This past summer composer George Lewis wrote a fascinating New York Times article called “Lifting the Cone of Silence From Black Composers.” In the article he wrote of composer/performer Nathalie Joachim’s wonderful Grammy-nominated album Fanm d’Ayiti (“Women of Haiti,” 2019 New Amsterdam Records) that she brings “musical Minimalism home to the African diaspora from which it has drawn so much” (Ibid). Continue reading
This blog consists of an exchange of emails between Matt Horanzy, when he was a student at USF, and I discussing my approach to arranging for the albums “Songs I Like a Lot” and “Songs We Like a Lot.” Matt has agreed to share this email conversation with the ISJAC community. In the time since we had this conversation, I finished and recently released the album “Songs You Like a Lot,” so I have included an addendum to our original exchange to give you an explanation of the final album of arrangements. In rereading our emails, I felt I needed to include some clarifications to my original thoughts. These clarifications are labeled and appear in italics.
From: Matthew Horanzy
Subject – Research Project question
Date: February 5, 2018 at 4:48:23 PM EST
To: John Hollenbeck
Hi Mr. Hollenbeck,
I’m currently working on a research project focused around your music, specifically your arrangements from the Songs I/We Like A Lot albums. My topic is going to be on your influences from wind ensemble music/composers. Having heard you speak extensively on this topic, I was wondering if you could point me to a few pieces or composers that you believe played a great deal of impact on your music for these two projects?
Can’t wait to listen to the new album!
On Feb 6, 2018, at 9:09 AM, John Hollenbeck wrote:
I appreciate the interest and question. I have to stop you at your premise unfortunately, because I do not believe that you need to be influenced by something to do something. I hear too much of that in fact. When I write, I try to let the material itself influence me and guide me. While I sometimes do answer the “influences” question, I am increasingly hesitant. I know it is harder to start at “nothing” and not get a head start from another person’s work, but that is how I work the majority of the time. I know it does not make for a good paper, but that is the truth. 😀
Feel free to follow up!
LATER CLARIFICATION: I believe influences will always be present and what we do is based on what we take in. But I do not believe it is necessary to look for influences or spend a lot of time trying to get influenced. The process of being influenced and letting those influences flow naturally out can hopefully happen organically without conscious intent. I have always gravitated towards music where the influences are not quickly evident and I get immediately turned off if I feel someone is stealing someone’s music consciously or even unconsciously. I realize the frustration in my answer and the educational value of copying others, but I do want to continually stress the significance of trying to come at your work from “you” and not “in the style of” someone else, as a mature goal.
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?
On 06 Feb 2018, at 15:58, John Hollenbeck wrote:
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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”:
Also, I wrote an extensive analysis of Drewslate, a Claudia Quintet piece, that demonstrates in depth the composition process for this particular piece. It has been published in Arcana VIII, one edition of a series of journals that John Zorn has put together.
I would like to note that with most arrangements, I’m trying to keep the essence of the songs intact while giving them new life, like a new coat of paint or a renovation. The songs are still there but might sound quite different than the original.
LATER CLARIFICATION: The way I look at it, there is a scale of how much something can be arranged. In Imogen Heap’s “Canvas” from Songs I Like A Lot or “Blue” from Songs You Like A Lot, I felt like I just orchestrated the songs according to the players and instrumentation on this project. On the other end of the scale are “Get Lucky Manifesto” from Songs We Like A Lot or “Knows Only God” from Songs You Like A Lot which were arranged to the extreme, to the point of “re-composition,” which is why I re-titled them.
On Apr 15, 2018, at 11:36 PM, Matthew Horanzy wrote:
Hi Mr. Hollenbeck,
Thank you for writing me several weeks (months?) ago! I’ve been digging deeper into your charts, and your words continue to ring true, with the majority of these works being creative manipulations of the melody.
I wanted to ask some questions that were less technical in terms of analysis, but more conceptual. First and foremost, I wanted to know if there were any differences in your approach when writing arrangements for Songs I Like A Lot compared to Songs We Like A Lot. Did you notice any tendencies when tasked with re-arranging music that was not as dear to you?
And last, what pieces did you also consider for these two albums that did not make the cut? I’m very curious about your thought process when choosing pieces to arrange for projects such as these!
On Apr 16, 2018, at 9:56 AM, John Hollenbeck wrote:
“First and foremost, I wanted to know if there were any differences in your approach when writing arrangements for Songs I Like A Lot compared to Songs We Like A Lot.”
Not really, it felt similar – the main difference was in how the material was selected. I liked more of the material from the 1st project since I selected most of the pieces! But what I learned in the 2nd project was that I did not need to like a piece in order to make a successful arrangement out of it!
“Did you notice any tendencies when tasked with re-arranging music that was not as dear to you?”
I learned that it might even be easier if I did not like the original piece, because then there was less pressure on myself to do it justice. Also, if I did not like it, I did not listen to it much ahead of time, so it was easier to make it my own.
“And last, what pieces did you also consider for these two albums that did not make the cut? I’m very curious about your thought process when choosing pieces to arrange for projects such as these!”
Many, many pieces, but alas that list was on paper, and while I’m sure I still have it, I’m not sure where it is! For the last album in this trilogy, “Songs You Like A Lot,” we are inviting anyone to suggest a piece that they want me to arrange. We will then have an internet-wide vote, so I’m taking myself out of the selection of pieces!
To re-iterate, the process once I start arranging a piece is the same as my compositional process:
- Find the core/cell
- Process it and try to find the “gold” that is hopefully embedded in the material, something that speaks to me and gives the material a new life.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org with “SULAL ISJAC SPECIAL” in the subject and we will send you a free download code.
In the years since this conversation, Matt Horanzy has moved to Washington DC where he enjoys staying busy as a guitarist, composer, and educator. He’s currently a member of the BMI Composers workshop, and his latest quarantine project entitled “Quartz” can be heard here:
I hope this article clarifies a process that is often mysterious and solitary.
About the Author:
It’s traditional, when paying compliment to drummers, to draw comparisons with the octopus, implying agility beyond the means of a paltry pair of human hands. But when considering John Hollenbeck, the multi-limbed creature that seems most appropriate to invoke is the mythical hydra; for while Hollenbeck is certainly no stranger to rhythmic intricacy, it’s ideas that seem to spring forth like so many heads, two more arising as one falls away.
Hollenbeck is a composer of music uncategorizable beyond the fact of being always identifiably his. A conceptualist able to translate the traditions of jazz and new music into a fresh, eclectic, forward-looking language of his own invention, intellectually rewarding yet ever accessibly vibrant. A drummer and percussionist possessed of a playful versatility and a virtuosic wit. Most of all, a musical thinker – whether putting pen to paper or conjuring spontaneous sound – allergic to repetition, forever seeking to surprise himself and his audiences.
The prolific and unpredictable nature of Hollenbeck’s output has been evident since he first emerged as a leader in late 2001, releasing four completely different albums within a matter of months. Three of them (Quartet Lucy, the duo CD Static Still, and no images, featuring several different configurations) introduced the partnership of Hollenbeck and iconoclastic vocalist Theo Bleckmann, who continue to collaborate in a variety of offbeat settings. Along with keyboardist Gary Versace, they form the Refuge Trio, as boundary-free a small group as one is likely to find.
The last of that initial burst of creativity was the self-titled debut of the Claudia Quintet, Hollenbeck’s longest-running ensemble. Over the course of its eight CDs, Claudia has cemented its reputation as one of the most innovative and adaptable units in modern jazz, so deftly attuned to one another that Hollenbeck’s most dizzying compositional leaps are taken with an air of playfulness and skewed humor. Claudia’s latest release, Super Petite, is a potent package that condenses virtuoso playing and a wealth of ideas into ten compact songs.
Claudia has received grants from the Chamber Music America New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development program to compose a suite which was recorded for 2009’s Royal Toast, and from Arts International and the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation to travel to Brazil, Nepal, and Canada for performances. The quintet was commissioned by the University of Rochester to set the work of Kenneth Patchen as part of their 100th birthday celebration of the ground-breaking poet, which can be heard on the 2011 release What Is the Beautiful?, featuring vocals by Theo Bleckmann and Kurt Elling. The Claudia Quintet can also be heard performing the theme music to Poetry Off the Shelf, a weekly audio program on PoetryFoundation.org.
Hollenbeck has been acclaimed for his unique twist on big band music – most notably through the work of the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, which trades the gale force blowing of most such bands for a multi-hued palette of tonal colors and rich, evocative atmospheres. Their third album All Can Work, pays tribute to the Large Ensemble’s late trumpet player Laurie Frink, a key force in the group and the jazz community. The JHLE received GRAMMY nominations for all three of its releases: All Can Work in 2018, A Blessing in 2005, and eternal interlude in 2008. John was nominated again in 2013 for his arrangement of Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress” from the album Songs I Like a Lot, commissioned and recorded by the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, featuring vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckmann, and pianist Gary Versace. That album and its companion piece, 2015’s Songs We Like a Lot, puckishly reimagine pop songs by the likes of Cyndi Lauper, Daft Punk, Queen and Burt Bacharach with big band arrangements, transforming familiar songs with surprising insight and audacious wit.
The composer’s large-band pieces have also been recorded by Austria’s Jazz Bigband Graz on 2006’s critically-acclaimed Joys and Desires. In 2010, the CMA/FACE French-American Jazz Exchange Program awarded Hollenbeck a grant to develop work with Daniel Yvinec and the Orchestre National de Jazz of France, resulting in the release of Shut up and Dance (Bee Jazz, 2011), which includes the GRAMMY-nominated composition “Falling Men.”
If these projects can safely be termed “jazz” (at least by those comfortable with the label’s more progressive interpretations), they should by no means be taken as indicating that Hollenbeck’s output is limited to even that genre’s most elastic borders. His growing body of commissioned compositions relate just as obliquely to the “new music” tag, exemplifying his ability to not so much defy categorization as to evolve beyond its necessity. One of Hollenbeck’s earliest appearances on record was as the composer of “The Shape of Spirit,” a piece for wind ensemble issued on the Mons label in 1998. The following year he composed “Processional and Desiderata” for wind ensemble and orator (released by Challenge Records in 2001), written for and featuring the voice and trombone of John’s mentor, Bob Brookmeyer.
John’s piece “The Cloud of Unknowing,” commissioned by the Bamberg Choir in Germany, fit comfortably alongside works by J.S. Bach, Igor Stravinsky & Paul Hindemith when it was released in 2001 on the Edel Classics label, while his 2004 chamber piece “Demütig Bitten,” commissioned by Germany’s Windsbacher Knabenchor, was released on the Rondeau label along with works by Giovanni Gabrieli, Josquin des Prez and J.S. Bach (again). In 2002, his IAJE Gil Evans Fellowship Commission piece, “A Blessing,” featuring Theo Bleckmann’s stunning vocals, was performed to critical acclaim at the IAJE Conference; and in 2003 his IAJE/ASCAP Commission, “Folkmoot,” was premiered in Toronto, Canada.
In 2009, John compiled several recordings of his chamber pieces on the CD Rainbow Jimmies, made possible by his 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship. The disc includes commissions by Bang on a Can and the People’s Commissioning Fund; Ethos Percussion Group funded by the Jerome Foundation; Youngstown State University; and a piece written for the Claudia Quintet’s cross-cultural educational journey to Istanbul, commissioned by the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall. Hollenbeck’s other notable works include commissions by Melbourne Jazz Festival; Edinburgh Jazz Festival; University of the Arts, Philadelphia; and Ensemble Cairn, Paris, France.
Hollenbeck received degrees in percussion and jazz composition from the Eastman School of Music before moving to New York City in the early 1990s. He was profoundly shaped by the mentorship of two hugely influential artists: trombonist/arranger/composer Bob Brookmeyer and composer/choreographer Meredith Monk. His relationship with Brookmeyer reached back to the age of 14, when he attended the SUNY Binghamton Summer Jazz Workshop, and continued at Eastman, through NEA-funded composition study, and finally on the bandstand with Brookmeyer’s New Art Orchestra and in the studio with Brookmeyer and trumpet great Kenny Wheeler. For Monk, Hollenbeck composed and performed the percussion scores for five of her works: “Magic Frequencies,” “Mercy,” “The Impermanence Project,” “Songs of Ascension” and “On Behalf of Nature.”
Hollenbeck’s awards and honors include five GRAMMY nominations; the 2012 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, the 2010 ASCAP Jazz Vanguard Award and a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship; winning the Jazz Composers Alliance Composition Contest in 1995 and 2002; Meet the Composer’s Grants in 1995 and 2001; and a Rising Star Arranger win in the 2012 and 2013 DownBeat Critics’ Polls as well as in 2011 for the JHLE as Rising Star Big Band. John was a professor of Jazz Drums and Improvisation at the Jazz Institute Berlin from 2005-2016 and in 2015 joined the faculty of McGill University’s Schulich School of Music.
Blog curator’s note:
In late May, I had been contemplating who I might solicit to write the July 1 ISJAC blog. I wanted to hear a voice different from the kinds of folks I had previously featured. Then I happened to catch this post shared by my friend Dominique Eade on Facebook: “I am the first African-American to earn a Master’s degree in Jazz Composition from UTA! #BlackHistory.” I thought, now that sounds like a story I’d like to hear, so I was delighted that Tatiana agreed to write something for us. Little did I know that 2 days later, George Floyd would be murdered by police officers not far from where I live in Minnesota and change all our lives (again) so strongly. So, in the midst of all that and this seemingly endless COVID crisis, I can’t think of a more appropriate voice for us all to hear from right now. My friends, Tatiana LadyMay Mayfield.
Backstory: Why Go Back To School?
It was February of 2018. I had just released my third album The Next Chapter a few days after my birthday and I wasn’t happy, but I should have been. I wanted to release it in February because of the ties to my personal life; my birthday, Black History Month, and my parent’s anniversary are just a few of the most important things about this month to me. However, I felt like everything about the project fell short except for the music after taking 4 years to complete it.
I spent the next few months trying to figure out what my next move would be while I continued to teach at Cedar Valley College in Lancaster, Texas and gig around town. At this point, I had been teaching voice for 8 years after graduating with my bachelor’s degree in jazz studies from the University of North Texas. During the course of that time, I toyed with the idea of going back to school to get my master’s degree several times but fear would always creep into the equation as well as the thought of more financial stress from dreaded student loans. I kept thinking to myself, “You’ve been away from school too long. It will be too hard getting back into the groove. Besides, what would you get your master’s in? Won’t this interfere with performing?” All I knew was that I wanted to open more doors financially for myself so that I could continue making the music that I love and share that passion with others through teaching, recording, and live performances.
After speaking with pianist and educator Stefan Karlsson on a monthly gig we had together in Dallas, I was convinced that I needed to fight my fears and apply for my master’s degree at UTA (University of Texas-Arlington) where he was then teaching piano. He talked to me about program options and I decided on jazz composition because I really wanted to grow musically in this area. I knew it would be the challenge that I needed to propel me forward to explore my creativity in ways that I thought were potentially too difficult for me.
My Experience at UTA
I started studying at UTA in fall of 2018. I was really nervous but proud of myself for taking a leap of faith and trusting that I would eventually land on my feet. I was immediately welcomed in the music department and felt comfortable around my classmates. I felt appreciated and was fortunate enough to know most of the instructors from the local jazz scene which gave me both anxiety and comfort, as I had worked with some in the past. Anxiety that they knew me and expected the very best from me, but comfort in that they were awesome musicians that I knew I could learn a lot from. I studied piano with Stefan Karlsson and Sergio Pamies, jazz history with Brian Muholland, conducting with Tim Ishii, and composition with Dan Cavanagh.
Cavanagh was the department chair and professor over jazz composition at the time. He also taught a course titled “Jazz Style and Analysis” which I took in my first semester. Each week we would discuss the jazz style during an era (using the standard narrative of jazz) and submit 3 transcriptions of choice on our prospective instruments. The course started in the 1920s and ended in the present. We also had to write a short essay and present our written transcriptions to the class while listening to the original recording. Since my primary instruments are voice and trombone, I transcribed several vocal solos until I got to the “post-bop” era where I switched to trombone. At first, I felt like the task was daunting because of the amount of transcriptions and the fact that I was not proficient at writing music on paper quickly. By the end of the course, I certainly got better at transcribing and it made me feel great!
My lessons with Cavanagh were always very open, honest, and full of encouragement. I had done some traditional composition at UNT (small group arranging and big band arranging), but since it was not my primary focus during my undergrad, I had some reviewing and new concepts I needed to get under my belt. I learned new ways to organize my thoughts about composing before even writing a note; I was allowed to always be myself creatively. I explored writing for strings (something I’ve always wanted to do), used different methods for horn voicings, and challenged myself rhythmically while changing time signatures throughout a piece. The difficulty variation was split between the assignments and me. We talked about racism and sexism and the role it’s played in jazz throughout history as well as in academia. We discussed it even more in my “Jazz History and Historiography” class with Brian Muholland. I was told not only that I was the first vocalist in the program, but the first black woman to strive for this degree. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered that I am the first black American to receive this degree. This is an honor I don’t take lightly and am deeply proud of. I find it interesting that there are still “firsts” of this kind in 2020. I hope that it encourages more black musicians to go forth in getting more degrees in jazz on both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
Being Black and A Woman in Jazz
I was taught as a young black child that I had to work 10 times harder to achieve and be noticed in society than my counterparts in order to lead a successful and somewhat comfortable life. Thus, I’ve always put an amazing amount of pressure on myself to be successful in whatever “success” means to me and/or my family. However, I feel even more pressured than ever because of the positive reputation I’ve built both musically and professionally over the years.
As a black woman, musician, composer, and educator it is stressful in ways many don’t or can’t fully understand. I’m in a very marginalized category because I deal with two sides of a difficult coin: one for being black and one for being a woman. Neither those I can change, only people’s perspective of me can. These inferior feelings have almost always bled into how I’ve felt about myself since I can remember. No one ever really told me I couldn’t be great, but societal pressures and subliminal media made me feel this way. On the musical spectrum, there’s often this dismissal from male counterparts on any musical front and on the racial end there’s this assumption that you are probably good but have a bad attitude (“angry black woman” stereotypes). Being a female vocalist also has its own stereotypes that are difficult to break (don’t know any music theory, can’t count off tunes, diva mentality, etc.). In addition, the jazz industry still doesn’t fully recognize women and women of color for their great work and contributions as a whole outside of a handful of great singers and a few pianists. Representation matters and when it isn’t or is rarely there, sometimes it’s hard to stay motivated.
I used Patrice Rushen as a source of compositional and personal inspiration throughout the course of time writing music while at UTA. Her albums Before The Dawn (1975) and Patrice (1978) are my favorites because they’re a mix of straight ahead, soul, and funk, styles that fit my mindset and musical interest. She is an amazing composer and songwriter with the piano chops and voice to match. I did a lot of research of her and her career and hope to one day make the type of mark she’s made on me on other women in the jazz community. I also appreciate the compositions and arrangements of trombonist and composer/arranger Melba Liston and the contemporary eclectic style of Esperanza Spalding’s work. Other strong compositional/arranging influence came from Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, and Herbie Hancock.
Pandemic Effects, Protests and Life Transitions
COVID-19 hit in March, right in the middle of the semester as I was to begin to finish my last few pieces for my recital. When everything shut down, so did I. I was already having some writers block happening shortly before, but the pandemic completely closed me up creatively. It was then I knew I needed to allow myself time to process, focus, and heal so that I could finish the rest of my required work.
Prior to the pandemic, I was teaching and gigging while attending school. So, that meant going back and forth between Cedar Valley and UTA sometimes on the same day. One semester I was even an adjunct instructor at UNT also. It was insane and a little too demanding but I still had to work. I got engaged in October of 2019 and began planning my wedding with my now husband. My master’s recital was set for April. I was going to graduate in May and we would be married in June on Juneteenth. I had planned to travel with friends to Jamaica for 4 days and go back to China to teach at a jazz summer program for 2 weeks and perform.
While we are here we are in the middle of the worst pandemic since the 1918 Spanish Flu, the tragic and unnecessary murder of George Floyd happens due to a police officer kneeling on his neck for almost 9 minutes. As if we aren’t dealing with enough collectively as a nation, this becomes the new focus. When the news of this reached me, I was immediately outraged and sick to my stomach. I thought about all the other black men and women who had been killed in recent weeks and years from police and/or racist violence: Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Botham Jean, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and so many others. I thought about when I wrote the protest song “Freedom” on The Next Chapter with my friend musician/producer Jemarcus Bridges and poet Rodderick Parker about some of these very killings. My heart was and still is broken and tired. However, seeing people take to the streets to demand justice for George Floyd and the others who have lost their lives gave me a bit of hope for continued resilience like that seen from the 1950s-60s Civil Rights Movement. Despite the pandemic and social injustice fight currently, I find a little bit of peace seeing that there may be some real change happening and from knowing we are all in this together.
I’ve recently started to put pen to paper again charting new ideas about how to express my feelings forwardly and creatively that not only sheds light on this issue, but also leaves hope.
What I Learned Getting Through A Master’s Program
Studying jazz composition at UTA opened my eyes to many new ways to think about constructing harmony and organizing musical ideas. I also learned a lot about myself; I’m much more resilient than I thought and I can now write for different types of instrumentation. I enjoyed singing big band tunes with the jazz orchestra, learning how to research a topic and write about it, and speak with my professors about their careers as educators and gigging musicians. I even dug deeper into my roots as a black American and what that means to the music I hold dear and to society. UTA summer jazz camp was where I began my jazz educational journey when I was a teenager so it’s funny how life comes full circle sometimes. Overall, my time at UTA was memorable and special. A time period I will look back on with gratitude and a bittersweet smile.
