Schulich School of Music.

Artist Blog

An Interview with Composer/Pianist Satoko Fujii

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)

 

Artist Blog

An Interview with John Clayton

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

ISJAC: Hey, John. Thanks for doing this.

JC: Happy to do it

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

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

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

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

ISJAC: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISJAC: That’s great of course.

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

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

JC: I absolutely agree.

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

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

ISJAC: Great advice.

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

ISJAC: And is that what you do now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JC: Yes, long before.

ISJAC: Was he an influence on your writing?

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

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

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

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

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

ISJAC: Do you find yourself singing while you write?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISJAC: Ha! [Both laugh]

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

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

JC: Wow, thank you!

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

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

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

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

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

JC: Thanks.

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

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

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

JC: How old is your daughter?

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

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

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

JC: You never know!

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

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

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

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

JC: Likewise.

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

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

ISJAC: Thanks, John.


 

APPENDIX A

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


About John Clayton:

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

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

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

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

Website: http://www.johnclaytonjazz.com

 

Footnotes   [ + ]

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

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Want to help ISJAC create more content like this? Visit: isjac.org/support

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