About the Author:
Refreshing and beautiful are how many have described the voice and persona of Tatiana “LadyMay” Mayfield, a jazz vocalist, musician, composer, and educator from Fort Worth, Texas. “LadyMay” (as she has been named) has been singing and playing jazz music since the tender age of thirteen. Since then, she has performed in various venues and festivals throughout the U.S. and abroad, which in turn have earned her rave reviews from listeners and musicians in addition to numerous awards.
In 2017, “LadyMay” was awarded 2nd place in the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocals Competition held at NJPAC in New Jersey. In that same year, she received the “Jazz Innovators Award” from Dallas, TX as part of Jazz Appreciation Month for her contributions to jazz education for young people in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. Mayfield was also chosen as one of the twelve semi-finalists to compete in the prestigious 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition that was held in Washington, D.C before a legendary panel of judges. In the summer of 2019, the city of Fort Worth awarded her with a “Legend In The Making” award at their annual “Dr. Marion J. Brooks Living Legends Awards” for her accomplishments in entertainment and education. In addition to several other awards, she is also a 2006 YoungArts winner for Jazz Voice. She has also appeared on Dallas/Ft. Worth’s news television show WFAA “Good Morning Texas” four times since 2011. Mayfield has opened for several well-known artists such as Kirk Whalum, Will Downing, Randy Brecker, Dave Valentin, Bobbi Humphrey, and The Main Ingredient. LadyMay has also performed in 3 concerts between 2016-2018 with the legendary Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. The first concert was a tribute celebrating African-American women in music entitled “I’m Every Woman”, then again for their Independence Day “Patriotic Pops: Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the USO”, and as of late in the “Classical Roots: Under One Roof” concert honoring the diverse history of the historic Music Hall where they perform. Mayfield has also performed with the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra in South Carolina in the spring of 2018.
“LadyMay” has recorded three albums, From All Directions (2009), A Portrait Of LadyMay (2012), and The Next Chapter (2018). The first album From All Directions was recorded while she was still attending the University of North Texas, where she received her degree in Jazz Studies. Jazz journalist Scott Yanow described her voice on her debut album From All Directions (2009) as “attractive” with “excellent elocution” and a “joyful spirit”. On her sophomore album A Portrait Of LadyMay (2012), Harvey Siders, former writer of JazzTimes and Downbeat magazines, describes her intonation as “flawless” and her scatting “as natural as breathing.” In addition to her vocal skills, she plays piano, trombone, composes, and teaches voice and music theory. In May of 2017, she was awarded 3rd place in the “Performance” category of the International Songwriting Competition for her original song “Forgive Me Someday” from her latest album The Next Chapter.
LadyMay’s appeal has also reached listeners abroad in the UK, Switzerland, Germany, France, Nigeria, and Brazil. Her music has been featured on several international radio stations such as “Solar Radio”, “Jazz FM”, “Tropical FM”, and “Premier Gospel Radio” in the UK, “RJM Radio” in France, and “Smooth 98.1” in Nigeria. In November 2012, her song “Real” from A Portrait Of LadyMay reached #1 on the “UK Soul Chart”. In July of 2013, she completed her first tour (LadyMay In The UK) to London where she was widely received on radio appearances, as well as at some of their top performance venues such as Ronnie Scott’s, Pizza Express in Soho, and the Flyover Portobello. UK based record store “Soul Brother Records” labeled “A Portrait Of LadyMay” as one of their “Best New Jazz Releases of 2013”. As an educator, Mayfield is an adjunct professor of commercial voice at Cedar Valley College in Lancaster, TX and has previously taught jazz voice for the University Of North Texas in Denton, Texas. In 2019, she taught in Zhuhai, China for the Golden Jazz Henquin Jazz Week and performed in the “Crossing Music and New Generation Jazz Festival”. Mayfield has a bachelor’s degree in jazz studies from the University of North Texas (Denton, TX) and a master’s degree in jazz composition from the University of Texas at Arlington.
For more information on Tatiana “LadyMay” Mayfield, visit www.tatianamayfield.com.
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.|
There were many lessons learned from the time I was asked to schedule a timeline to perform with the infamous WDR Big Band in Koln, Germany, with my music. For those who do not know, WDR, Westdeutscher Rundfunk is a German public-broadcasting Institution with the main office in Köln, Germany. NDR Big Band is based in the North in Hamburg, Germany. The HR Big Band is in Frankfurt, Germany. Each of these bands are made up of exceptionally talented jazz musicians, many who are from other countries, including the United States, as well as from Germany. These professional European bands have been around a very long time. I am deeply honored to have been invited this past March to perform my music with the WDR. My dear friend, Dennis Mackrel, was my conductor who made this memorable visit a most successful one on many levels.
To become a good composer is somewhat similar to becoming a good player. One should have, at least, one significant role model for inspiration. One also has to be persistent, diligent, and consistent with conviction to be taken seriously, so they can be called again and again to play with other good musicians. Composers also want to hear their music played more than once, as well. You can be recommended that first time, but the second time is totally based on that initial performance. When are you ready? Watch, listen, study, and ask questions by seeking out those individuals who inspire you! When it’s time for your music to be performed on the stage, it must sound like it belongs there. How do you know? When people you respect give you an unsolicited thumbs up! Believe me, it will empower and carry you a long way! Begin being truly honest with yourself! Bottom line, the music you compose must resonate with others. The best compliment would be, “I’d love to hear that again!” Ultimately, it’s all on you.
In my many years as a professional improvising bassist, I have had the good fortune to perform and record with some of the greatest players who were and are incredible composers, as well. I have always been intrigued and baffled how they were able to conceive this incredible music. I began a quest to find out what this composition thing was all about.
When I joined the BMI Composers Workshop in 1999, I was thrust into an environment that was completely foreign to me. Intellectually, I understood we would be writing for a big band. I had written a few big band arrangements, but this workshop was about coming up with fresh ideas. Arranging requires its own set of unique skill sets to take a known composition and give it a new look and/or sound. I was asked to write what I wanted to write. I was NOT prepared to write what “I” wanted to write. I had no idea what that was! In that moment I felt completely at a loss to respond in any way. I had never been asked that question before, ever! The music I knew basically was already prescribed for a particular musical setting, i.e. music for film, television, a musical, a wedding, or a myriad of situations. So, the inner search was initiated to find out what actually pleased and satisfied me without being judgmental! HA! Fat chance of that not happening! At the time, the BMI Workshop had three exceptional coaches, Manny Albam, Jim McNeely, and Michael Abene, to help guide all of the individual participants closer to being yourself. In the five years as a participant, I was never told “No, that’s not good!” I was simply asked, “Is that really how you want it to sound?” That sent a huge message for me to return to the drawing board and keep searching! Another was, “That’s pretty good, but try orchestrating this with very different instruments!” We all have our comfort zones and I was asked to stretch and leave mine. I still have to NOT get too comfortable with what I come up with too soon in the process. And that is it! I have grown to love the entire process of composing! The constant search is very mysterious, extremely daunting, and exhilarating when you discover “it!” One of my oldest friends, the late Muhal Richard Abrams, said to never stop listening to all kinds of music. You might be surprised at what you actually like. Eddie Harris taught me not be afraid of any music. So, these past twenty years, I have conscientiously tried to do exactly do as they suggest.
Now, with all that said, one has to learn how to orchestrate so that idea sounds solid, while also “sounds!” It is clearly heard no matter of the density surrounding this idea. Finding the “sweet spots” of all instruments. Manny Albam used to call them the “money notes” because he was always on the clock and it had to sound good all of the time or people were unhappy! Whether you are on the clock, everything written must have a “sound.” The idea sounds. That voicing really sounds! The orchestration truly sounds. Everything is clear with articulations, dynamics, measure numbers, page numbers, chord symbols, and whatever else makes a great sounding chart, etc. etc. etc!
The WDR Big Band experience gave me a real taste of what the BMI workshop prepared me for! That in itself was extremely gratifying. I remember so well being told that you are in a good place when you finish a commission or any project. Now, have the confidence to put the score and parts in a package. Mail the package and do not expect to hear anything, except it was received, the first reading went well, and the music was liked by all! THAT, my fellow readers, is not easy to accomplish, but I am getting closer, I think!
The music I have written and performed with the WDR Big Band will give the listener a glimpse of what has happened in these past years. I was sent guidelines as how to prepare my music to send via PDF. All of the scores and parts had to be prepared by computer software. That made sense since we all use Finale or Sibelius software, but they did not want to see the “jazz font” at all. I had four charts with the jazz font. I know, supposedly, you can designate the change and push a button and that’s it. It isn’t quite that simple. The articulations changed. Then I said to myself, since I’m in this, let me see if I can tweak some parts and the domino effect came in. Oh my, did I mention I had a couple different versions of this chart in the computer and I tweaked and sent the wrong one? Fortunately, I caught most of the proofing issues before sending out nine pieces of music for this project. We rehearsed four days and all of the players were so on it about everything! Specific articulations had to be discussed and finalized before moving on. What one might think is a universal language for “jazz” articulation, is not that simple, particularly to those who do not know you or your music! When you are aware your music is new to everyone, the clearer everything must be at the outset! I had to adjust some measures in a saxophone tutti in one piece and correct some trombone voicings in another. This doesn’t sound like much, but folks, I was mortified! The score and parts matched, which is supposed to be a good thing, but they were wrong! I do not know how any of that could have happened! The computer messed up my parts, I am sure of it! DUH! I am truly happy that out of all the music I sent, this was minor, but it should not have happened at all at this level. If I had truly taken the time to proof and/or have someone else proof, the music would have been sufficient, as it should be.
One of the issues at hand for me at this juncture in my life, is, I am attempting to compose other music outside and away from the jazz mentality or sensibilities. This has required me to become more articulate with literally everything on the music page. When you write for your band or players who are familiar with you, the music should still be clear enough to have a smooth initial rendering. Theoretically, I am well aware of the importance of proofing, but somehow it still eludes me. That’s when it hurts when you get busted for it!
The moral to this story, is no matter how savvy you are with the computer software, one should have another set of eyes and ears to help proof your music. I wish to be asked to return to perform and write for the WDR Big Band again in the future. Hence, preparation is the key to success. “Gots to be more careful!”
About the Author:
For the last 50 years, Rufus Reid has been a consistent, formidable, and influential presence in the jazz world as a bassist and educator. His performances and recordings with Eddie Harris, Nancy Wilson, Dexter Gordon, Andrew Hill, The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and Quartet, Kenny Barron, Stan Getz, J. J. Johnson, Lee Konitz, Jack DeJohnette, to name but a few, has cemented his stature as one of the great living deans of the jazz bass. His receipt of the 2006 Raymond Sackler Commission resulted in his five-movement suite for large jazz ensemble, Quiet Pride-The Elizabeth Catlett Project. In November 2015, this album received two Grammy nominations, for Best Large Jazz Ensemble and Best Instrumental Composition. Rufus Reid is a 2008 Guggenheim Fellow in the field of composition, which resulted in the three-movement symphonic work, Mass Transit. In April 2016 he was named Harvard University’s Jazz Master in Residence, participating in public conversations and also performing in concert with his original compositions. In April 2017, Lake Tyrrell In Innisfree, Rufus’ third symphonic work was debuted in Raleigh, NC by the Raleigh Civic Symphony. May 2017, Rufus Reid was awarded the America Composers Forum Commission to composed, Remembrance, for Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble to be premiered in July 6-7, 2018. In December 2017, Newvelle Records, an all vinyl recording company, will release the Rufus Reid Trio, “Terrestial Dance,” featuring the Sirius Quartet. February, 2020, Newvelle Records release his second vinyl duo recording, “Always In The Moment,” with stellar pianist, Sullivan Fortner. A distinguished educator as well, for 20 years Rufus was Director of the Jazz Studies Program at William Paterson University and was instrumental in building the program’s international reputation as one of the leading jazz schools in the world. He has recorded more than 400 albums and a dozen albums as a leader and authored a seminal text and DVD for bass methodology, The Evolving Bassist. Rufus’ continues to evolve as a composer and “The Evolving Bassist.”
Hey folks. Your friendly neighborhood blog guru here. Unfortunately, due to COVID craziness, our scheduled blogger for April was, understandably, unable to complete his article for this month. So, I decided at the last minute to step in and throw together a little something that might be of some interest to some of you. I quickly assembled a little playlist of some big band music that I considered “game-changers” for me in my understanding and appreciation of the modern idiom. Many of you will be familiar with at least most, if not all, of this music, but if I’m introducing something new to you, you’re welcome. And if these are all your favorites, like they are mine, you’re also welcome, because what better excuse than now to settle in and listen to these masterpieces again. I could go on and on about each example, but I’m just going to say a few things about each, and maybe little bit about how I happened on it.
“(The) First Circle,” by Pat Metheny, arr. by Bob Curnow
As a junior at the University of Northern Iowa many moons ago, I was just starting to gain some understanding of modern big band music, and I barely knew who Pat Metheny was at that point. So, I was really thrown into the fire my first semester in Jazz I (then directed by Bob Washut) by playing this amazing chart. When I first looked at the music, I couldn’t even understand how you could even count it, much less play it accurately and smoothly. But it was really was an eye-opener how something so complicated and constantly changing could feel so fluid and organic in performance. Yes, this chart is only an imitation of the truly breathtaking original, but I think it does an admirable job.
Bob Curnow’s LA Big Band – The Music of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays, 1994
(Btw, here’s also a version of Pat playing another orchestration of it with the Metropole Orchestra conducted by Jim McNeely in 2003.)
“The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife are Some Jive-Ass Slippers,” Charles Mingus
I was already way into Mingus by the time I was a student at New England Conservatory, but I wasn’t all that familiar with his big band music yet, so when Allan Chase brought this into the NEC Jazz Orchestra, I was totally knocked out. The orchestration, the episodes, the incredibly memorable melodic structures were so rich while still managing to maintain the sense of spontaneity that the small group records always had. How could something be so complex and structured while also simultaneously feeling so loose?
Charles Mingus – Let My Children Hear Music, 1972
“Ugly Music,” Bob Brookmeyer
My trombone teacher at the time, John Mosca, hipped me to this whole record Electricity. I was somewhat familiar with Brookmeyer at the time but thought of him as an interesting improviser who wrote some “funnier-sounding” music in the Ray Wright book Inside the Score. Little did I know I’d be studying with him the following year at the beginning of a long and invaluable relationship. This record seemed so out of context for what I understood about Bob at the time. So much of the orchestration is stripped down to 3 voices or less, and the timbre of the 2 synths plus Abercrombie’s MIDI guitar was just so surprising to me. Later, after I had studied with Bob for a while, I thought of this track of the album as the paradigm of the melodic development stuff he was working on with me and his other students. It goes along with his concept that you really can’t develop an idea too much. It just keeps going, and I think it’s so powerful that the main thing that changes in the opening section is Danny Gottlieb changing from brushes to sticks.
Bob Brookmeyer (w/WDR Big Band featuring John Abercrombie) – Electricity, 1994
“Skittish,” Jim McNeely
The summer in between being hipped to Electricity and studying with Bob for the first time, I attended the Lake Placid Institute for its first year hosting a jazz workshop that was spearheaded by Bob. In addition to working with Maria Schneider for the first time (also see “Wyrgly” from Evanescence), I got to play a bunch of Jim’s music with him, including charts like “Extra Credit” and “Sing, Sing, Sing.” But the big thing for me was playing “Skittish,” the 2nd track on the masterwork East Coast Blowout. I had heard the chart and thought the melody was super cool and that there was some neat rhythmic stuff, but I gained a much deeper appreciation of the chart with Jim rehearsing us. And after playing it, I just couldn’t stop listening to the original recording. The Ornette-ish melody is captivating, but the ways that the chart weaves through all of these contrasting ideas and section but are still held together by all kinds of unifying elements, I just feel it’s a paradigm of modern sectional large ensemble composition. Plus, the ways he utilizes the soloists with these back-and-forths with the ensemble is just riveting.
(Check out this great listening session Ethan Iverson and Darcy James Argue have where they talk about this great record.)
Jim McNeely (w/WDR Big Band, John Scofield, Marc Johnson, & Adam Nussbaum) – East Coast Blowout, 1989
“April in Paris,” Vernon Duke, arr. Bill Finegan
It’s only fitting that my study with Brookmeyer would not only be transformative by what I learned from him compositionally and improvisationally, but also by the great music he introduced me to. When I would go to Bob’s house in rural New Hampshire to hang, he’d often play me all types of music, but these last two examples were the ones that really affected me long term. The first was this arrangement from the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, an ensemble I’d never heard of before. On this chart, I just got caught up in all the lush colors and motion that I didn’t even realize what tune it was until Florence Fogelson’s sudden statement of the lyrics over the bridge. So much yumminess throughout!
Sauter-Finegan Orchestra – Directions in Music, 1952
“Processional/Desiderata, “ John Hollenbeck
I had heard John Hollenbeck’s superb drumming with Bob’s New Art Orchestra, but on one of these other trips to Bob’s house, he told me about this recording a bunch of folks, led by Ed Partyka, put together to celebrate his 70th birthday (called Madly Loving You). He thought I should hear this certain piece by John, who I had no idea was also a composer. It grabbed me immediately, mostly because of Bob’s deep and paternal voice permeating the whole second half. And the fact that John also had Bob’s trombone playing in the ensemble just did it for me, hearing both of his influential voices simultaneously. Even without that very personal aspect, the colors and shapes John uses here are captivating and surprising in the ways I love so much about his music. (Again, little did I know at the time that I’d eventually conduct three Grammy-nominated records by the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble and would get the opportunity to conduct this work!) Here’s just the second part of the piece.
Ed Partyka Jazz Orchestra – Madly Loving You, 2001
About the Author:
Trombonist/composer/conductor JC Sanford is a musician of rare breadth, deeply rooted in the traditions of Jazz and Classical music, yet constantly pushing at their boundaries. Equally at home in many roles, Sanford works regularly as a composer, performer, arranger and conductor. A disciple of the legendary composer/trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, Sanford has had his works performed by Danilo Pérez, Dave Liebman, John Abercrombie, Ingrid Jensen, Lew Soloff, and others. His jazz orchestra CD Views from the Inside garnered international acclaim and received the coveted Aaron Copland Fund Recording Grant. The ensemble has also been recognized as a “Rising Star Big Band” in DownBeat Magazine’s Critic’s Poll the past 4 years. As a conductor, he is a member of the twice-Grammy-nominated John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, and also conducts the Alan Ferber Nonet +Strings, the Frank Carlberg Large Ensemble, John Ellis’ Ice Siren, and conducted the Alice Coltrane Orchestra featuring Ravi Coltrane, Charlie Haden, and Jack DeJohnette before her death. He also curated the Brooklyn-based creative large ensemble series known as “Size Matters” for over 4 years. He was a member of the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop led by Jim McNeely and longtime contractor for the BMI/New York Orchestra. In 2017, Sanford founded the Twin Cities Jazz Composers’ Workshop alongside his wife, composer Asuka Kakitani, with whom he also co-leads the Twin Cities-based Inatnas Orchestra. He was recently awarded a 2018 McKnight Composers Fellowship and a 2019 MN State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant to record his quartet. In 2019 he took over as musical and artistic director of the JazzMN Orchestra.
Composer/performer: someone who both writes and plays. This is nothing remarkable in the jazz world; most of the great jazz composers were also its best instrumental practitioners. However, it’s interesting to consider that, in the history of western music at least, the composer has often been behind a veil, quite separate from the musicians who performed their works. With that in mind, it’s been my long-held opinion that jazz composer/performers are in a unique and privileged position: we have the opportunity to create the perfect vessels for ourselves as improvisers. As both the composition and the improvisation which fits the composition comes from the same mind, we can compose shapes for ourselves that perfectly encompass our priorities and desires as improvisers.
Holding the above to be true, I noticed a couple of years ago that there was a rift between the way that I played and the way I composed. While, as a player, I was interested in extended techniques1A broad term meaning any non-traditional way of producing sound on the instrument. For the saxophone, this would include multiphonics, air sounds, buzzes, slap tongue, circular breathing, etc and the saxophone as a creator of “sound” and not just “pitch”, my compositional world was basically an exploration of cool rhythms with cool melodies and harmonies. Not that there was anything wrong with that! But, as someone who believed that there should be a continuum between my compositional language and my improvisational language, I set out to try to bring those syntaxes closer together. To do this, I turned to studying scores of classical music from the 20th and 21st centuries – composers in the contemporary classical world have been dealing notating extended techniques for a long time, and there were notational precedents for many of the techniques that I was using.
One result of this journey has been a series of pieces called Idiom, of which there are now six. Each of the Idiom pieces focuses on a specific woodwind extended technique which I took from my own improvisational language. I wanted to use the physicality of my instruments as the foundation for these works, and to use timbre as an organizing force that was as structurally important as rhythm, melody, or harmony. Idiom II, from my 2019 septet album Clockwise, deals with ventings on the saxophone (i.e., holding a key open on the instrument while moving my other fingers normally, creating a quirky microtonal melody). Idiom I, III, IV, and V are written for my Simple Trio, which features myself alongside drummer John Hollenbeck and pianist Matt Mitchell. If you’ve seen this band play in the last year and a half or so, you’ve seen us perform these pieces. Idiom VI is for a twelve-piece large ensemble of mixed instrumentation. At sixty minutes in length over six movements (plus four interludes), Idiom VI is the longest of the Idioms, and is likely the final piece of the series. This piece was premiered earlier this year at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, as part of John Zorn’s Stone Commissioning Series.
I’d like to focus a little on Idiom VI, as a way of highlighting both my compositional process and the way I sought to create music that codified and notated my improvisational language.
The instrumentation of Idiom VI is as follows:
- 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.
What is TCJCW?
The Twin Cities Jazz Composers’ Workshop (TCJCW) was born in 2017 soon after my husband JC Sanford and I moved to Minnesota with our daughter for our new adventure after over a decade in New York City. Both JC and I are some of the lucky people to proudly call ourselves former members of the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop. For the readers who aren’t familiar with the BMI Composers’ Workshop, here is a quick description from the BMI website: “The workshop was founded in 1988 by acclaimed composer/trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, composer/educator Manny Albam and author and jazz authority Burt Korall. […] The BMI Jazz Composers Workshop stresses exploration, ranging from the traditional to the new. The primary emphasis is placed on individuals and their ideas, along with the acquisition and understanding of techniques that make possible the execution of thoughts and the development of personal language within the big band setting.” The way the workshop functions is that the participating composers would meet weekly in a quasi-classroom setting led by the world-class “faculty” composers who go through the “students’” charts and offer guidance and suggestions based on their wealth of knowledge and experience. From time to time, guest composers would come in and present their music and sometimes look at participants’ charts, adding a freshness to the process. Usually on the last Tuesday of the month, there would be a reading session in which some of the most skilled players in New York City volunteered to read new big band charts that were composed by the workshop participants. In the summer, a handful of the “best” works from the season would be performed by the BMI/New York Orchestra at the Summer Showcase Concert, and guest adjudicators would select the “very best” work as winner of the Charlie Parker Composition Prize and an accompanying commission for a new work to be premiered on the next year’s concert. And this is all tuition free. As far as I know, there has never been a situation like this anywhere else, and definitely not one with this much sustaining power and influence over several generations of creative composers worldwide.
I received excellent training while I was a student at Berklee College of Music from people like Greg Hopkins, Ted Pease, and Scott Free, but being in the workshop was one of the most important and meaningful times for me while I was in New York, if not for my entire life. I remember that precious time fondly, even though I was extremely shy to make friends during the first year. Because of the workshop I moved to New York from Boston, wrote many pieces, heard many pieces of fellow composers, made many composer and performer friends, and even had some drinks with my hero Jim McNeely, the musical director of the workshop at that time, along with Michael Abene and Mike Holober. Most importantly, I got to hear the workshop members talking about their ideas, processes, and inspirations. I also had the chance to talk about mine, and I received lots of feedback from fellow composers and the musicians of reading band. Much of the advice I got still often pops out when I compose, so the value of the workshop has been lasting for me, even after 12 years since I finished my time there. I feel I was incredibly lucky to be able to be there as the time I spent and what I experienced at the BMI workshop are very special gifts that I carry everywhere I go for the rest of my life.
The Beginnings and Growing Pains
When we decided to move to MN to live closer to JC’s family, we wanted to try to take the legacy of Bob Brookmeyer and Jim McNeely with us and see if we could plant a little seed to grow and spread the spirit of the BMI workshop in the Midwest. We hoped that given our time at BMI, plus my studies at Berklee and JC’s long relationship with Brookmeyer, we had the experience to try and create a similar scene.
Minnesota welcomed us warmly. It is a truly great state to be an artist. They have many enthusiastic and passionate organizations to support artists such as the American Composers Forum, Springboard for the Arts, and the McKnight Foundation, in addition to the MN State Arts Board and Regional Arts Councils, and JC and I have both been able to take advantage of some of the opportunities these organizations provide. Not long after our arrival in MN, we connected with like-minded composers in the area who became co-founders of TCJCW, Aaron Hedenstrom, Adam Meckler, Dave Stamps, and Kari Musil, and we started to have meetings and reading sessions modeling the BMI Workshop as best as we could. Before our move, JC knew a few people, but we basically didn’t have much connection to the MN jazz scene, and we had no idea what to expect. We are very thankful to our friends Dave Hagedorn and Pete Whitman in particular who gave us a long list of recommendations for musicians and Mac Santiago has provided a space for us at Jazz Central Studios (a gem of Minneapolis!) for our meetings and readings. We were pleasantly surprised that many musicians were interested in playing new music and donating their time to playing reading sessions, and we’re so grateful for their high level of talent and willingness to be involved.
Our first workshop year was very successful, overall. Of course, not having a massive corporation like BMI to support us, we had to adapt our plans and expectations to fit our specific situation, logistically and financially. It became clear from the beginning that we weren’t in a position to have our organization function exactly as BMI did, so we became a kind of workshop/composers’ collective hybrid for practical reasons. We also had to adjust to the fact that, unlike NYC, most of the top musicians in the Twin Cities area have something resembling a 9-5 day-job, which limited our weekday scheduling options. Yet during our first season, the six of us managed to collectively create more than 15 original works, we raised over $3,000 on our Kickstarter campaign, found private donors to match our campaign funds, had over 100 audience members collectively for two concerts at Studio Z (a gem of St Paul!), and featured BMI Charlie Parker award winner, NY-based composer Nathan Parker Smith as a guest composer/conductor on our Fall concert. We are deeply touched and thankful to everyone who donated funds for our concerts, came to support live the music, and the musicians who played reading sessions and concerts throughout the season. It was a complete blast and felt really like we were making a difference and building something that could grow and grow.
Our second year was very different from the first. Many of the composers became busier in their lives, and schedule conflicts grew more numerous. Therefore, we weren’t getting the output that had been generated our first season. As a result, we only had two reading sessions and no concert. (I have to confess that I myself wasn’t there to help much because I took a year off due to commissions that needed to be finished.) JC and I talked about the workshop constantly during that year. We were frustrated and discouraged and didn’t know what we could do about it, even though we tried several different approaches to attempt to accommodate everyone’s availability to keep all the composers involved. We constantly evaluated whether or not it was even worth the effort. On several occasions we were on the brink of dissolving the whole organization. Maybe something like this just wasn’t practical or sustainable outside of New York.
The Women I Met Who Opened My Eyes
In July 2019, the big band Inatnas Orchestra that I co-lead with JC in MN (also a new product we started after arriving in MN and seeing how talented the players were) had a concert at a great jazz club in Minneapolis called Crooners. It was a really fun gig with great energy, and we were very happy. After the gig, a young girl, maybe a high school or college student, stopped me to say something like “I just wanted to say it was great.” She continued “I think you are great.” And then she was gone. I even didn’t catch her name. Somehow, something about her reminded me of myself from 15 years ago when I was at Berklee. The time I went to many concerts and loved and was inspired by almost everything I saw. I had many dreams that were just waiting to come true (and still do now!). I hoped that night that the music touched somewhere very deep in the girl’s heart, and she will remember that night even if she can’t recall the specifics of the music she heard. That magical feeling I had from my interaction with her has stayed with and helped to get me motivated again.
A few months after that gig, I had the amazing opportunity to meet a musician whom I have admired for a long time. In person she was a warm, deep, and beautiful person just like her music. Afterwards, I was lucky to be able to exchange a few emails with her to tell her how her music has influenced me. I sat down and thought about when I was first introduced to her music, how her voice inspired me, and how her compositions brought me into a new world of poems. I was sort of shocked to realize how big her impact was on me. And again, a younger me from 15 years ago showed up. The girl who was anxious to soak up everything she experienced. And then, something in me clicked, and a deep realization struck me.
I could see with a much clearer eye that everything I was around all my life made some sort of impact on me and my music. I knew this already on some level, but it was a sudden understanding that whether we want to or not, we all affect each other. So, I felt a strong urge to see if TCJCW has the potential to make at least a small difference in my new community.
Maybe I’m at a certain age that people are starting to think about the next generations. Maybe because I have a young child and see my music students on a regular basis, I started to care more about what influences I might have on others. Maybe seeing people in Minnesota who work hard and contribute to the community not only being an artist, but as a curator, artistic director, radio host, vice president of a non-profit organization, and donor to fund various projects made me feel like I’m a responsible part of the community that I’d like to help make better. Probably all of those things happened at the right time at the right place.
Spoiler alert: TCJCW didn’t fold. We just kicked off our 2019-2020 Workshop year. Based on an online composers’ lab I participated in hosted by composer William Brittle through New Amsterdam Records this past year, we changed our in-person meetings to online ones using Zoom as a platform. This change not only allows us to have more flexibility in scheduling our local composers, but we also have been able to include more composers from outside Minnesota and wherever they live to join us. We schedule regular guest clinicians to talk about anything related to large ensemble jazz composition and to also view and comment on workshop participants’ pieces. In October, JC gave a conducting/rehearsal technique clinic that he used to give at the BMI Workshop to talk about his experiences in many projects including being the conductor of the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble for 16 years. For the rest of 2019, our guests include a return by Nathan Parker Smith, leader of his own unique prog-rock big band, Bob Washut, Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Northern Iowa and a prolific big band composer, and Ayn Inserto who studied closely with Brookmeyer and has taught a Compositional Techniques of Bob Brookmeyer course at Berklee.
At the workshop, we ask each other questions, give suggestions, talk about ideas, and exchange information. We ask each other to take risks, go beyond our comfort zone, and be curious and stretch our musical language. We don’t judge each other’s music. We try to inspire, influence, and learn from each other. Then we discover the results of the risks we take at the reading sessions, played by some of the best musicians in the Twin Cities area. It is a perfect opportunity to try a whole piece, some shorter ideas or fragments in several different orchestrations, experiment with extended techniques on various instruments, practice rehearsal technique and conducting a band, get feedback from the musicians, and socialize to make friends and musical connections. The participants who are not in the area send their parts, and we can read down and record their chart for the composer to review. All the reading sessions are open to the public, and we also are planning to stream them, so you can watch from home (see below for our FaceBook page)! We will end the season with our Showcase Concert in May 2020, and we will premiere 7-8 pieces that were created in the workshop by the participants. We will have guest judges to choose “the best composition” at the concert and commission a winner to compose a new piece to be premiered in the Fall 2020 by the JazzMN Orchestra, one of Minnesota’s premium professional big bands. Again, we’ve had to alter our practices to fit our current situation due to practicality, but still we aim to emulate the workings of the BMI workshop as much as we are able.
We’ve had to remind ourselves many times that we’re playing the “long game” and that lasting change and building a solid foundation takes time. Our goals are to continue to grow as best as we can. We really look forward to establishing ourselves financially through donations and grants and hopefully eventually some corporate sponsorship so that we can regularly bring in guests artists like we did with Nathan, which was incredibly fun and very impactful for these local musicians and listeners who hadn’t heard much of anything like his music before (check it out, if you haven’t!). Building a strong pipeline between NY and MN is one of our main goals since we decided to move here. We are also accepting applications from folks not affiliated with the Twin Cities area who want to be involved. If you or anyone you know would be interested, please visit our website at www.tcjcw.org or our FaceBook page at https://www.facebook.com/tcjcw/.
By the way, part of my motivation in writing this blog was to show anyone interested in trying to start an organization like this in their own community that it can be done, as long as you sculpt it to the practicalities of your area. If you have questions about getting started (or would like to commiserate about the difficulties you’ve already experienced), please get in touch!
TCJCW Fall Concert 2019 (abridged)
TCJCW Inaugural Summer Concert, July 2018
About the Author:
“A musical impressionist and supreme colorist” (Hot House Magazine) aptly characterizes the Japanese-born composer Asuka Kakitani. Her deep love for nature and animals inspires Kakitani to transform her imagination into epic musical stories that DownBeat Magazine described as brimming with “sumptuous positivity and organic flow.”
She is the founder of the 18-piece ensemble the Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra, and their first recording Bloom has been featured on the international radio program PRI’s The World, acknowledged as one of the best debut albums of the year by DownBeat Magazine Critics’ Poll and NPR Music Jazz Critics’ Poll, and All About Jazz called it “absolutely superb.”
After she relocated to Minnesota from Brooklyn, NY in 2016, she co-founded the Twin Cities Jazz Composers’ Workshop, which aims to foster creative and forward-looking composition for the modern jazz orchestra in the Twin Cities area. Kakitani also co-founded and conducts Inatnas Orchestra with her husband, composer/trombonist JC Sanford, that features both of their music and some of the best jazz musicians in the Twin Cities area.
In 2019, Kakitani’s string quartet Three Stories of Birds was premiered by Artaria String Quartet at the Bridge Chamber Music Festival in Northfield, MN. She will premiere Ghost Story of Yotsuya by the new music group Zeitgeist at Studio Z in St. Paul, a culmination of a five-day composer workshop with the group in August. She will also premiere her collaboration with percussionist Dave Hagedorn, a 45-minute solo percussion suite that was funded by the Jerome Foundation will be premiered in January 2020.
Kakitani has been the recipient of grants and awards including the BMI Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Prize, the Manny Albam Commission, the Jerome Fund for New Music from the American Composers Forum, Brooklyn Arts Council, two Composer Assistance Grants from the American Music Center, and recently was awarded a 2019 McKnight Composer Fellowship.
I often wonder how I got here. Being a jazz composer seemed far from my fate but I paved my way, built and followed a new destiny.
I do not hail from a musical family, only having six months of piano lessons when I was nine years old. I had no real exposure to classical or jazz music, just the pop music that was on TV. My only instrument was a recorder, with which I would play all the cartoon theme music key in C and it naturally developed my movable Do solfege. When I was young what I really wanted to do was singing but I was a shy kid so I repressed the urge until my late teens. I remember visiting my friend’s rock band, eager to join the circle as a vocalist. I said I wanted to be a guitarist instead because I felt singing required a thick skin. After a year of self-taught guitar playing, I desperately wanted to dive deeper into the art and finally decided to take up singing. I studied music theory books, at the same time listened religiously to and imitated many female pop singers.
I was still hungry after graduating Dongduk Women’s University with a degree in Voice Performance. During that time I noticed my personality was a bit different from other singers. I was more interested in writing music than singing itself. I sort of settled on a singer-songwriter path, but could not resist my desire to do more, especially composition. I picked up the dream that I had given up a long time ago because of my previous financial situation. Withdrawing all the money that I had saved up over the years, I decided to move to Boston and attend Berklee College of Music.
What is this jazz orchestra? I knew I wanted to study composition but did not know what I would encounter. Since the songwriting course was focused on English lyrics, I did not even try – I barely spoke enough to survive. Film Scoring and Contemporary Writing and Production were too threatening because I was not good with technology. I had one choice left, Jazz Composition. I heard big band music for the first time in my life, both from recordings and live performances. Of course I had no idea about the instruments and how to write for that many people, but I was certainly enchanted. Several months after declaring my major in Jazz Composition, I received the prestigious Duke Ellington Award; in that moment I almost fell to the ground not just because it was a big surprise but because I was out of money and this scholarship was a sign that I will make it through somehow. With the help of many miracles and supporters, I was able to finish all of my studies including a masters degree from Manhattan School of Music under the direction of the great Jim McNeely.
Situations can be perceived from different perspectives. Although I was neither a prodigy (maybe I was but no one cared!), nor had the support system to become a musician, I like how my life has unfolded. It makes me unique and I show who I am through my music. Since my path as a composer is not traditional, I am actually encouraged to be bold and not to think what is right or wrong in writing. Having little musical background can certainly be a minus and I am always trying to catch up. I feel embarrassed when I contemplate my old works. I do not even know what I was thinking sometimes and I will forever carry this doubt as I learn and improve. Nonetheless, flashes of creativity does creep through if you listen to your true self.
Transitioning from pop singer to jazz composer is an uncommon experience and people will see it through their prejudices. I like the fact that my experience gives me different angles to jazz composition. It not only provides me with the lyricism to my melody writing, but listening to all the pop music makes me think about characters in every composition, something with which people can identify. Also since I am not an instrumentalist, I do not have the habit of going to the piano or guitar right away to play chords and melodies, instead I first come up with an idea, image, or message and try to find a way to express them through musical elements. For example, I used only one bass note throughout my composition ‘Unshakable Mind’ to symbolize the meaning of the title.
Composition is form of record-keeping for myself. As my life changes, so does my music and I am not afraid of that. When I first moved to New York in 2015, everything was chaotic, my personal life and the city itself and my music reflected this. At that time, I wrote music for myself as an emotional release. I was able to endure the hard times because I composed. After a few years, I am more relaxed and my music is becoming less complicated and easier to listen to, harmonically more of tonal sense as well. All living things change. I am happy and excited to discover what will come of my life and writing. What I should do is to be honest and keep on documenting. Composition also can be like raising a child. Sometimes you kind of have to surrender, give up on creating the perfect piece but accept what is given and work hard to polish and develop it further. You learn how to love it regardless how imperfect it may be.
Jazz welcomes you to be yourself. It is the most accepting art form to which everybody can contribute, making it as lush and diverse as who we are, so as long as we accept ourselves first. Jazz does not exclude based on gender, nationality, ethnicity, religion, age and so forth and I am blessed to have found that home to which I can belong. Be true to yourself and be happy with what you have in life. Never pretend to be someone else and keep on searching for what you really want. I remember Jim McNeely told me once that he enjoys working with students who tell a story more than students who write well-written music. I am well aware of how important it is to hone a skill – a skill can be taught but originality through life cannot.
I am still a novice composer, enjoying all the ups and downs, at least trying to enjoy. I dream to keep on creating something that only I can offer to the jazz scene. I wrote many words and these are not my final conclusion but the thoughts that I have now. I just wanted to share my story and encourage everyone to create the music with their originality. Your background, whatever it is, makes you the one and only.
About the Author:
Jihye Lee is a New York-based jazz composer and bandleader.
She was an indie pop singer-songwriter in South Korea. Feeling that something was missing, Lee followed her curious heart and embarked for uncharted waters in 2011. She studied at the Berklee College of Music where she was introduced to big band music for the first time in her life, leading her to forge a whole new path in jazz composition. Soon after, she would receive the prestigious Duke Ellington Award for two consecutive years along with other scholarships and honors, confirming her hidden ability.
After graduating from Berklee, Lee organized a successful crowdfunding campaign for her first big band album, April, which was co-produced by Greg Hopkins and recorded with musicians consisting of other Berklee faculty and professionals from the Boston area. In 2015, with generous funding from school scholarships and the CJ Cultural Foundation, Lee finally moved to New York to study with Jim McNeely at the Manhattan School of Music.
Lee released her album, April, in 2017, garnering global praise as a fresh original voice on the jazz composition scene. She has presented her music in the United States and Asia at various venues and festivals including the DC JazzFest.
The BMI Foundation awarded Lee with the Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Prize in 2018. Recently, she has written music for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Carnegie Hall’s NYO Jazz. She is currently working on her second album.
Learn more at jihyemusic.com or by emailing email@example.com
When I was invited to prepare a post for this blog, I started sketching out ideas; the result was several pages of random notes that could have filled a book if each was fully developed. It became clear I needed to focus, so I decided to zero in on what has been occupying my thoughts most recently – my new CD release Mike Holober & The Gotham Jazz Orchestra: Hiding Out. Beyond the (admittedly) self-serving goal of promoting the record, this will provide a convenient framework for discussing some of the ideas that have shaped my approach to jazz orchestra writing over the years.
I first got hooked on writing for jazz orchestra in the 1980s, when I was teaching at Binghamton University, which had a very good big band. The hook was further set at the Eastman Arrangers Festival during the summer of 1986, where I spent several priceless weeks with Manny Albam and Ray Wright (I remain friends with many of the people I met at the workshop that summer). When I moved to New York City in the early 90’s I enrolled in the BMI Jazz Composer’s Workshop (with Manny Albam, Jim McNeely, and Roger Kellaway at the helm), and I realized that writing was going to be a big part of my musical life (though I had not anticipated that it would take over completely at times!). I decided that I should form my own big band, and The Gotham Jazz Orchestra was born. We had a good run: we released our first CD in 2004 (Thought Trains) and a second in 2009 (Quake). However, sustaining a 17-piece jazz orchestra takes a lot of focus, and other opportunities started to take precedence.
In 2007, I was invited to serve as artistic director of the Westchester Jazz Orchestra, a position I held until 2013. This was an exciting opportunity, and a valuable learning experience. Under my tenure, we commissioned over 140 new arrangements for jazz orchestra (almost 50 of them mine), which we performed to sell-out crowds at our home theater in Irvington New York. We also released a critically acclaimed recording titled Maiden Voyage Suite, featuring newly commissioned arrangements of the tunes from Herbie Hancock’s seminal recording, formatted as a seamless set-length work. It remains one of my favorite projects with WJO.
Despite the organization’s success, WJO came to an end when it faced staffing difficulties (as not-for-profit organizations often do), but by this time I had already begun working with the German radio big bands (hr-Bigband in Frankfurt, and WDR Big Band in Cologne), which kept my pencil busy for many years. I had also started working as Associate Director of the BMI Jazz Composer’s Workshop with Jim McNeely, which gave me an opportunity to read through hundreds of charts by some very gifted writers, which was as much a learning experience for me as it was for them.
In his recent post, Jim McNeely wrote that the best way to learn big band writing is to write, listen, evaluate, and repeat – and I really got a chance to practice this method during this period! I like to tell my own students when they are about to dive into their first jazz orchestra piece that the learning curve is steep – they should really write two, because they will learn so much from the first one. I remember that my first chart (written in a euphoric-rush-of-inexperienced-adolescent-writer-frenzy) ended up in the circular file; the second one, an arrangement of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” actually worked. Write, listen, evaluate, and repeat – wise advice indeed.
The sheer volume of commissions I was working on during this period (often full-length concerts) forced me to hone my craft, while the challenge of working with such a diverse range of musical personalities and temperaments also taught me a great deal about the role of the arranger and conductor as artistic collaborator, diplomat, and psychologist, all rolled into one!
When arranging someone else’s music, it is necessary to maintain a balance between the voice of the composer, the arranger, and the performing artist. But I also believe that for an arrangement to be really good, it should sound as if it was originally written for that exact instrumentation – and sometimes this means that the original composition must “grow” some new music (intro, interlude, tag anyone?). Of course, this depends on the original material; when writing for Miguel Zenon, for example, some of his quartet lead sheets were very detailed in form (already approaching 300 measures), making me less inclined to add new music. But for others (such as Al Foster, or Eli Degibri), their shorter forms invited a deeper collaboration, allowing the arranger’s voice to assert itself in a way that complimented the original intent, enhancing the message of the tune. When an arrangement is completed, I strive to hear from the composer: “I love what you did with my music.”
In spite of my busy schedule as an arranger, I did manage to continue working on my own compositions — and this is the work that is the focus of my new CD Mike Holober & The Gotham Jazz Orchestra: Hiding Out (ZOHO, 2019). The two featured works, Hiding Out and Flow, are in extended form, with multiple movements. Perhaps my classical background was in my thoughts, or maybe I was just trying to get away from the idea of stand-alone medium length works — but I found myself thinking in large form multi-movement works, with no agenda about length, radio air-play, or jazz club suitability versus concert setting.
I was also very fortunate to have what I refer to as a “perfect storm” of compositional opportunity to write these pieces. This means a commission for an excellent ensemble, an artist colony residency where I could focus on the creation of the work, and a suitable premiere setting.
Hiding Out was commissioned for The Gotham Jazz Orchestra by The Philadelphia Museum of Art (funded by the Pew Foundation), and was first performed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was composed during a residency at the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming (my cabin was called “Jesse’s Hide Out”), and was inspired by the beauty of its setting. Flow was commissioned by the Westchester Jazz Orchestra (with funding from a NYSCA Grant), and was premiered by WJO in an Americana-themed concert at Irvington Town Hall. It was composed at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where I stayed in the cabin that Aaron Copland worked on Appalachian Spring, and Leonard Bernstein worked on his Mass. The ghosts of these two great American composers no doubt influenced the resulting composition.
To demonstrate some of the ideas that have shaped my writing process, I have selected the opening passage of “Tear of the Clouds,” from the first movement of Flow, as an example. I will focus my comments on two basic elements: motivic development, and orchestration. Igor Stravinsky said “Good composers borrow, great ones steal,” and I hope this analysis will give readers something worth stealing.
When I first started to compose I was familiar with the concept of motivic development, but I didn’t take it seriously enough. Now I can’t get enough of it. There are so many compositional devices that can be used to develop a motif (transposition, re-harmonization, augmentation, inversion, retrograde), that the possibilities are endless. This not only provides a constant source of material, but also gives a composition structural logic.
Orchestration plays vital role in motivic development. Ravel refers to orchestration as a device for revealing form (nowhere is this more obvious than in his Bolero). The way a composer assigns notes to an instrument is integral to the development of the work. I often think about orchestration as being like a painter’s palette – mixing colors, blending edges. This applies especially to a woodwind and mutes passage (as in the sample I analyze below): As you add instruments and colors on the top of the harmony (the melody?), it doesn’t double in volume, but instead becomes slightly more colored and pronounced. If there is a Bb (a 7th above middle C), and it is orchestrated for a unison of flute, cup-muted trumpet, and clarinet, it is easily balanced by single voices underneath; add guitar, and it becomes a little warmer; add flugelhorn and it smooths it out — or 1 harmon-muted trumpet to put a little buzz on it, or piano 8va to light it up or pop it out; or even add all of these at once – it’s barely getting louder – you are just using your palette to color the top and influence the expression of the music.
In my arranging classes, I often tell students to exercise their minds by making an “orchestration structures” list, designed to help them think about the range of their timbral palette. Saxes unison with brass hits — that’s the idea! Now make a quick list of 30 different combinations! Keep in mind that only some of them should have everyone playing. Would the voices be balanced if they all play the same dynamic — in other words is there a registration balance? What is the natural or organic “power” of each voice in the range it is written?
Now let’s look at the excerpts!
#1 M 37 – M 44
This is the entire main theme. Here, in its first presentation it is 8 bars. The first two bars are so strongly suggestive of the theme that this fragment alone is all that is needed to be obvious about the source material. Once this is “programmed” into the listener’s ear, even just a strong rhythm such as that of bar 38 is enough to suggest the main theme. This is the essence of motivic development.
The piccolo is very evocative — of isolation, peace, youth, simplicity, innocence — and its unique sonic imprint in the low register is easily recognizable. When it returns much later in the work, the timbral recognition gives clarity to a very long and formally sinuous movement. The listener knows where they have ended up after being taken on a long journey.
The harmony here is in shifting minor modes – natural, harmonic, and melodic – with the 6th and 7th becoming variable. The success of this shifting modality is perhaps related to the “classical” difference in the ascending and descending melodic minor. M 37 is in B minor; view the F natural in the piano as a “blue” note with little harmonic meaning, especially since the root is not present.
# 2 M 18 – M 29
Yes, the excerpts are out of order (I thought it best to show the main theme at M 37 first). One of my favorite techniques is to take a theme and cut it up like a jigsaw puzzle, scatter the pieces over a score, and then assemble them. These theme fragments can also provide material for general use anywhere else in the piece. This is a technique I commonly use to create intros for arrangements of other composers’ music (especially if the music is fairly modern) – a kind of “deconstruction” or “cubist” look at the subject. An example of this is the arrangement I wrote for the hr-Bigband with Kurt Rosenwinkel playing his tune “Star of Jupiter,” in which I use fragments of the bridge to form an intro:
# 3 M 51 – M 52
Here we have the first 2 bars of the theme — the rhythm is the same, but the melody is a slight variation. The soli voicing is in clusters; the melodic palette is in 3 octaves (flute, trumpet in cup, with trumpet in bucket 8vb, and piano 8va). The 8va piano makes it “pop,” and there is enough melodic weight to hear the melody clearly through the density of the cluster.
# 4 M 57 – M 63
Here we have the first 6 bars of the theme, which is then interrupted by “new” material at M 63. The line is in 4-part harmony, in large dissonant intervals, but generated from the same modality. Notice how the instrumentation of this 4-part harmony crosses every section (a note of thanks to Duke Ellington for opening up these possibilities!). The piccolo part could be viewed as a 5th harmony, but I see it as overtone reinforcement of the melody (a technique directly stolen from Ravel!). The melodic palette is flute, and piano, and the trombones comp a little.
# 5 M 63 – M 69
Here there is a drastic shift in modality to Gb harmonic major. Note that in M 65 and M 68 the re-use of the motif immediately ties the new harmonic zone to the main theme. The soloist makes its first entrance as well, laying the sonic/character groundwork for future formal development.
# 6 M 69 – M 76
This time, alto and tenor play the main theme in unison octaves — a more “throaty” and “heroic” statement. This is essentially two saxes in unison, with trombones comping. Here I use one of my pet techniques: instead of the trombones all hitting together, or bass trombone offset against 3 tenor trombones, they do a modified or “linear pyramid,” making the attack harp-like, or like finger-style guitar. Notice that in these “linear pyramids” players rarely attack alone, and all entrances are rhythmically easy. You can see other uses of this technique at M 81 – M 86, and at M 102.
# 7 M 77 – M 81
In this section, the winds and mutes are gone, replaced by saxes and open brass. The power increases, as the orchestration evolves to the saxes and trumpets in soli with the trombones comping. The range here (as everywhere) is integral to the dramatic evolution of the piece.
# 8 M 102 – M 109
Here we have soprano and alto in 3rds (more consonant and tonal), with trombones comping. A huge shift in mood happens, as functional chord changes add to the momentum. The music is no longer modal at this point.
# 9 M 112 – M 119
Tutti! We made it! Real rhythmic unison in M 113 and M 115 – power it up!
[Side note: The common fear that writing full-ensemble soli is challenging and time consuming is a subject for an endless discussion unto itself. However, I’ll take this opportunity to point out that from M 37 – M 151 there is only a total of 12 measures where everyone is playing: M 77 – M 81 and M 112 – M 119.]
After this tutti, it is time to subtly release the tension of the big orchestration and let the solo emerge. Often after a loud passage like this (or a send-off), I’ll reduce the orchestration gradually to let the next section develop organically, rather than have a sudden shift. I think of this as “taping the seams” (as in putting up drywall); then spackle with some rhythmically smooth mid-register writing, and sand with a diminuendo!
Here at M 136 it is finally time to hand the compositional process over to Jason Rigby (the tenor soloist for whom “Tear of the Clouds” was written). Bob Brookmeyer suggests only getting to the solo by composing your way there – developing your information so that the solo occurs as a natural evolution of the composition. In this case it took me 4 and a half minutes to arrive at the solo – about a third of the way into the work.
# 10 M 37 – M 151
For the context of how these nine fragments develop, here is the entire first section of the work in one continuous excerpt, starting from the first appearance of the main theme, and ending a little way into the tenor solo.
If you want to hear more excerpts from Hiding Out (or buy the CD) please visit: https://www.mikeholober.com/hiding-out-cd-page
Happy listening and stealing!
About the Author:
Mike Holober served as Artistic Director/Conductor of the Westchester Jazz Orchestra (WJO) from 2007-2013, and Associate Guest Conductor of the hr-Bigband (Hessischer Rundfunk – Frankfurt, Germany) from 2011-2015. With WJO he has written and conducted for Joe Lovano, Kate McGarry, John Scofield, John Patitucci, Randy Brecker, and Paquito D’Rivera. Projects with the hr-Bigband include writing and conducting for Kurt Rosenwinkel, Billy Cobham, Jane Monheit, Terje Rypdal, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Miguel Zenon, and a concert of the works of Frank Zappa. With the WDR Big Band (WestDeutsche Rundfunk – Cologne, Germany) he has written and conducted projects for Avishai Cohen/Eli Degibri and for legendary drummer Al Foster. He has also recently written a project for Eli Degibri with jazz orchestra and strings that was produced at the Israel National Opera House in Tel Aviv, as well as arrangements for WDR with Joshua Redman, a recent Stockholm Jazz Orchestra recording, and OJM (Portugal) with pianist Fred Hersch.
Mike has recently returned to the helm of his own stellar big band with the release of Mike Holober and the Gotham Jazz Orchestra: Hiding Out (ZOHO, 2019). This double CD features two extended form compositions: Hiding Out, commissioned for The Gotham Jazz Orchestra by The Philadelphia Museum of Art (funded by the Pew Foundation) and Flow, commissioned by The Westchester Jazz Orchestra (funded by a NYSCA Individual Artist’s Grant). The recording also includes an arrangement of Jobim’s “Caminhos Cruzados,” a WJO commission that was written as a feature for trumpet master Marvin Stamm. Other featured artists on Hiding Out include Billy Drewes, Jason Rigby, Scott Wendholt, Adam Kolker, Jon Gordon, Steve Cardenas, and Jesse Lewis.
Mike was a 2017-18 recipient of a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works Grant for Don’t Let Go, which was premiered at Symphony Space (the Leonard Nimoy Thalia) in June 2018. Structured as a song-cycle in the tradition of Robert Schumann, Samuel Barber, and Ralph Vaughn-Williams, Don’t Let Go was written for Mike’s octet Balancing Act, whose eponymous premiere recording was released in 2015 (Palmetto). The recording features Mike’s original compositions and lyrics, with Kate McGarry, Dick Oatts, Jason Rigby, Marvin Stamm, Mark Patterson, John Hebert, and Brian Blade.
In 2017 Mike was named the inaugural Stuart Z. Katz Professor in the Humanities and the Arts at The City College of New York for This Rock We’re On: Imaginary Letters, an extended work in the form of an oratorio for jazz orchestra, voice, cello, and percussion. The work celebrates explorers, conservationists, writers, and photographers whose lives have been inspired by the natural world.
In addition to his 6 records as a leader, Mike can be heard as a sideman on over 70 recordings. He has performed with or had his works performed and recorded by numerous ensembles, including The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, Zagreb JazzOrkestar, The Gotham Wind Symphony (where he is Composer-In-Residence), UMO, RTV Big Band Slovenia, The Airmen of Note, The Army Blues, The Tim Ries Rolling Stones Project, John Patitucci, Jason Rigby, Marvin Stamm, The Prism, American, and NY Saxophone Quartets, and many others.
Mike is a Full Professor at The City College of New York, and is a five-time MacDowell Fellow, Ucross Foundation Fellow and Yaddo Guest. He also teaches composing and arranging at The Manhattan School of Music. From 2007 – 2015 he served as Associate Director of the BMI Jazz Composer’s Workshop, (founded by legendary jazz composers Bob Brookmeyer and Manny Albam), where he taught with Musical Director Jim McNeely.
I recently lurched into my 70th year–my eighth decade (sobering words to write!). Yes, “age is just a number,” I know. But 70 has caused me to pause and reflect on some of my experiences, and more importantly, what I’ve learned from them. There is one overriding theme: every time my age would hit a “Big X-0 (4-0, 5-0, etc.)” I would get a sense of not only how much I had learned, but also how much more I didn’t know. With each new decade I felt that both the “knowns” and “unknowns” had increased. In reaching the “Big 7-0” I think I’ve learned an incredible amount, yet I’m awestruck by all that’s left to learn.
Growing up on the north side of Chicago, I knew little about jazz until I was about 13. I had taken piano lessons since the age of six. My teacher, Bruno Michelotti, also taught me theory, saxophone and clarinet. Being a nice Catholic boy, I was considering two different Catholic high schools. One Sunday afternoon I saw the “stage band” from Notre Dame High School in Niles on a local television broadcast. Something in me said “yes!” I entered NDHS as a freshman in 1963. Little did I know where that would take me.
In my sophomore year my father bought me Russ Garcia’s The Professional Arranger Composer. I devoured it; I learned so much about theory, voicings, and melodic writing from this book. From that I got the idea to write a big band arrangement. My band director was Rev. George Wiskirchen, who was one of the premier big band educators in the Chicago area. It was my fortune to be in his school; and he encouraged me to write that arrangement (he was also the first person to tell me to “comp” behind a soloist). I found an Ernie Wilkins blues head called Blues Go Away. I wrote a five-chorus arrangement: unison sax melody, sax soli melody, solo chorus with background, shout chorus, and out melody. I’ll never forget the first reading: sax melody, fine; sax soli: when they first burst into 5-part harmony I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. I thought, “Garcia was right, that’s how you do it!” Solo chorus and background, passable. Shout chorus was an unmitigated disaster. Out chorus, fine. I thought, “The stuff that sounds good I’ll keep doing; the stuff that sounds bad, I’ve gotta find a different way.” That process has continued through today.
In spite of the shout chorus disaster, Father George was encouraging. I went on to write six or seven more big band arrangements while in high school. I got to study a few scores along the way (including copying parts from a few of Oliver Nelson’s original pencil scores). The learning continued. One time I brought in Freak Out!, the first album by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. I played a couple of cuts for Fr. George. My adolescent mind thought “This will really bug him, heh-heh.” He looked at me and said, “Why don’t you write something like that for the band?” Completely called my bluff. And I wrote! He also had me and my friend Nick Talarico write music for the school’s marching band. One show featured a medley of She’s Only a Bird In a Gilded Cage, segueing into Coltrane’s treatment of My Favorite Things (I got those sousaphones pumping!). Along with having to deal with challenges like this, I also got my first invaluable experience writing to a deadline.
In 1966 I heard the University of Illinois Big Band at the Collegiate Jazz Festival at Notre Dame University. Again, something in me said “Yes!” So in 1967 I entered the U. of I. School of Music. There was a student in the graduate program there named Jim Knapp. He was writing some gorgeous music for big band, both original compositions and arrangements of standards. I was so intimidated by him I didn’t write a note until he got his degree and left for Seattle (where he still resides, still writing remarkable music). I was encouraged by John Garvey, the director of the U. of I. Jazz Band. Again, some things worked, some things didn’t. As a composition major, I was studying with Morgan Powell, a wonderful composer and trombonist who was writing music deep in the cracks between jazz and contemporary classical chamber music. The music I wrote as part of our lessons was mostly for mixed ensembles. Along with classes in counterpoint and fugue, I was able to take classes in ancient and medieval music, African music and Persian classical music. I studied Balinese gamelan music and serial composition. So much music in the world!
With both my high school and university experiences, I was lucky: there was no one there to tell me “you can’t do this”; “you’re not supposed to do that.” And I learned that, as with my piano playing, the more I did it, the better it sounded. I made decisions faster. I developed more options. Took more chances.
I recently finished writing the forward to a remarkable book called Bob Brookmeyer in Conversation with Dave Rivello (coming out soon on ArtistShare). In it Bob imparts his general advice for composers: “Write music.” Two words. My early experiences taught me that you learn to write music by writing music. You can glean information from scores, teachers, recordings, and peers. It’s all there, good and important. But unless you write, you will never grow.
Here is the basic process:
- Write some music
- Hear your music played
- Evaluate your music
- Repeat 1, 2, & 3
To flesh this out:
1) Composition; composer. These are loaded words in Western culture. We are told that composition is difficult. We are told that Bach, Beethoven, etc. were THE GREAT MASTERS. Okay, they actually were, along with a lot of other folks, but that doesn’t take the rest of us out of the picture. If I tell my non-musician neighbors that I write music, their response is “oh, nice”. If I tell other neighbors that I am a composer, gasps and “oh-wows” ensue. Forget that nonsense. Composition essentially requires courage, bolstered by confidence. Confidence in the note I’m putting on the paper. Confidence that I can follow that note with another one. Confidence that my musical ideas are valid simply because they are there. Confidence that my musical ideas are valid on their own terms, not in comparison with anyone else, no matter how much I may admire them. Confidence that I have the tools to shape and develop my ideas. Confidence in my ability to get the piece finished and played. The last four “confidences” might take time to achieve. But the first–confidence that this one note must go on the paper, and I’ll find another to follow or precede it–is crucial. And that confidence comes from doing, doing, doing and doing.
2) If you want to write music for human players, you must hear your music played by human players (duh). Computer playback is simply not good enough. Having your music played live is the only way to develop gut feelings about balance, timbre, density, range, and playability. Have it played in a reading session; better yet a real rehearsal, or a composition workshop. Ideally, rehearse it to the point where it can be performed. More than once. Your music will start to tell you what it wants and needs.
3) Listen to what you’ve written and evaluate it with absolute, brutal honesty. What sounds the way you thought it would? What sounds different? Why? Sometimes a student will tell me “That’s what I’m hearing.” Is it really? Maybe that’s what you kinda, sorta thought it might sound like. Or maybe you were thinking, but not really hearing anything at all. A defensive attitude will just get in your way.
4) Repeat—as often as you can.
Writing, Learning, Writing, Learning
When I moved to New York City in 1975 I had little thought of pursuing a writing career. I wanted to play the piano. Meet people. Play with some of the well-known bands at the time. When I joined Thad Jones/Mel Lewis in 1978 I thought, “I’m playing this great music of Thad’s, and Bob Brookmeyer’s. Who am I to write for this band?” That changed the next year when Thad left to live in Denmark, and Brookmeyer came in as musical director of the newly-titled Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra. Bob knew I wrote small group music, and I tried to talk a good game about writing for big bands. He encouraged me to write something for Mel. So I did. We rehearsed it, and actually attempted to play it on a few Mondays. It was dreadfully overwritten. But Bob heard a few things of value, and said, “Write another one.” That’s one of the greatest things I’d ever heard in my life! So I did. The second one was a little better. Around this time I had one of the greatest arranging lessons ever. Mel had hired a French Horn player and wanted me to write her some horn parts. Kendor Music sent me ten scores of Thad’s (this was the pre-Inside the Score era). I had to really analyze what he did in order to squeeze in another note between the trumpets and the trombones. I felt like a whole world had opened up. I no longer just thought I heard what was in his writing, I actually saw it, and got my hands on the piano to play it. I began to sense that until then I had really been writing piano music, merely transferring it to the score paper. “This C# is in the range of a trumpet, I guess I’ll put it in trumpet 3.” Now I was starting to hear a band when I wrote. The piano became more a medium through which I would hear the ensemble, not simply a piano. This was a gradual process that took many years to mature, but it started with writing those French Horn parts.
I learned other lessons from musicians in Mel’s band. I’d brought in one piece, and at the rehearsal lead trumpeter Earl Gardner said, ”McNeely, you’ve got to give us some time to rest.” I said, “Well, after the head you guys don’t play for a long time.” Earl said, “No, it’s that when we’re playing, we need to get the horns off our faces some of the time.” My semester of trumpet class at the U. of Ill. hadn’t prepared me for this! In another arrangement I started with flügelhorns going up to a double high F#. After passing out the parts the trumpet players laughed. Again, Earl: “McNeely, do you really want this?” Not really knowing what I wanted, of course I said “Yes, it is.” “Okay!” We played it. I immediately understood the hilarity and re-wrote the intro.
My time with Mel’s band (’79-’84) afforded me another incredible arranging lesson: to sit at the piano every Monday, playing such great music. Hearing the harmonies; the inner voices (especially first tenor, closest to the piano); Thad’s rhythmic language; Brookmeyer’s cranky harmonies. I loved it all, week after week. It was learning by osmosis. Write—hear—evaluate—repeat.
My working with Brookmeyer led to five years of writing and conducting music for the WDR Big Band in Cologne, Germany. I had pretty much carte blanche with them. I wrote a lot of original music, some for soloists like John Scofield, David Liebman and Phil Woods, and some without a “name” soloist. I was able to try so many new ideas, and get immediate feedback, from the musicians and from my own listening. For one project I realized that brass mutes were a big mystery to me. So I threw caution to the wind and just went for it. Every arrangement had different combinations of mutes, and a lot of woodwinds. Most of it worked, some of it didn’t. And I learned a lot. Write—hear—evaluate—repeat.
Being “of a certain age” I came up writing with pencil and paper. I’m glad I did. Pencil, paper and keyboard get my hands on the music. The process is physical and tactile. One time, years ago, I decided to try composing directly on the computer. I felt like I was looking at the music through a window—like visiting someone in prison. I decided I wanted to be in touch with the music. I’ve since learned the value and role of the computer, especially with all the writing I do for European ensembles. I do the final stages of scoring in Finale. But the beginning and middle of the process are done with a pencil—I love the feel of the paper and the smell of the eraser. I love the anticipation of looking at blank pages of a large-format music manuscript book—wow, what’s going to happen here? No bar lines, no systems—plenty of room to let the imagination flow. Before I know it, it’s filled with scribbles. I use some, I don’t use others. But they are all part of the overall process. A leads to B leads to C leads to D…..leads to R. I might continue on to W, but then decide to stay with R. But R would not exist without A-Q and S-W.
People who’ve studied with me know that I am very big on planning a piece. The shape. The form. The color. The surface sound. But I’ve also learned to be flexible in those regards. In 1993 Jon Faddis asked me to arrange a program of songs from the Benny Goodman repertoire for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. One of tunes was Louis Prima’s Sing, Sing, Sing. Goodman’s original version featured a free duet between himself and drummer Gene Krupa. For the mid-‘30’s this was quite an advanced concept. Thinking of this, as well as the duos that John Coltrane played with Elvin Jones or Rashied Ali on drums, I wanted to feature David Liebman on soprano sax and Victor Lewis on drums. Using Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall recording as a loose model, I carefully planned my arrangement. I composed call-and-response figures for the band, with Lewis answering. Then Liebman would solo, followed by a similar composed call-and-response section with him. I orchestrated the drum solo section and started sketching the section for Lieb. That’s when the phone rang.
The copyist, rightfully concerned about the approaching deadline, told me, “I need the score tomorrow.” I promised her I would overnight the score that evening. I hoped the FedEx guy would come at 8. He showed up at 7. My wife scrambled to put together the envelope and mailing label. I quickly scribbled “4 bars Lieb, 4 bars band answers; 2 bars Lieb, 2 bars band” into the score, then “copy mm. 180-195” and tacked a final bar onto the score. Folded it up, put it in the envelope and sent it off. I felt that I had really blown it, because I wouldn’t get a chance to show off my carefully crafted section for David.
It turned out that the arrangement as finally written and performed at Carnegie was tremendously exciting. Building off of the orchestrated drum passage, Lieb and the band screamed through the whole final section. Most of the audience went wild, and some walked out. I was thrilled with both reactions. Thanks to the copyist and the FedEx guy, I got my first Grammy nomination with this arrangement. More importantly, I learned that sometimes it’s possible to over-think, and over-plan. It’s jazz. Always consider the balance between the pre-written and the improvised. The piece isn’t about me. It’s about the music. Write—hear—evaluate—repeat.
Sing, Sing, Sing Excerpts (Carnegie Hall, 1993)
These experiences, along with countless others, helped shape me as a composer, arranger, and teacher. I had band directors who made time for student composer/arrangers. Teachers who knew the value of a few encouraging words as opposed to a whole mouthful of discouragement. Feedback from musicians playing my music. Copying parts from other people’s scores. The value of both hearing, and later saying “Write another one.” I was fortunate to be in situations where I could ask “What if?”, instead of “Am I allowed to…?”. Where it was okay to take risks, and at the same time accept and learn from the results. I learned that I didn’t know everything, and that’s okay. That I needed to listen honestly to my writing, then act on what I heard. That I had to acknowledge my weaknesses, not as failings but as part of being human—it was up to me to strengthen them. That not everyone will love what I do. And as important as thinking, mulling, stewing, and planning are, action—doing—overrides them all.
Speaking of doing, I’ve got a lot more writing to do; so it’s time to get back to my studio. A deadline is fast approaching, with six arrangements due. Time for more action.
About the Author:
Jim McNeely was born in Chicago, moving to New York City in 1975. In 1978 he joined the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. He spent six years as a featured soloist with that band and its successor, Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra (now The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra). 1981 saw the beginning of Jim’s 4-year tenure as pianist/composer with the Stan Getz Quartet. From 1990 until 1995 he held the piano chair in the Phil Woods Quintet. At the present time, he leads his own tentet, his own trio, and he appears as soloist at concerts and festivals worldwide.
Jim’s reputation as composer/arranger and conductor for large jazz bands continues to flourish and has earned him ten Grammy nominations. In 1996 he re-joined The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra as pianist and Composer-in Residence. He is also chief conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. Other recent work includes projects with the Danish Radio Big Band (where he was chief conductor for five years), the Metropole Orchestra (Netherlands), the Swiss Jazz Orchestra, and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. The New York Times has called his writing “exhilarating”; DownBeat has said that his music is “eloquent enough to be profound”. And he won a Grammy for his work on the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra’s “Monday Night Live at the Village Vanguard” on Planet Arts Records.
Jim has appeared as sideman on numerous recordings led by major artists such as Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Stan Getz, Bob Brookmeyer, David Liebman, Art Farmer, Robert Watson, and Phil Woods. He has numerous albums under his own name. The latest is the Grammy-nominated “Barefoot Dances and Other Visions”, with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band on the Planet Arts label (“superb…a feeling for arranging orchestral colors that is magical”—All About Jazz.com)
Teaching is also an important element of Jim’s work. He is on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music. He was involved with the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop for 24 years, including 16 years as musical director. He has appeared at numerous college jazz festivals in the U.S. as performer and clinician. He has also done clinics and major residencies at dozens of institutions in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand, and Egypt.
He may be contacted via his website: www.jimmcneely.com
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.
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 asked by Paul Read if I would write an article from any subject I would like, I decided it should be about my “Concerto for Jazz Clarinet and Orchestra” as it has been a success story for me and one that has opened many doors in my music career.
I will start with the piece being commissioned by Jack Elliott in Los Angeles in 1982 at a lunch meeting – at that meeting Jack told me that he had really liked my arrangement of “Forget The Woman”, written for Eddie Daniels, so much that he had voted for me when it was nominated for a Grammy (my first nomination) in 1981. It was then that he told me he wanted to commission me to write a serious piece for Eddie and the New American Orchestra – from the time of the signing of the commission I had one year to compose and orchestrate the piece before its premiere in Los Angeles.
I have been asked by several people in the past what I did during the composing period so thought I would address that – I started the process by meeting with Eddie Daniels with my first sketches at a piano several times and recording what we did as a reference for the orchestration, at that time of course there was no midi and everything was recorded live.
Also, I made a point not to study any clarinet concertos while composing my own, what I did instead was to meet with my friend and fellow composer John Corigliano in New York a few times as he had written his clarinet concerto not to long before.
During these meetings we discussed the orchestration of the piece such as how to make the clarinet cut through the density of the orchestra in terms of range and other technical aspects as well. They were wonderful meetings and very inspiring to me as John is such a great composer!
One of the most important goals I had in writing my concerto was to be very honest in what I wrote and to pour all of my loves, passions and influences, from Classical to Jazz, which I had enjoyed and accumulated through my life into my writing – some of the biggest influences for me have been Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartok, William Walton, Gil Evans and Clare Fischer but there have been others as well – in Michael Roeder’s book “A History of The Concerto” where he included my concerto in his book, he states that he found “Latin American influences” in my music; this was a surprise to me but I found it to be interesting and I have come to believe over time that he is absolutely right. My dear friend and mentor Astor Piazzolla told me one time as well that the first movement of my concerto was a “Tango” and the third movement a “Chacarera” (a 6/8 folklore dance rhythm from Argentina!) – only the second movement was a “Jazz ballad”.
Being that I am originally from Argentina and having grown up there exposed me at a very early age to Argentine Folkore, Tango and Brazilian music as well as Jazz and Classical music which were my truest loves. My much loved mother played Debussy, Fauré and Chopin on piano beautifully as far back as my memory reaches – so much to my surprise these were also influences which appeared in my clarinet concerto!
Even more importantly I wrote what I had always wanted to hear in a crossover piece of that sort but never had.
The concertos I had heard from other composers attempting the crossover genre (Classical and Jazz) were not entirely successful from my point of view because they were either too Contemporary, too Classical or they didn’t “swing”!… That became the main reason I chose to write the first movement in “even 16th notes” which a classical symphony orchestra can play accurately, and the third movement in a “12/8 groove” in even 8th notes, which can also be played without any problem by a classical orchestra. For the second movement which is “Jazz Ballad” inspired, I chose to add a jazz trio to support the clarinet improvisations in the jazz section. On the score I wrote all the clarinet solos throughout, but I also wanted to add the Jazz chord symbols on the clarinet and piano parts as a way of giving a clarinetist or pianist who understands the style the creative freedom of improvisation – I felt that by having both options it gave a chance to classical musicians to play the piece as well by using the written solos and not having to improvise in modern jazz style if that was not their specialty.
I was very fortunate to have had the great Eddie Daniels as a soloist, as he is absolutely one of the best crossover players if not the best in the world. I took that into account when writing which I believe added to the success of the piece with other virtuoso clarinetists. I was also fortunate that Dave Grusin attended the premiere of the piece in Los Angeles and decided he wanted to record the concerto on Eddie’s GRP “Breakthrough” album. We recorded the “Concerto for Jazz Clarinet and Orchestra” in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra at Olympic Studios with Keith Grant, engineer, Ettore Stratta, conductor, Produced by Eddie, Ettore and myself – and the rest is history!
I have been thrilled with the way the piece has been received and that it has had a life of it’s own so to speak having been played several times since it’s premiere, in the US, Europe, South East Asia and South America. The last performance in Argentina took place at the re-opening of the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires during the bi-centennial celebrations where Eddie was invited to play the concerto with the
“Orquesta Filarmónica de Buenos Aires”.
I am on to my next project which is a concerto for piano and orchestra written as a classical piece without any jazz elements. I have been working on it for quite a long time and I believe that when it is it is finished it will possibly be the best piece I’ve written to date.
Thank you Paul for asking me to write this article for ISJAC and to everyone who has read it! It has been a pleasure to have spent some time sharing this musical experience of mine with you!
Jorge Calandrelli [Bear Valley Springs, CA 2018]
Listen to the Concerto (Excerpts)
About the Author:
JORGE CALANDRELLI began his career in Argentina and Europe as Pianist, Arranger and Conductor. Calandrelli moved to the United States in 1978, he is one of today’s most prolific arrangers and has worked in the Pop, Jazz, Latin, and Classical fields.
Jorge, the youngest of six, was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Matias Calandrelli, his father, was a medical doctor, an eminent chess player, president of the Argentine Chess Club and a lieutenant colonel physician in the Argentine Army. His mother, Nieves Solá Calandrelli played classical piano, was fluent in French and was the daughter of Juan E. Solá, a prominent politician and an early member of the Jockey Club of Argentina.
Calandrelli toured Europe for three years with his Quintet and then returned to Buenos Aires to perform as a professional pianist with his Jazz Trio while arranging and conducting for major recording artists and record companies.
His formative private studies included Piano with Guillermo Iscla, Harmony and Counterpoint with the renowned composer Carlos Guastavino, Composition with composer Roberto Garcia Morillo, Altered Harmony with Jacobo Fischer and Master Classes in Contemporary Composition with composer Gerardo Gandini.
OF NOTE ASMAC honored Jorge Calandrelli with the 2014 Golden Score Award for Arranging, the highest award that could be given to an arranger in the USA.
Most recent is Jorge’s involvement on the new album “Cheek to Cheek” with Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga where he arranged and conducted all orchestral arrangements, as well as the “Great Performances” live show conducted for PBS at the Lincoln Center in New York just aired on the heels of the album release. He also conducted on the Tour at the Wiltern Theatre in LA, the Hollywood Bowl in LA, and at the Royal Albert Hall in London. With the completion of the Duets II album Jorge Calandrelli reaches a milestone celebrating a 30-year association with Tony Bennett with 13 albums recorded, 6 Grammy nominations and 2 Grammy Awards won.
As both composer and orchestrator, Jorge Calandrelli, has been involved in films and television. His most recent TV score “The Rain” (Director: Nazomu Amemiya) co-composed with Kuni Murai, a four hour docudrama, premiered in 2010 for Japan Television. “Crouching Tiger / Hidden Dragon” (Director Ang Lee); “The Color Purple” (Director Steven Spielberg); “The Billionaire Boys Club” (Director: Marvin Chomsky); “Tron” (Director: Steven Lisberger); “The Shining” (Director Stanley Kubrik); “Sola” (Director: Raul De La Torre); “The Great Mouse Detective” and “I’ll be Home for Christmas”.
“Concerto for Jazz Clarinet and Orchestra” Calandrelli’s concert works have been performed worldwide, this composition has been premiered in several countries and singled out in Michael Roeder’s book “A History of the Concerto”; Calandrelli also received the nomination for, “All Music Composer of the Year” the London Wavendon Award, for the Concerto. The latest performance of the “Concerto for Jazz Clarinet and Orchestra” was in Buenos Aires at the Teatro Colon by the Orquesta Filarmónica of Buenos Aires and in Cordoba, Argentina, by the Orquesta Sinfónica of Córdoba for the Bicentenialcelebration of Argentina.
“Escapade in D minor” (2003) commissioned and premiered by The Henry Mancini Orchestra for Arturo Sandoval, conducted by Calandrelli.
“Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra” commissioned for pianist Tian Jiang and premiered by Tian and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra during their 2003 US Tour.
Mr. Calandrelli is currently finishing his work on a collection of “Piano Pieces”, to be premiered by Sonya Belousova, as well as working on a piano concerto, “Diptych for Piano and Orchestra”.
Jorge Calandrelli has worked as Executive Musical Director for The Concord Music Group for three years.
Mr. Calandrelli continues to work independently with a diversity of artists and projects. He serves on the Board of Directors of the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers (ASMAC), as well as having served on the Board of Governors of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS).
When I compose, I usually start someplace away from the piano or the computer. I start by hearing a tune in my head, and I’ve found the best way for me to get it out of my head is not to sit down at the piano – because at the piano, my muscle memory can get in the way, and I’ll sometimes end up playing what I already know, instead of trying to write down what I’m actually hearing. For me, it’s especially important to get the groove, and the tempo, and the form of the tune down first. That’s the architecture. I hear it in my head, and then I’ll try to sing it into my iPhone especially if I’m walking about a city, which I do often. I’ll sing bass lines, melodies, I’ll beat-box the rhythms; I’ve been known to sketch out the whole form of a five-to-six-minute song like that. Then I’ll go home and transcribe it. At this point, I’m not looking for particular voicings; I’ll do that at the piano for sure. But before that, it’s important for me to capture the essence of the composition – what I’m trying to say – without the filter of the piano.
After I do that, I’ll start working at the computer, getting the form into shape. Once you start to slowly transcribe your ideas, I find that just referring back to that first iPhone version will inspire new material. It activates that same initial feeling that you had when the ideas first came into your head. It’s not like I can sing that accurately, but hearing it will remind me of what I was going for. Then, at the piano (or the computer), I can figure out the right notes, and the right spacings, and all the rest. You often hear about jazz musicians wanting to play what’s in their head, right? Well, that’s what’s in my head – but now I’ve got technology to record and help me remember it.
In a lot of ways, it’s like transcribing an improvisation, as opposed to just staring at the computer and saying, ‘OK, what’s next?’ For a while, I would sit down at the piano and struggle with every note, like everybody does at some point, because at the piano, you’ve got too many options: ‘Oh, I could do this, or maybe this.’ But then it’s not straight from the heart, or from my muse.
It works pretty much the same way when I’m writing a big arrangement. I’ll sing the parts into my phone; of course, I can’t sing counterpoint with myself, but I can get the essence of it. I’m trying to get down the creativity, the spark of the moment, before I dive into the details. Also, I might have two or three different versions of the same tune, all recorded on my phone, each with different ideas. So then I’ll try to pick out which one I like best at that moment, when I’m actually ready to sit down and transcribe. Or maybe I’ll pick one section from each version.
I go through something like that with the voicings, too, in terms of getting down the basics and then cleaning it up later. At the piano, I’ll just let my hands go and follow my instincts, and put down whatever comes out. It might be too many voices – it might be 10-finger voicings, using pedal, whatever – but I’ll get it down, and then later go in and make it right from an orchestration standpoint. That way, at least I’ve got the sound I want, the harmonic concept, without struggling over the fine points right off the bat. It just goes much faster if you’re doing it in the moment; again, for me it’s like improvising.
If I’m arranging a work for hire, maybe orchestrating for a singer and it’s his or her song, that’s more like a meat-and-potatoes thing. If it’s already been recorded, I’ll make a take-down of the record: I’ll transcribe the original arrangement, especially what I hear on the rhythm track, so I can keep listening back to it in the computer. And then I’ll frequently refer to the original, because a lot of times, if you’re doing a ‘sweetening’ date – putting strings or a horn section over an existing track – there’ll be these nice little lines already in there, on the guitar or the piano. Keeping those in mind, I might double or continue the line, or support that line in some other way. (I learned this from Tommy Lipuma, my friend and great record producer who worked with everyone from Miles, Al Jarreau, Diana Krall, Paul McCartney). There’s already a lot of information in the original, and by using some of what’s already there, I can keep things from getting too crowded. Typically I’ll first do that, and then depending on who the artist is, and how many chances I think I can take, I’ll decide how much of myself I can put in there.
A good example is an arrangement I recently finished for Dianne Reeves, for her Carnegie Hall Youth Jazz Orchestra tour with Sean Jones. She wanted to do this George Duke tune, “Someday,” which is a really great tune with lots of interesting chord changes. But his version is only two and a half minutes long, and that’s not going to work for this big live-tour performance. The way the tune is laid out, though, it’s almost like three tunes in one. The A and B sections are like separate songs, and the real hook chorus is actually in the intro, which he doesn’t get back to until the very end. Also, this tune goes through a lot of modulations. I had to figure out a way to extend it, and then, at the end, when he gets back to that hook chorus, to let that really grow. So I had to come up with three different climaxes, in a way, in order to hit all those marks – including a joyful, gospel-type chorus to close it out, sort of like Earth, Wind & Fire. And then I had to come up with an ending that’s not corny.
But again, since this is kind of a hybrid, I took the information from George’s rhythm tracks, and then I worked to expand on that. I sort of went backwards. First I worked out the form from his record, and then I sat back, went for a walk, and waited till I could figure out how I wanted to start this thing. I waited till I heard it in my head. And then I sang it into my iPhone.
About the Author:
In the course of three decades, Mack Avenue recording artist John Beasley has carved an enviable reputation – or actually, two reputations. First and foremost, he is an uncommonly versatile, unerringly exciting pianist who has worked with such music icons as Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard – playing in the bands of both these trumpet legends while still in his 20s – as well as with Herbie Hancock, Steely Dan, Al Jarreau, Chaka Khan, and Christian McBride (and even, for one night, with James Brown). But Beasley is also an accomplished composer, and a distinctive arranger who works regularly in film and television, earning five GRAMMY nominations and an Emmy nod along the way. And he has worked extensively on soundtracks, primarily those of famed film scorer Thomas Newman, including the James Bond hits Spectre and Skyfall.
Beasley’s arranging skills find no better showcase than on the albums MONK’estra (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2), each of which received two GRAMMY nominations. MONK’estra is a smashing 15-piece big band that captures the spirit of Thelonious Monk’s singular music in fresh arrangements flavored with contemporary sounds that range from Afro-Cuban rhythms to hip-hop. Critics have called it “some of the most mesmerizing big band music of recent memory.”
Beasley continues to balance a multi-faceted career that includes co-producing albums with former Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine; legendary guitarist Lee Ritenour; and oft-awarded vocalist Dianne Reeves. Every year, Beasley resumes his role as Music Director for the Thelonious Monk Institute’s globally heard International Jazz Day concerts, collaborating with the Institute’s Chairman Herbie Hancock. In 2017, this all-star concert was held in Cuba and broadcast throughout the world and on BET-TV in America. The 2016 event was hosted by President Obama at the White House and was broadcast on ABC-TV, gaining Beasley an Emmy nomination for Best Musical Direction.
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/
When Paul Read asked me to contribute something to this blog I asked what my focus should be: my arranging, my composing or performing? He said, “Whatever you’re interested in, whatever you want to share.”
I’m very interested in, and quite in love with, a place in Northeastern Pennsylvania where I spend several months of the year. I’ve had a house there for 30 years and in 2007 wrote a suite dedicated to the Delaware River, several places that border it, and my small local town, Shohola (“place of quiet waters,” according to the native Lenape people). I’m a real water person: born an Aquarian, a Navy guy, an avid swimmer and sailor. In fact, I got the concept for the piece while soaking in the Jacuzzi (which is where I am now writing these introductory notes)!
Basically I have a couple of ways that I start compositions. My usual approach is sitting at the piano, noodling some ideas that turn into motifs, that turn into phrases, that end up part of the final result. Another favorite way is sitting in a chair with my eyes closed, imagining a concert stage with the ensemble I’m writing for on that stage and just start jotting down the first things I hear coming from this imaginary band; that gets the ball rolling for me. For this piece I knew I would be writing for piano, trumpet and cello.
The river suite is probably the closest thing to a “theater piece” I’ve ever written. Preceding page one of the score is a map of the Delaware River Basin. Then there’s an opening prologue with pre-recorded river sounds over which my voice sings the praises (think Garrison Keillor) of the Delaware and other bodies of water I’ve spent time on. There is even spoken, countrified dialogue from the trio, based on local lore, in one movement. Even before I wrote a note of the music I knew I would write a multi-movement suite that would start with a fanfare, conjure up the excitement of white-water rafting, the serenity of the “float,” address Shohola’s history, reference the Delaware Water Gap and Philadelphia, and a finale that would salute the Atlantic, where the Delaware empties its waters. So, unlike my other compositions, I had a programmatic shape and the general flow already on paper before starting to compose. Secondly, it was a great treat to write for specific people: me on piano, trumpeter Marvin Stamm and cellist Alisa Horn, known as the Inventions Trio. I had a broad palate with Marvin’s improvisational talents, his ability to wear the hat of an orchestral player, and flugelhorn doubler. In Alisa I had a cellist with a big sound and a singing tone, as well as excellent rhythm and some beginning improv skills. And both of them were wonderful ensemble players. The end result (commissioned by Drs. Frank Osborn and Howard Horn) was the Delaware River Suite.
I. Prologue: Narrowsburg Deep
II. Rapid Ride at Skinner’s Falls
IV. Shohola Hoedown & Campfire
V. Rollin’ Down the Water Gap
VII. Toward the Ocean
I’ve pointed out some salient features of each movement with sound and score samples below, with the complete score and recording of the piece at the end.
Prologue: Narrowsburg Deep: I suppose Aaron Copland was over my shoulder when I decided the fanfare that opens the piece should primarily consist of the interval of a fifth, should be short and to the point, and majestic.
Rapid Ride at Skinner’s Falls: Fifths occur often throughout the piece, as in the piano accompaniment figure and in the melody of Rapid Ride:
Following the theme each instrumentalist improvises over a four-chord, four-bar pedal, with accompanying figures that echo the movement’s introduction:
Float: If you’ve ever been in an eddy of a river and heard and seen the pops and plops of bugs and fish you know how fascinating a sound it can be. I wanted to convey that random, plopping sound, so I chose a twelve-tone row to start the journey. I tried many rows, finally settling on one simply because it sounded pleasing to me; it happened to contain several half-steps.
Seven iterations of the row occur, passing the row between instruments and using rhythmic and octave displacement. Later in the movement the three instruments, in rhythmic unison, choose their own notes in an atonal free-for-all.
Shohola Hoedown & Campfire: Here’s my Garrison Keillor moment! The Hoedown kind of wrote itself, it just fell out of me. A typical “fiddler’s-fifths” opens the tune, then Alisa has the melody, after which she provides bass “slaps” under Marvin’s melody. Country meets jazz for some choruses of trumpet and piano improv. Meant to be fun and humorous there’s even a horse’s (trumpet) “whinny” and a “Yee-haw” from the group.
For the Campfire section I became film-scorer for a moment and wrote a plaintive (think harmonica) melody to kick off the first spoken story.
Rollin’ Down The Water Gap: I thought about cascading water with its forward motion and downward movement, and that gave me the idea of constructing the melody in descending half steps. The right hand of the piano doubles the trumpet/cello melody, with chords that include half steps and crunchy voicings, and this is set against an ongoing boogie-woogie pattern in the left hand (this was lots of fun but my left hand almost fell off by the end of the movement!) The 24-bar melody is built on just four chords, and improvised solos are on a 24-bar blues
I was thinking like a big-band arranger when I gave trumpet and cello punchy rhythmic background figures behind the piano solo.
A “shout chorus” follows where I have cello, trumpet and piano playing in rhythmic unison. I wanted a crazy, fun effect so I have the right hand of the piano playing clusters with the palm of the hand, the cello playing “scratchily” with the bow and Marvin tooting on his mouthpiece, kazoo-style!
Philadelphia: The city of Philadelphia, located along the Delaware, has always fascinated me. I kept intoning the word “Philadelphia, Philadelphia” over and over again and that gave rise to the rhythm of the melody (primarily based, again, on fifths), and probably suggested the jazz waltz feel. After a short opening piano statement (which hints at the melody to come) the cello and trumpet each play the theme, followed by improv solos.
Sometimes you realize, after the fact, the internal logic of a motif. I wasn’t sure where this little recurring background melodic segment had come from, but realized after recording it that it was based on the descending minor seconds in the preceding movement. Funny how the mind works…
Towards The Sea: Before the main theme, the piano (and cello) have a rhapsodic, rubato duet that sets the mood. Again, the interval of a fifth plays a prominent part, and the underlying harmonic scheme is a series of ii-V-I progressions.
When the tempo starts it’s an undulating 12/8 groove, suggesting the feeling of being in a boat and rocking gently. The melody (Ravel on my mind) consists of long, held tones over cello and piano 12/8 figures.
Throughout the movement several small snippets of previous themes briefly reappear. And I didn’t realize it till after I’d finished writing the movement, but I actually quote seven notes from God Bless America (in bars 69-71— “from the mountains to the oc-”), so thank you, Irving Berlin.
This composition was the centerpiece of the album, Delaware River Suite, and I was thrilled that Inventions got to perform it at some of the referenced locations: Narrowsburg, NY, Philadelphia and Delaware Water Gap, PA.
About the Author:
Pianist Bill Mays’ career as a professional musician spans the last 55 years and includes a multitude of musical endeavors. Following four years as a bandsman in the U.S. Navy Bill spent 15 years as a session player in the Hollywood studios. In 1984 he re-located to New York City, firmly establishing himself as an in-demand sideman and leader of his own ensembles. He has worked with jazz legends Benny Golson, Shelly Manne, Red Mitchell, Gerry Mulligan, Bud Shank, Frank Sinatra, Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Sarah Vaughan, and Phil Woods. His many recordings as a leader (solo, duo, trio and sextet) are well-documented on the Chiaroscuro, Concord, DMP, Palmetto, and Steeplechase record labels.
A prolific composer and arranger, Mays has written many extended suites for bass, flute, woodwind septet, and pieces for big band and orchestra (New York Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, Turtle Creek Chorale, WDR Big Band, U.S. Air Force Airmen Of Note). His latest recordings include Phil & Bill (with saxophonist Phil Woods), Side By Side: Sondheim Duos (with bassist Tommy Cecil), Life’s A Movie (with cellist Alisa Horn and trumpeter Marvin Stamm), and Front Row Seat (solo piano). Mays’ songs have been used in the movies Anamorph, Burn After Reading, Hamlet, Looker, and The Fifth Estate. His keyboard work has been heard on hundreds of film soundtracks, among them Fargo, Fur, Godfather 2, Hail, Caesar!, Jaws 2, Julie & Julia, Rocky 2, Superman, The Big Lebowski, and The Spanish Prisoner.
Last year Mays received rave reviews with the publication of his first book, Stories Of The Road, The Studios, Sidemen & Singers: 55 Years In The Music Biz.
Awards and Honors:
- Arranger, pianist and producer on Grammy-nominated Bop For Kerouac (Mark Murphy/Muse)
- Pianist on Gold Album Paradise Cafe (Barry Manilow/Arista Records)
- “Talent Deserving Of Wider Recognition” in the piano category, Downbeat Magazine
- Nominated for “Most Valuable Player” Award, Los Angeles
- International Society of Bassists: “Friend Of The Bass”
- Performance grants from Meet The Composer, Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, N.E.A., PennPAT
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.
There are many different processes for writing music. There is no right one or wrong one, it just depends on what works for the individual, and that is something that each writer must determine for himself. The fledgling writer can try different ones, or change up on each piece.
For myself, I have found something that works consistently for me. When I was much younger, I tried many different processes and finally determined the “routine” with which I was most productive and organized. When I started out, in high school and college, I was able to find and purchase miniature score pads, where I could start by doing a sketch that would itself turn into a score. This worked for awhile, but I found I would eventually have to copy it all over again because the miniature score was too small to be legible by anyone else. This was before computer notation.
I believe it was when I was writing a commission for the Buddy Rich band that I finally decided on my process. I tried starting with the score itself, but that didn’t work for me. What I ended up with was the following and I have used it every since. Now mind you, I have used many variations of this since, especially in the beginning stages (research) for writing and composition or arrangement.
- Lead sheet
- Sketch (templates)- 4 staves, 6 staves, 3 staves
- complete detailed
- digital score (Finale or Sibelius)
- edit parts
Now let’s pick apart and detail these process points.
This is the melody and chord symbols (if any) only. On my classical pieces, this is more like an “ideas” sheet, with main
themes and some ideas for variation/development, with key centers sometimes but rarely indicated. Usually with pencil and paper, one or two staves.
I have various sketch templates that have been devised in Finale.
- 4 staves for for large jazz ensemble
- 6 staves for orchestra with strings
- 3 stave for smaller ensemble
Let’s take for example the large jazz ensemble.
(4 staves -treble & bass, treble & bass. The upper two saxes/woodwinds, the lower two brass) (diagram 1).
If it is an arrangement for a vocalist or featured soloist, I add another single staff above. I write on this with pencil.
Placed are melody lines, chord changes, rhythmic slashes when actual melodic lines not decided, rhythmic slashes and notation (below staff) indicating what rhythm section will be doing (swing, even 8ths, Latin, tutti rhythms etc.). This includes devising an intro and ending, transitions, modulations, development areas. This is essentially the creative part, establishing the form, where you spell out your ideas (diagram 2).
Number the bars.
Fill in existing loose sketch with counter lines, accompanying ensemble rhythms and lead lines (diagram 3). Label (with words).
COMPLETE DETAILED SKETCH
Fill in existing sketch with all harmonies and voicing (diagram 4).
This means going through the piece from beginning to end three times.
I use Finale or Sibelius (and perhaps Dorico soon). Transfer all notes onto the computer using keyboard input or manually. I usually start with the woodwinds, then trumpets, trombones, bass, piano, guitar, tuba, French horns, mallet percussion, drums, and hand percussion, in that order. I write and print my scores in concert (diagram 5).
This is often ignored by many arrangers, and this is crucial. And this is a pet peeve of mine. Instead of just printing out the parts, they must be examined in detail and formatted to make sure they are spaced legibly, have any instructional notation in the right places (ie, “2nd X only,” or “Play 4 Xs”), make sure the D.S. and coda (if any) are separated and indented properly (see Diagram 6A & 6B).
It is important to make sure that all melodic lines read in the simplest enharmonic way possible (see diagram 7A-wrong way, and diagram 7B-correct way).
It is best that all rehearsal letters are on the far left of a system. It is best if the coda mark is on the far right of a system (diagram 8).
Make sure that slash marks with chords above appear correctly.
Make sure that all headers or footers (page number, song title, part name) appear in the proper places on every page.
I believe it is best to have bar numbers below the start of every bar, multi-rest bar numbers centered below rests (diagram 9).
On the score I like bar numbers to be large enough to be readily readable centered above bars on top stave, and enclosed in a box (diagram 10).
That’s my process, and I don’t intend to say that mine is for everyone. In a masterclass by Bob Mintzer, which I helped organize a few years ago, he said that once, by necessity, he started arranging right onto the score. It was during an airplane flight where he needed to have the arrangement done at the end of the flight, and that has been his process ever since. I’ve known a few arrangers who have simply started writing parts, no score.
The point and goal is be suitably and comfortably organized in order to best support your creative efforts.
NOTE: Interview conducted by Paul Read on Jan 10, 2018 at 2:30 PST.
ISJAC: Hey, John. Thanks for doing this.
JC: Happy to do it
ISJAC: Where are you at the moment, Los Angeles?
JC: Yes, I am in Los Angeles. I actually was born and raised here and finished school at Indiana University… hit the road for four years and then moved to Holland to be with my, then, girlfriend, now my wife, and played in a symphony orchestra for five years.1The Amsterdam Philharmonic.
ISJAC: You were with the Basie band before you went to Amsterdam?
JC: Yes. After I finished school I went on the road with Monty Alexander and Jeff Hamilton for two years. And I missed out on my dream to play with Duke Ellington – he died while I was still in college – and one of my other dreams was to play with Count Basie. I was studying with Ray Brown and I knew that Ray knew Count Basie very well. So I asked him if he could look into helping me get in touch with him. He said, “Sure” and the next day I was talking to Count Basie [laughter]. He called me and said, “Young man, I hear you would like to play in my orchestra.” and I said, “Yes, sir, Mr. Basie”. And he said, “Well, I’ll have my manager call you.” and it just so happened that his bass player was leaving in two weeks, so I let Monty Alexander know I had this opportunity and he gave me his blessing. I went with Count Basie and that’s where I really got bit by the writing bug. I’d never studied composition or arranging but I fell in love with that music being able to hear it every night there in real time. I knew how to transpose for instruments and I had some fantasies. So, I asked Mr. Basie if I could write some music, and he said, “sure”. I wrote something that was embarrassingly bad. [Laughter] I was frustrated, certainly, but I wasn’t put off and I wasn’t discouraged. That’s the best way to put it. So on one of my breaks I took the recording that Basie had done years before with Neal Hefti of a song called “Splanky.”2Recorded on The Atomic Mr. Basie. (YouTube video posted by Warner Bros.) “Which is “the 6th most critically acclaimed album of 1958, the 25th most acclaimed of the 1950s, and the 837th most acclaimed of all time, based on an aggregation of hundreds of critics’ lists from around the world”. Wikipedia.
JC: “Splanky” has an amazing shout chorus,3See the Appendix at the end of the article for an score excerpt showing the ‘triple lead’ approach. and I got goose bumps every time we played it, so I wrote a sketch of everything that was happening in that arrangement. The intro, I wrote it in words…you know: piano – Ab pedal in the left hand, drums plays with sticks, bass playing the pedal. Roman numeral two: melody played in unison by the brass with mutes (and I didn’t know which so I wrote cups, buckets, question mark). Sort of walked through it in words like that, and then I went back and I transcribed as many of the notes that I could hear. From that, I noticed that when we got to the shout chorus I could hear on the recording that the lead trumpet note happened to be the same note that the lead trombone player was playing and the same note that the lead alto was playing so I had discovered this ‘triple lead’ concept of writing…
ISJAC: Yeah, I hear that from time to time in your writing…
JC: Yeah, and the thing that it provides is a lot of clarity for the melody. So I learned that whenever I want that kind of clarity I could use ‘triple lead’ or even ‘double lead’. Anyway, that was the beginning.
ISJAC: How much music did you write while you were with Basie? Were you producing an arrangement or composition once a week, once a month?
JC: It went from once a month or every three weeks or so…it was never once a week.
ISJAC: Yeah, that’s a lot!! [Laughter]
JC: I also acknowledged that I did not have the chops to write that fast. And, by the way, they paid me for the arrangements.
ISJAC: That’s great of course.
JC: It was kind of shocking that I wrote my first endeavour and I got paid for it. So that was great. And they not only paid for the chart, they paid for the copying too.
ISJAC: What a tremendous learning experience. To be inside a band like that, to be playing with the band, and hearing all those colours, and the orchestration. Everything is right there for you. As opposed to learning about those things from a purely theoretical standpoint.
JC: I absolutely agree.
ISJAC: Whenever I played saxophone in a big band, I would particularly notice what the trumpets and trombones were doing…. I mean I couldn’t avoid it…they were sitting right behind me [laughs]. But it is a truly amazing story that you started writing while you were in the Basie band!
JC: And, of course, the guys were very helpful. They had excellent writers in the band: Bobby Plater, Eric Dixon, and Dennis Wilson. Dennis was my homey because he was my age. He was a schooled writer because he studied at Berklee, and he would show me things about writing technically. And the other guys in the band would say things to me off the cuff that turned out to be invaluable – things that I think too many writers don’t know or don’t do. For instance, they’d see me working on a score, and that I was frustrated because we just played it and I’d be making some edits and corrections and they’d say, “Hey, what are you doing?” and I’d say, “Oh, this didn’t sound very good and I just want to change this or that”, and they’d say, “Well don’t change that! Just write another one! And the stuff you didn’t like in this one, don’t put it in the new one.”
ISJAC: Great advice.
JC: And that was so spontaneous on their part, but so deep for me and I followed their advice. With their encouragement, I kept writing and writing and writing. Another time, earlier on, one of the writers in the band was looking at a score of mine and he asked, “You write a ‘C’ score?” I replied [hesitating] “Yeah”, and asked me, “Well why?” and I said, “I don’t know” and then he said, “Don’t do that! Write a transposed score.” So I said, “OK” and that was that.
ISJAC: And is that what you do now?
JC: Yes. I write my sketches in C but then I always write transposed scores. Honestly, I’m at the point now where I have an assistant, so I usually write detailed sketches and use shorthand that she understands and can decipher. I’m in a lot of situations now where I have to write very quickly and so having an assistant is very helpful.
Incidentally, when I write a score, I don’t use notation software. I have Sibelius because I thought I should have it but I really don’t use it. I had Finale before that because I thought I might use it, but I have so many shortcuts that the software slows me down. It’s just the way I write.
ISJAC: I totally get that. It’s so much easier to write something on paper rather than have to look on page 135 of the manual to find out how to put something or other on the score for the first time.
JC: Yeah, and also, let’s say I’m writing a more extended piece. I sit at my piano and to my left is my desk and to the left of my desk, are two music stands. Now, I may need to refer to page 12, or 23 and 35 and, if I have to scroll on a computer, and have a couple of screens open, it really slows me down. But I do understand the importance of that technology and all my charts are computer-generated now and it is great to have those files. I do recognize the value of it. Its just that writing-wise, it’s just not the way I work.
ISJAC: And your assistant puts it into the software? Is that what happens?
JC: Yes. She copies them into the software. I’m not the kind of person who writes one line and says, “Here, make this sound like Thad Jones.” [Laughter]. I mean all the notes on the score are my notes.
ISJAC: You mentioned Thad Jones. He was in the Basie band long before you, right?
JC: Yes, long before.
ISJAC: Was he an influence on your writing?
JC: Huge. Yeah, Duke Ellington, Thad Jones, Quincy Jones, Billy Byers, Oliver Nelson and Henry Mancini. I got to work with him [Mancini] in my early days, so I really got to hear his treatment of orchestra and big band and big band with strings and all that. And – I’m sure I’m leaving somebody out – those are some of the people that really had an influence.
ISJAC: That’s a pretty heavy list. I read a story recently about Thad writing on the band bus. I think the story was in that book that came out last year, “50 Years at the Village Vanguard.”4“50 Years at the Village Vanguard (Thad Jones and Mel Lewis at the Village Vanguard) ” by Dave Lisik and Eric Allen available at www.skydeckmusic.com. Do you know that book?
JC: Yes, I know about that. I don’t have that yet.
ISJAC: I haven’t read all of it yet, it’s pretty comprehensive, but at one point one of the members of the band noted that Thad would be writing a score while riding the band bus and that he was able to shut out everything. Just completely absorbed in what he was doing. Apparently the music was for whatever event they were heading to – a recording session or whatever it was. It takes such great concentration to be able to do that with so much going on around you. Really amazing.
JC: I think that’s something you learn to do, I mean, if you desire to do it, you figure it out. In fact, I got my chops together doing the exact same thing on the Basie bus. I would sit in the back of the bus and write my scores and then, when we got to the concert hall, or wherever we were going, I’d go to the piano to check things. You know, you do write a little differently when you write away from the piano. It’s not that you write more safely, it’s just that you write things that are a little more familiar to you. And so, yeah, I still write that way. At one point, I had a lesson with Johnny Mandel and he encouraged me to write that way because I played him one of the songs I had composed, and he said, “Mmm, did you write that at the piano?” And I thought about it for a moment, and I said, “Yes I did”, and he said, “Yup, sounds like it. You know people don’t sing chord changes, they sing melodies.” And so, whenever possible I try to write away from the piano. That was a major lesson for me. So to this day I write away from the piano and use the piano it to check what I’ve written.
ISJAC: Do you find yourself singing while you write?
JC: Yes. You know, the musicians have to have a chance to breathe when they play or sing what I’m writing.
ISJAC: I’m curious about something that I think every writer faces as they evolve, and that is developing good judgement or taste. You know, how much you decide to put here or put there. Or when there is enough of a particular idea and its time to move on. I guess I’m referring to the intuitive side of things. Finding rhythmic ideas that feel good, sound good and swing. Do you have any thoughts that would be helpful to students or up and coming composer/arrangers that you might want to share?
JC: I’m big on models. I find training wheels are a really good thing because we’ve all got ideas. We’ve all got fantasies. But if you are in the beginning stages of it, there’s a lot that you don’t know. And if you write from rules, it sounds like you are writing from rules. To free yourself from that you need to put your feet in the shoes of the masters – the people you are interested in and that have influenced you. When you put your feet in their shoes, you go well beyond the analytical level. You develop a feel for what they are doing. You develop a feel for the phrases and textures and for the apex of the phrase or the piece – and, of course, that’s really what you want. You don’t merely want to write from an analytical, left brain, point of view. You want to naturally flow the way that the music you enjoy listening to does.
I haven’t had that many composition/arranging students but sometimes I believe sincerely that they kind of don’t want to do what I say. And that’s fine…that’s cool…but if someone was studying with me, I’d would have them work on a three-tiered project. The first part would be to find a piece that they like, that’s close to their level. Don’t focus on a ‘level 25’ piece right now. Focus on something with an ‘11’ or ‘12’ level of complexity. They are going to have to work hard to get it right, but because it is close to their level it will be an attainable goal. So, for someone who is just starting out writing, I’m not going to send them to a later Thad chart or later Brookmeyer work. I’m going to send them instead to explore a piece they love. It might be Neal Hefti or early Quincy Jones or something like that where the textures are more at their level.
They would start by describing the piece in some detail using words – including describing the moods. Is it an exciting piece? Is it a romantic piece? What does the mood of this music say to you? Because that’s what we are ultimately doing as writers: we’re expressing ourselves and taking those moods that we want to express and attaching sounds to them. And they would have to describe the structure of the piece. For example, they would describe the intro, where the melody is, who is playing it, what the textures are…just in words. And then they would have to go back and, as best they can, transcribe the notes of the entire piece. There are some options here if the task is too difficult. It could be that they don’t transcribe the bass line, or only transcribe a sample of the piano voicings, or not transcribe exactly what the drummer is doing with all of his or her limbs. Then the work is not as daunting as it might seem at first.
So that’s the first tier or part of the project, and then the second tier would be that they would have to write their own piece based on what they just analyzed and transcribed. Of course they can change things, but they should respect the model they’ve just analyzed. So, instead of an 8 bar intro, they might write a 12 bar intro instead for the new piece. They should note things that were particularly noticeable in the piece they transcribed. For example, they might hear that the trumpets were in a certain register and so, in their piece they would write the trumpets in a similar register. It could be that the composer stuck to tensions like 13s and 9s and maybe just occasional alterations to a certain harmonic structure. Well, they should do the same thing. In other words, if you are going to write something in the style of Mozart, you probably shouldn’t use Ravel-like harmony.
And then, the third part of the project would be to write something that has nothing to do with the first two. You know, whatever you’re feeling – wherever your fantasies take you. So you don’t feel like you’re becoming a carbon copy of that other music.
And then I would have them go through that whole process three or four times. Then they would have a good 12 pieces that they have have really put their heart and soul into. Some of this is analysis based, and some of it is putting your feet in the shoes of another composer and imitating certain aspects of their writing. And then finally they do whatever they want to do.
Along with that advice I would address three things that I define as gaps in the skills composers or arrangers that I see today. Number one would be transposing. Become comfortable with writing transposed scores. I can’t tell you how many times, having been instructed by writers in the Basie band to do this has saved my bacon. I’ve been in so many recording situations or rehearsals when I’m standing in front of an orchestra and a hand goes up, the red light is on, and someone says, “John, can you tell me what my note is in the first bar of letter C?” I look and I see that they are playing French horn, and then I have to do an immediate vertical analysis of the score and figure out what that person’s note has to be changed to. Well, someone else could say that they never write a transposed score and still would be able to answer the French horn player’s question, but then, you don’t know what kind of situations you are going to be in and you may have to conduct someone else’s score and that score might be transposed.
Also, I think that the tendency nowadays in education is to allow students to prepare just enough to get through the gig; just enough to get through the recital; just enough to make it through the lesson; just enough to get through the concert and then move on to the next thing. And that’s kind of the nature of what happens in a lot of schools. But if you look at all the things that you feel good about having done, they reflect, I think, over-learning. You’ve done it so many times you don’t have to think about it. It feels really comfortable. But I think that it is too easy in some instances to be satisfied with doing an adequate job –accepting that that was your best effort and then moving on.
Luckily in my life I’ve had enough people who wouldn’t let me do that. You know, Ray Brown told me, (I can’t tell you how many times – maybe hundreds) – he would say to me, “Here’s what you got to do.” And then he would tell me whatever that was and I’d do it! I trusted him. And if I questioned his advice, I’d kind of put those questions aside for the time being. Often, it would take me a certain amount of time – sometimes years – to look back and say, “Oh, that’s why he had me do that!”
ISJAC: Ha! [Both laugh]
JC: So Ray Brown, and like I said, the guys in the Basie band would give me that kind of advice. Even Basie. At one time, I was really writing a lot and the band was playing more and more of my stuff, and I said to him, “Chief,” – we used to call him Chief, “ – would you ever consider allowing me to write an album for the band? It would be an honour for me and I would love to do it.” And he kind of looked at the ceiling and looked around and you know, like he wasn’t quite hearing me. So I sort of slithered out of the room and never brought it up again. Well, years later – because I know he heard me – I’d already left the band and I was living in Holland and I found some cassette tapes of some rehearsals and some things I’d done with band, and I’m listening to them and the light bulb went on. And I thought, oh my god, I wasn’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.
ISJAC: I have a daughter and when she was young I decided not to teach her. It was a difficult decision, but I thought it best to separate the dad part from the teacher part. As I was thinking about interviewing you, I thought I’d ask how you approached that with him as he was growing up. Did you teach him, or just encourage him, or…?
JC: Yeah, I think that it was more of the latter. My wife and I supported and encouraged, but we never pushed. And his older sisters, they are a year older than he is, and they both were taken to concerts and there was always music around. Actually, I didn’t have a stereo in the house but they heard a lot of music and knew what was going on. Once that I saw that Gerald was interested in going the music route, I just did my best, like most parents, to supply him with things that hopefully would help him move forward. So it was not only taking him to concerts, but also showing him a melody or showing him a chord that he was trying to figure out or, maybe just chiming in, but then stepping back and leaving him alone. I just didn’t want him to feel pressured. But then, often I’d be in the kitchen cooking dinner and Gerald would be in the other room practicing and he’d be playing a tune that I knew and I’d call out, “No, that’s an A-flat!” [Laughter]. So there’d be moments like that, but for the most part I was, as you say, more encouraging.
ISJAC: Thank you for sharing that. I suppose it was a bit of a departure, but I thought I’d ask you about that.
JC: How old is your daughter?
ISJAC: She turned 41 on New Year’s Eve. She was into music and played piano and flute, but ultimately she became a graphic designer and art director, which, interestingly enough, is what her grandmother did.
JC: Yeah it’s funny. My daughter hasn’t followed in my wife’s footsteps but is aligned more to her way of thinking…and it’s a combination for sure, but I feel a lot more of my wife’s influence in my daughter in direction than I do in Gerald in a lot of ways. We’re a close-knit family.
ISJAC: I’ve always been fascinated by the great musician families. You mentioned the La Barberas: Pat, John and Joe, and the Jones family, Thad, Hank and Elvin, the Heath brothers, and…the Clayton family too.
JC: You never know!
ISJAC: Before I let you go, are there any current projects, performances or recordings you might like to mention?
JC: Before I do that, I’d like to say I thoroughly enjoyed our chat! Thanks for all of the time you’re putting into this.
I guess you could mention to be on the lookout for a few projects this year. There is possibly/probably a duo release with the wonderful (deceased) pianist, Mulgrew Miller. I’m also discussing releasing or rerecording the Monterey Jazz Festival commission I did, “STORIES OF A GROOVE, Conception, Evolution, Celebration.” It’s one of the largest works I’ve done and I’d like to release it in some fashion. That’s all being discussed. So, everything is percolating! Fingers crossed that it all comes together.
ISJAC: Thanks. What a joy to talk to you!
ISJAC: And, thanks for the lesson! I learned a lot.
JC: Yeah, well I was just passing along what was passed along to me.
ISJAC: Thanks, John.
Shout chorus from “Splanky” composed for the Count Basie Band and is recorded on “The Atomic Mr. Basie”. Demonstrates ‘triple lead’ orchestration. Lead trumpet, alto saxophone and trombone are doubled at the octave.
About John Clayton:
John Clayton is a natural born multitasker. The multiple roles in which he excels — composer, arranger, conductor, producer, educator, and yes, extraordinary bassist — garner him a number of challenging assignments and commissions. With a Grammy on his shelf and eight additional nominations, artists such as Diana Krall, Paul McCartney, Regina Carter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Gladys Knight, Queen Latifah, and Charles Aznavour vie for a spot on his crowded calendar.
He began his bass career in elementary school playing in strings class, junior orchestra, high school jazz band, orchestra, and soul/R&B groups. In 1969, at the age of 16, he enrolled in bassist Ray Brown’s jazz class at UCLA, beginning a close relationship that lasted more than three decades. After graduating from Indiana University’s School of Music with a degree in bass performance in 1975, he toured with the Monty Alexander Trio (1975-77), the Count Basie Orchestra (1977-79), and settled in as principal bassist with the Amsterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in Amsterdam, Netherlands (1980-85). He was also a bass instructor at The Royal Conservatory, The Hague, Holland from 1980-83.
In 1985 he returned to California, co-founded the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra in 1986, rekindled the The Clayton Brothers quintet, and taught part-time bass at Cal State Long Beach, UCLA and USC. In 1988 he joined the faculty of the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music, where he taught until 2009. Now, in addition to individual clinics, workshops, and private students as schedule permits, John also directs the educational components associated with the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, Centrum Festival, and Vail Jazz Party.
Career highlights include arranging the ‘Star Spangled Banner” for Whitney Houston’s performance at Super Bowl 1990 (the recording went platinum), playing bass on Paul McCartney’s CD “Kisses On The Bottom,” arranging and playing bass with Yo-Yo Ma and Friends on “Songs of Joy and Peace,” and arranging playing and conducting the 2009 CD “Charles Aznavour With the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra,” and numerous recordings with Diana Krall, the Clayton Brothers, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz, Orchestra, Milt Jackson, Monty Alexander and many others.
|↑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.|
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.
by Paul Read, ISJAC Artist Blog Curator
This month’s blog is a blog about blogging (say that three times very fast)… and the ISJAC blog in particular. This is our 17th entry… can you believe how tempus fugit?
A little background to start with:
When asked to curate the ISJAC Artist Blog a year and half ago, I agreed because I am of the opinion that composing and arranging involve life-long learning. And having a place on this site where jazz composers/arrangers might share ideas, experiences, or muse/opine about anything at all seemed (and still seems) like a terrific idea to me. I’ve been composing and arranging music in a variety of genres and styles since I was about 16 or 17 (I turn 70 next February…Yikes!!) I have had wonderful teachers over the years (there’s a list in my Mar 1/17 article), and like most music creators, I find I am constantly learning – by doing, by studying scores, by listening, improvising, experimenting, and so on. Thus, I’m sure you will understand why I have really enjoyed the blogs that have been posted so far and have found them both inspirational and informative.
The first thing I did back in mid-2016, was to draw up an initial wish-list of potential contributors – an obvious first step. Then I started to look for contact info and/or emails for those that I didn’t have on hand. The first iteration of the list was chock full of highly accomplished, skilled and knowledgeable musicians – all of them personal musical ‘heros’. The list is long and I keep amending it and appending to it. It will be some time before I have made contact with everyone. But in the past 16 months it has been tremendous to have so many great musicians agree to contribute – and some have written more than once. Scroll down to see a list of the 16 contributors we have had since John La Barbera posted our first entry on July 1, 2016. We trust you have been enjoying what they have had to say and also the many resources accompanying the articles – many include scores, excerpts, links to video and audio files.
We invite your comments:
So now we have arrived at month 17 and are wondering how the blog is being received by our members and other readers. We don’t have any clear picture, as there has been very little (as in, almost no) feedback so far. As a result, we thought it might be a good idea to ask for a little help from you and to ask you to tell us briefly what you think of it so far. I expect that this will be very helpful as ISJAC has quite a few members now so we expect the feedback will indicate many different points of view. Please consider leaving a short comment at the bottom of this article, or any previous blog. Or, send an email and let us know what you think about the directions we are taking. If you have suggestions that would make this blog stronger or of greater interest to you, please include those as well. Your note doesn’t have to be more than one sentence or can even be point form.
Why you may find the blog helpful:
I know I’m not alone when I say that, when composing, I sometimes experience a sense of not knowing what the heck I am doing. Being an habitual deconstructionist, I used to find this bothersome. But somewhere along the line, I learned through experience, and from other composers, with skills far superior to mine, that this state of mind is not unusual at all – in fact, when it occurs, it best be embraced. We know that music theory is something that is created through close examination of what composers write. Not the other way around. As I am sure is the case with you, I study and analyze scores and recordings so I can find out as much as I can about why and how the music works so well. Man, there is so much to learn. That may be why I value this blog so much.
The 16 previous articles have been stellar and, in my opinion, they make for great reading and offer helpful information and insights. We feel they provide valuable resources for anyone involved in this great art form. Some of the past blogs have been ‘how-to articles’ while others have been more personal, historical, analytical or general in scope. Some bloggers have offered individual accounts of their unique writing processes. As curator, I am very lucky to be able to see them before anyone else does J. We are looking forward to future entries and hope you will check back to see the December 1 article (blogger TBA).
In the meantime, I hope you might contact me at email@example.com. I hope to hear from you soon.
We would appreciate your passing along our website address to friends and colleagues. It might be good to mention that membership in ISJAC is free!!
OK, here is a list of our previous ISJAC blogs:
About the Author:
PAUL READ (pianist, composer, arranger) lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Currently he curates the blog for the International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers. He was a member of the Humber College Music Faculty in Toronto from 1979 to 1991, Program Coordinator there from 1982 to 1987, and Director of Music from 1987 to 1991. In 1991, he founded degree programs in jazz studies at the University of Toronto (Mus. Bac., M. Mus. and DMA) where he was Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies and following that, Director of Graduate Jazz Studies. He was Canada’s Representative on the Board of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) from 2002-2008, and was the founding Director of the National Music Camp (NMC) Jazz Program (1987 to 2006). He has also taught in the summers at the Ken Kistner Jazz Camp (Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan) and the Prairielands Jazz Camp (Regina, Saskatchewan). He is now retired from education.
The Dance Never Ends – with Trish Colter (1998, At Long Last Love – Trish Colter (2002), The Heart of Summer – Paul Read Quartet featuring Scott Robinson (2004) Now available on cdbaby, and Arc-en-ciel (Addo Records) – Paul Read Orchestra (2013) Now available on cdbaby.
2017 Inducted into the MusicFest Canada Hall of Fame, 2015 Muriel Sherrin Award for International Achievement in Music (Toronto Arts Foundation), 2008 Paul Read Orchestra (PRO) nominated for a Canadian National Jazz Award, 2007-2008 Awarded a Canada Council for the Arts Recording Grant, 1993 Awarded the University of Toronto Senior Alumni Award for Innovation in Teaching and finally, 1972 Winner of the Rob McConnell/Gordon Delamont Arranging & Composition Award.
Paul’s Website: www.paulread.ca
There are times when I am reminded of the power that creative music can have in our world.
Living in the New York City area, I confess I am in a bit of a bubble. Creative opportunities abound here, with many inspiring colleagues, and even the most adventurous music finds eager listeners who usually know a thing or two about what we are trying to do.
But this music is a hardy traveler, with a well-stamped passport. She visits many places, opens many doors. She makes friends easily, sleeps around, and has children of mixed heritage. As a devoted servant of this music, I follow her where she leads… and she can lead me to some unlikely places. My trip to Pakistan is a recent case in point.
“PAKISTAN?” you say? That’s exactly what I said when my old friend and colleague, bassist Pat O’Leary, first called me about going there. His wife Gabrielle Stravelli – a very fine singer — was putting a group together for a State Department-funded trip, and they wanted me to go. For a guy who dreams of playing in every country on Earth (I’ve made it to about 60… long ways to go!), this was certainly enticing… but also somewhat concerning. What about safety and security? What were the risks?
My wife didn’t want me to go… and I don’t blame her a bit. But I gave it a lot of thought. Yes, I felt nervous about being in potential targets like big Western-style hotels (think Mumbai) and consulates (Benghazi). But, on reflection, I realized that I feel just as much a target every time I enter the Lincoln Tunnel right here at home. And there had just recently been a terror attack in Times Square. Maybe I was more at risk right here in New York.
And there’s something else: I feel a sense of duty when it comes to this music. She needs to be shared… to be taken out into the world. Not just to the comfortable, well-known destinations, but sometimes off the worn path, to places where she may risk being greeted with blank incomprehension… or even hostility. This is part of what we do. It’s a part of the job description for anyone wanting to continue what Louis Armstrong started. Sometimes you have to follow the music where she leads. It’s a bit like walking the dog – and then realizing at a certain point that the dog is really walking you.
I decided to go. My brother was stunned: “You’re going to go play jazz, in Pakistan… with a woman?!” I was reminded of my own reaction when my friend Bob Belden told me he was going to Tehran to play some jazz concerts. “C’mon, really? Iran? You’re joking.” Nonetheless, he later told me he had an incredible experience and was very well-received, and sent me an amazing photo of his Iranian audience cheering and waving.
My own trip was equally eye-opening. We travelled with armed guards, and every venue — including schools, hotels, and TV stations, as well as diplomatic facilities — was likewise under armed protection. Our performances were all by invitation only, with no advertising or advance exposure on social media, in order not to attract the wrong kind of attention. But never once did I feel any hint of hostility, whether under those controlled conditions or just out in the street. In fact, warmth and friendliness were easy to find. Visiting the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore one day, we were shyly approached by a group of schoolgirls in traditional Muslim garb who wanted their photos taken with us (we were the exotic ones), and before long we were all smiling, laughing, and taking “selfies” together. As we said our goodbyes, their teacher came up to us with incredible graciousness and sincerity. “You have no idea how much that meant to our girls,” he said. “They will not forget your kindness.”
Our first performance took place in a little arts café in Islamabad, run by two very industrious and dedicated individuals who are devoted to the idea of bringing such small venues back to the Pakistani landscape where, I was told, they once proliferated. Known as the Foundation for Arts, Culture and Education, or FACE (the word “music” being omitted due to the belief in certain quarters that music is forbidden by Islamic Law), this little venue serves as an art gallery, café, performance space and educational center all in one. It quickly filled with a small but enthusiastic and diverse audience, eager to hear – yes — music. We played a short set first, after which we were treated to an amazing duo performance by two Pakistani virtuosos of the sitar and tablas. Then, the two groups joined together and gave an impromptu collaborative performance, the kind of thing that could only have taken place among improvising musicians (the Pakistanis are very fluent improvisers). This was a revelation, hearing these two disparate cultures meet in the realm of sound and creativity, the two musics intertwining like living things. The people loved it.
Later, socializing up on the rooftop lounge, I met a Pakistani gentleman who described himself as a documentary filmmaker, and I was struck by the depth of his gratitude and sincerity. “I want to thank you,” he said earnestly, “for bringing your music here, to this harsh environment.” I asked him what he meant by “harsh environment.” “We always loved music in Pakistan,” he told me, “it is in our blood. But now, it is very difficult for music here. Many feel that it is forbidden. This is very sad; we need music here. It is an important part of our culture and history.” I asked him what he thought was the solution to this state of affairs, and was rather stunned by his response. He thought for a moment, then looked me in the eye and said, “We must fight against religion.”
I know this answer will not sit well with some. But I found it remarkable to hear such candor on the rooftop of a tiny arts café in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (that is the country’s full name) — and ironically coming from a man whose appearance, to be perfectly frank, would probably be unfairly associated with the words “Islamic extremist” in the minds of many Americans. It caused me to wonder what sort of risks some of these people might be taking, both to present and to partake of this music here in this “harsh environment”… perhaps greater than any perceived risks I may have taken to bring it here. In fact, there is a long history of people taking extraordinary risks to embrace American jazz, in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and elsewhere. On my first trip to Japan I was standing outside a noodle shop in Nagoya with alto great Jerry Dodgion. The proprietor recognized Jerry and ran outside to beckon us in, enthusing about having once seen Jerry with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. “I love jazz, I love American jazz musicians,” he gushed while plying us with food and drink. Then, “I have something to show you,” and off he scurried… returning moments later with a tabletop wind-up Victrola and a small stack of 78s! To my astonishment, a few cranks later the sound of Louis Armstrong was filling the room. “My father kept these records hidden during World War II,” he told us proudly. “If you were caught with American music, you could go to prison… or worse.”
This was the moment that I began to comprehend the power that this music can actually have. Here I was, thousands of miles from home, hearing this glorious sound come out of a fragile disk spinning at our table, and thinking, this is who won the war. The generals, the battleships, the emperor are all long gone, but Louis Armstrong and his music came through it all unscathed. The guns and bombs long ago fell silent, but this music still speaks. It lives on… not just in New York, not just in America… but here in this little shop in Japan, where someone cherished and preserved it, and took considerable risks to pass it on to his son. That is real power: the power to move minds and hearts in troubled times, to serve as a kind of antidote to the ills and evils of the world… and ultimately to outlast them.
The timing of our trip to Pakistan proved to be fortuitous in just this regard. The very day we arrived, our American president delivered a speech containing some remarks about Pakistan which touched off quite a bit of ill will, and were considered by many Pakistanis to be threatening. The backlash could be seen daily in the Pakistani newspaper editorials. Anti-American street demonstrations sprang up and persisted for days, resulting in cancellations of several of our events due to security concerns and an overabundance of caution. And yet, whenever we performed, we were met with warmth and gratitude. There was the young woman in a head scarf, eager to tell me how excited she was to be hearing American jazz for the very first time… the astonished young man staring at my instrument, asking me what it was – having never seen a saxophone before (he was not alone!)… the star leader of the “Qawwali” band we collaborated with who, after a very long rehearsal with Gabrielle, told her it was the first time he’d ever sung with a woman… the music teacher and instrument collector who spent seven hours with me the day we met (taking me to his school, his home, out to eat — even buying me a set of Pakistani clothes!), and who wrote the next day after being up half the night listening to my music, “You’re a great musician and I am your student and fan… I love your music from the core.”
This is why we’re here, I thought: to offer up our music and let it serve as an antidote, and to let its presence, and ours, bring commonality and goodwill. And not only our music, but the Pakistani songs we learned and performed as well. We touched a small number of people, I know… but they will carry the experience away with them. They will tell their families, their friends, that all Americans do not despise them. And they will remember.
Perhaps the most enthusiastic reaction I received came during a workshop we gave in the sweltering, smelly basement of a cultural center in Karachi, when I was asked to introduce my instrument to the crowd. “This is my saxophone,” I told them. “We’ve been together a very long time, more than forty years. She is much more socially adept than I am, much better at making friends. Smarter, too! And she likes to travel. So by staying close to her, I have been able to meet many wonderful people all over the world. And now I am very happy because, today, she has brought me here to meet all of you.” The place erupted. Music wins again.
I intend to continue to follow this music for as long as she will put up with me. I seem to show my age, but my 100-plus-year-old escort does not. Ageless, she has survived countless calamities, injustices, and upheavals, and will doubtless outlast many more… yet her voice is as clear and sweet as ever. As she trots around the world and makes herself perfectly at home, I am grateful to still be allowed to tag along. I hope we’ll run into you somewhere.
About the Author:
Scott Robinson and his unusual reed and brass instruments have been heard in some 60 nations and on 260 recordings with a cross-section of jazz greats representing nearly every imaginable style of the music, including Bob Brookmeyer, Tom Harrell, Frank Wess, Maria Schneider, Anthony Braxton, Joe Lovano, Ron Carter, Ella Fitzgerald, Ruby Braff and Roscoe Mitchell. Primarily a tenor saxophonist, Scott once placed directly below the great Sonny Rollins in the DownBeat Readers Poll. As a composer, his works range from solo performance pieces to chamber and symphonic works. He has been a writer of essays and liner notes, an invited speaker before the Congressional Black Caucus, and a Jazz Ambassador for the U.S. State Department. Scott releases highly adventurous music on his ScienSonic Laboratories label, and his Doctette (celebrating pulp adventure hero Doc Savage) gave what The Boston Globe called “the most quirky and delightful set” of the 2015 Newport Jazz Festival. See www.sciensonic.net.
This was a difficult writing assignment for me. As I tried to decide what to write, I kept thinking about the wealth of resources that aspiring jazz arrangers have at their disposal, including the brilliant pedagogical methods books from people like Ray Wright, Don Sebesky, Bill Dobbins, David Berger, etc. And, as the ISJAC Blog has made readily apparent, there is also a wealth of knowledge possessed by a new generation of jazz composers like Darcy James Argue and Adam Benjamin who are eager to share their knowledge in eloquent and insightful ways. So I asked myself, what do I bring to the world of composition and arranging that perhaps others may not? Although I’ve had many wonderful teachers over the years and have read many insightful books on the subject, the lessons I most frequently refer to in my own compositional and arranging pursuits come from the enormous amount of time I’ve spent playing trombone in a big band, large ensemble, or even in small groups. This brings up an important yet slightly off-topic discussion on why performance experience is even more valuable than most people recognize in the training of educators. But, we’ll have to save that discussion for another time. For now, I’ll focus on lessons learned that may or may not be included in your typical jazz arranging textbook, or concepts that, when experienced playing in an ensemble, might present themselves differently thus allowing for an alternative point of view.
1. Your Music Should be Fun to Play!! (Learned from every great composer and arranger whose music I’ve had the pleasure to play, including Duke, Sy Oliver, Mingus, JJ, Oliver Nelson, Gil Evans, David Berger, Maria Schneider, Pedro Giraudo, Darcy James Argue, Miguel Zenon, Sufjan Stevens, et al.)
This seems like such an easy thing to do and, really, if it’s foremost on your mind throughout the creative process, it can be! However, with so much to think about and to consider while composing and arranging, I find that this lesson, (which in my mind is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING when it comes to creating quality music), is oftentimes the first to get overlooked. It’s important to define what I mean by “fun”. I DON’T mean the music has to be tongue-in-cheek or sound like cartoon soundtracks. Sometimes, by just simply providing eight measures of solo improvisation you can make your music fun and satisfying to one of your performers. Fun music means music that is rewarding to play. And, when writing for a highly trained jazz musician, this means music that challenges yet still allows for a performance of swinging, grooving, beautiful music that sounds easy and natural. I’ve played plenty of music that is extremely challenging yet, even when you and your bandmates nail it, the music that results still doesn’t feel good, and probably doesn’t sound all that good either. This brings up an interesting challenge because the ideal solution I’m suggesting is not to simplify what you’ve written or eliminate the more challenging passages. Instead, this challenge is best addressed by singing or, even better, playing through the passage in question while listening for those moments of uncertainty. Once you’ve identified the problem spot it’s usually pretty easy to find a more natural alternative, and that allows for the preservation of the larger musical idea. Other ways I’ve found to make music more “fun” is to incorporate improvisation in non-soloistic ways (see #3 below); write for each instrument using prototypical techniques and phrases; avoid extended periods of rest for the same person; write music with rhythmic nuance (see #2 below); or write music to be performed at a Halloween party for pet owners and their pets (that is my horrible attempt at a joke and also an actual gig I played once…!)
2. Rhythm is Everything (Also learned from every master jazz composer and arranger.)
Whether its swing, straight 8ths, 80’s pop ballads, or Venezuelan 5/8 merengues, this lesson still holds true. Rhythm should always be first and foremost on your mind. And what about rhythm should one think about? That’s easy. One simple question can be your guide throughout the creative process: Does the rhythm FEEL good? It’s important to note that this question and process relies on the composer possessing a certain baseline level of fluency in the musical language and genre within they’re working. Assuming this is the case, the ability to FEEL a rhythm’s personality is of the utmost importance when performing and composing good music. A few specific compositional techniques that I have found to help in creating a rhythm of quality that feels good are a balance of syncopated and downbeat-oriented rhythms; rhythms that contain unexpected moments of movement or elements of surprise; rhythms that contain patterns, both simple and complex; and rhythms that reflect the rhythmic language of the genre.
Something else I often think about is striving for rhythms that sound like they were improvised or rhythms that have a unique personality. Imagine the way Louis Armstrong or John Coltrane would play the melody of a jazz standard. Almost every phrase will have personalized changes – primarily rhythmic variations – making the final product sound a whole lot different from the way it’s notated in a Real Book. (Oh, Real Books. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them!)
3. Strive for Balance Between the Composed and Improvised (Learned from David Berger)
My definition of a jazz composer is someone who writes music that balances the pre-composed with improvisation in their music. This is something very much on my mind these days given that the more improvisation one organically incorporates into their arrangement the more fun the musicians will have playing it (full circle back to Lesson #1 above!). Here’s something I wrote in 2015 that demonstrates how improvisation can be incorporated into a jazz arrangement in unorthodox and creative ways. I’ll let you figure out how much of this is improvised, but as a hint, I’ll tell you that with the exception of the intro from 0:00 to 1:35 most of what the band plays is improvised (and even this section we now improvise during live gigs). Yet, you’ll notice that there is very little “solo improvisation.”
“I Thought I Knew” – music by Ryan Keberle, lyrics by Mantsa Miro
And now, here is the trumpet part to give you an idea of what was pre-composed and what the brilliant Mike Rodriguez added. (Which is always way more hip than anything I could have come up with!)
4. Transitions, Transitions, Transitions (Learned from Maria Schneider)
So much of what we’re taught in jazz education deals with details. How to properly notate a chord, the best scale to use over a certain chord (a chord that lasts for all of one measure!), how to feel a 4 over 3 polyrhythm, etc. As a result of this attention to detail, many jazz musicians are challenged when it comes to really hearing and appreciating those big picture aspects of music. One of those aspects is how a composer/arranger travels in real time from one unique musical moment to the next. A great example of the importance of transitions can be heard in Maria Schneider’s Hang Gliding, perhaps her best-known work. So much time is spent studying Maria’s orchestrational techniques, maybe because these are things that are more easily written and discussed. However, I can tell you first-hand that Maria’s primary focus when work-shopping a new piece are the transitions in her arrangement. And there are many different types of transitions – harmonic, rhythmic, metric, timbral, etc. Below, I’ve highlighted just a few of the magnificent transitional moments from Maria’s Hang Gliding.
“Hang Gliding” – Maria Schneider
Transitions occur at 1:05-1:12; 2:38-2:50; 3:36-3:42; 4:10-4:20; 5:48-5:52 and 6:48-7:03 (and that’s just the first half of the piece!). I hope students will spend some time studying how and why these moments are so important in addition to the other brilliant but more quantifiable aspects of Maria’s musical language.
Below is a piece I recently composed that came to me in one of those magical moments of clarity as an almost fully formed song. The entire piece was written in just one afternoon of improvisation at the piano. However, I found the arranging process to be quite difficult as I struggled with how to turn one chorus of a song into a fully formed arrangement for my band, Catharsis, to perform. It took finding the proper transitional material that allowed for this piece to finally come to life.
“Become the Water” – music by Ryan Keberle, lyrics by Mantsa Miro
5. It’s All About Counterpoint (Learned from Sufjan Stevens and Pedro Giraudo)
This can mean many different things since counterpoint exists in at least three different general forms: melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic. This lesson really made an impact on me, so much so that I formed a band called Catharsis to focus almost exclusively on counterpoint, or on the interaction between individual musicians all playing single-note instruments. While melodic counterpoint is the type most familiar to musicians (thanks to years of academic coursework!), I find that rhythmic counterpoint is equally important when it comes to composing or arranging in a jazz context. The beauty of counterpoint is that it inherently creates a sense of layered complexity which allows the composer to streamline each single idea thus making for music that is more natural and fun to play (see Lesson #1 above). In fact, with counterpoint, sometimes the simplest of ideas can provide enough interest.
Here’s a great example of the power of counterpoint even when using simple musical ideas over a simple chord progression.
“All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands” – Sufjan Stevens
And, here’s another great example of a more traditional Bachian contrapuntal approach in a Latin jazz setting from the brilliant musical mind of Pedro Giraudo.
6. Create Your Own Language (Learned from Gil Evans)
I think it goes without saying that every definitive composer AND performer, from all genres, possesses a unique voice. This is something for all aspiring composers and performers to be aware of, but it’s also something that can present a clear and present danger when one consciously tries to force the issue, typically leading to unnatural or dishonest music. I hear quite a bit of this nowadays with young musicians thinking they’ve created a unique sound by combining different influences, genres, instruments, etc… I think Mark Twain said it best: “There’s no such thing as a new idea.” But more importantly, quick fixes are rarely, if ever, meaningful and enduring. The most beautiful and astonishingly unique voices in jazz are those who find their language by drawing from the tradition without feeling the need to reinvent the wheel. In my opinion, there is absolutely no arranger with a more definitive voice than that of Gil Evans and yet there is very little he did that hadn’t been done before! Nevertheless, the way in which he takes the tradition and puts his own beautiful magical spin on it all still leaves me breathless. The level of detail; melodic, harmonic, AND rhythmic sophistication; and sheer musical beauty sets Gil’s arrangements apart from all others I’ve played. And as you might expect, the capacity for this music to inspire and impart wisdom seems almost infinite and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. After playing his music a great deal over the past 10 years, it seems to me that it is, in fact, those details that give Gil’s music so much color, so much beauty, integrity, and in the end, such a unique personality.
7. Focus on making your MUSIC good before arranging and orchestrating (from Miguel Zenon)
No matter how great your arranging and orchestration chops, the MUSIC has to stand on its own in order for the final product to delight and satisfy. This might sound obvious when you hear it but it’s such an easy thing to overlook when one begins with the details rather than with the big picture. Before jumping into things like orchestration, instrumentation, mutes, and countermelodies, be sure to remember to focus on how the music makes YOU feel. As the composer, you should feel a deep emotional connection to the music you’ve written. I learned this first-hand when the musical genius, Miguel Zenon, created a big band a few years ago. Miguel took music that he had composed for his quartet and then arranged those same tunes for big band. Starting with music that he had already perfected – both on paper and for performance – allowed for an easy adaptation to big band. He didn’t have to change much of anything when it came to arranging, and simply reorchestrated the music in efficient and smart ways. You can hear one of these songs, Same Flight, first in its original quartet form followed by his big band orchestration below.
Miguel Zenon Quartet, “Same Flight”
Miguel Zenon ‘Identities’ Big Band
8. All Good Music Tells a Story (Learned from Maria Schneider and so many others)
Music can be as simple as a brief moment of tension and release or as complex as a 20-minute Stravinsky masterpiece, but all good music does the same thing that a good poem, novel, movie, dance performance, play, or visual art piece does: It engages the audience in dramatic ways on an emotional level. When you think about common themes between genres or between artistic disciplines you start to notice similar techniques in how quality (versus non-quality) art tells its story. These include memorable beginnings and endings, subtle yet complex characters, thorough yet not over-indulgent character development, moments of surprise, moments of tension and moments of stability. This list could go on and on and I encourage those young aspiring composers and arrangers to focus on learning from other artistic disciplines, including dance, photography, written word, etc.
To exemplify both Lessons #7 and #8, I’ll finish with a music video that my band, Catharsis, recently released. This is our cover of the Bob Dylan protest song, The Times They Are A-Changin. The song has stood the test of time, primarily on it’s lyrical merit, but the melody is infectious and the harmony is simple yet poignant. It is this good music that allowed me, as the arranger, and Catharsis, as the performer, to get creative in our interpretation. It also tells a story not just on a lyrical level but also throughout the development of our arrangement, which mirrors the story that the video director, Claudia Bitran, tells in the moving image.
On a final note, please remember to support recorded and live music in any and all ways you can. There are live music venues, jazz clubs, and performing arts centers around the country, and world, which need support! Not everyone studying jazz in school is going to become a professional musician, and that’s even better because music education is beneficial no matter your path (a topic for another blog post), and creates educated ears and supportive audiences who can decipher between good and great art. And we need that support now more than ever. Streaming music is not a sustainable model for musicians, and by subscribing to Spotify or Apple Music (and YouTube is even worse) you are hastening the end of musicians’ ability to earn a living by creating music. I hesitated to even offer the above examples on YouTube, given that much of this music is available for purchase in recorded format – so after you get a free taste, go out and buy it! Musicians, artists, and creative individuals play a critical role in fighting the ignorance and greed being spewed from many of our government leaders, most especially from the current administration. The times really are a-changin and we need to do all we can to ensure they change for the better.
“The Times They Are A-Changin” – music by Bob Dylan, arranged by Ryan Keberle
About the Author:
Few musicians have managed to navigate the richly varied avenues of New York City’s abundant music scene with the same passion and adaptability as trombonist and composer Ryan Keberle. Since his arrival in 1999, Keberle’s diverse talents have earned him a place alongside a staggering array of legends, superstars, and up-and-coming innovators.
Leading his pianoless quartet Catharsis or arranging for the little big band setting of his Double Quartet, Keberle draws upon lessons learned playing alongside masters of a multitude of forms, from jazz legends to indie rock ground-breakers, R&B superstars to classical virtuosos. He has toured with the acclaimed indie rock songwriter Sufjan Stevens and with the ground-breaking big bands of Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue; he has accompanied soul hitmakers Alicia Keys and Justin Timberlake as well as jazz legends Rufus Reid and Wynton Marsalis; he’s been heard on movie soundtracks for filmmakers like Woody Allen and in the pit for the Tony-winning Broadway musical “In the Heights.” Keberle’s own music integrates those wide-ranging experiences into a highly personal jazz language that pays heed to tradition while searching out fresh and original pathways. Born and raised in Spokane, Washington, Keberle was surrounded by music from an early age.
Both of his parents were music educators, his father a jazz trumpeter and professor at Spokane’s Whitworth University, his mother a piano teacher and longtime church music director. Keberle started out by studying classical violin and piano before adopting the trombone as his primary instrument; classical music remains one of the many components of his arsenal, as he continues to perform with brass chamber ensembles. He also followed in his mother’s footsteps, serving as music director at a Manhattan Catholic church for several years.
Keberle moved east to study at the Manhattan School of Music, where he came under the tutelage of renowned trombonist Steve Turre, as well as composers Mike Abene and Manny Album. He was the sole member of his graduating class chosen to receive the William H. Borden Aware for musical excellence in jazz. In May 2003 Keberle became a member of Jazz at Juilliard’s first graduating class, having studied with Wycliffe Gordon and David Berger, whose big band he has worked with over the ensuing years.
In 2007 Keberle released the self-titled debut of his Double Quartet, a malleable, brass-heavy octet that showcased his deft composing and arranging skills, The band’s second disc, Heavy Dreaming, was released in 2010 and garnered rave reviews and slots on year-end lists from magazines like JazzTimes and Stereophile.
Early 2012 marked the debut of Keberle’s latest group, the pianoless quartet Catharsis, comprising some of the music’s most compelling young voices: Mike Rodriguez (trumpet), Jorge Roeder (bass), and Eric Daub (drums). Keberle’s writing for the band reveals his more melodic and emotional side on pieces driven by groove, the blues, and Latin jazz, with which all four members have extensive experience. Keberle has worked with the Pedro Giraudo jazz Orchestra and with Brazilian superstar Ivan Lins, and was named Latin jazz trombonist of the year by the Latin Jazz Corner website in 2008 and 2009.
Both his own compositions and his arrangements of works by other composers evidence Keberle’s expansive tastes, which encompass Duke Ellington, The Beatles, Sufjan Stevens, and Ravel, among countless others. His work in the indie rock world, including a world tour with Stevens, has provided the newest fork in what has been an unpredictable career. It has also afforded him the chance to return to the piano, as he has with the singer/songwriter Nedelle Torrisi of the band Cryptacize. But he has also performed with the Saturday Night Live House band and with “Family Guy’ creator Seth MacFarlane. His music has taken him to venues across the globe, throughout Asia, Australia, Europe, and North and South America.
The sum of these eclectic travels is the distinctive, original voice of Ryan Keberle, Whether performing in any one of these vastly different contexts or leading his own band, Keberle continues to evolve into one of the most intriguing and vital musicians of his generation.
Hello again! Since I wrote one of the first blog posts for ISJAC about a year ago, all sorts of people that are way smarter and more experienced than I am have told you all the real stuff about life and chords and concerti and stuff. So I’m going to steer clear of those areas so as to not embarrass myself. Let’s talk about Listening.
So, there’s this tendency that has is present throughout approximately 100% of human history. This tendency is that as Young people become Middle-Aged people, they tell the new Young people that they’re doing things wrong. This helps Middle-Aged people feel like they are Smart and helps them feel better about not being Young anymore. Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re wrong, but most of the time it’s worth considering what they are saying. Young people, use your own set of values and ethics to determine if they are right or wrong. If they’re wrong, be nice about it, they have enough to worry about already. Someday you, too, will be Middle-Aged person! So be kind.
This tendency is exaggerated in times of great change, like now. So we shouldn’t be surprised that, on the topic of Listening to Music, there is much Kvetching on the part of Middle-Aged people regarding the habits of Young people. I, myself, have Kvetched about this! But, I am one of those Middle-Aged people that still likes to imagine that somehow deep inside I am still Young, so I shall try to mitigate this tendency, and not get too preachy. Here is my attempt at an honest and impartial Listening Guide.
1) Do It
If you are not listening to music at all, that is bad. How much listening to music you should do is up to you. Everyone is different. I can’t listen as much as most people because when I listen to music I am emotionally, cognitively and spiritually overwhelmed approximately 100% of the time. It’s just how I am wired. But I still need to engage, even when it hurts.
2) Listen to Not Music
2a) Have you heard Glenn Gould’s “The Idea Of North”? There’s a part where he makes connections between Bach counterpoint and the multiple simultaneous conversations occurring in a diner. That blew my mind when I was 10, and I still love the idea. Right now I’m in a coffeeshop beside a river and there are people talking, and the whooshing and grinding of coffee machines, and footfalls, and keyboards clicking, and on the stereo, “Summertime” is being played quietly on a soprano sax (well actually, being played loudly but turned far down in the mix) over some generic world percussion sounds. Most of the individual elements are pretty awful actually, but the way all the different sounds in the room blend together is somehow pleasant. Listen to this!
2b) Think about the physical space you are in, the materials it’s constructed from, and how it changes the sound. Maybe there was an architect or acoustician who even did it on purpose! Really listen, actively listen. I find it useful to imagine a visual meter of the kind you see on mixing boards (back when those were a thing). Frequency is on the X-axis and Amplitude on the Y-axis. What frequencies are present, and missing, in your room / world right now? Which are loudest? How is it changing? If you really want to trip out, add a Z-axis for time and see if you can visualize the patterns (rhythms) in 3 dimensions. Whee!
2c) Also, listen to birds.
3) Feel It
Lost in many discussions about how we, as musicians and composers, should listen to music, is Feeling it. This makes sense because we have to Study music as well as Feel it. We have to take our beautiful lover and Dissect him on a clean and sterile surface, under a bright light. Yuck! But, not Yuck, because we find amazing things in there, and we learn so much, and we can put him back together afterwards. But all this Learning is useless if we become unable to Feel music. So in addition to all the Dissecting we must also be Immersing and Loving and Living. At some points in your life, this is so easy for you, that you don’t even realize it’s a thing. At other points, it must be gently or forcefully rekindled. How to get there is up to you. Listening to something you don’t Understand is a good method. Maybe listening to the things you loved when you were 16. Maybe listening on headphones on top of a mountain. Maybe you need to be totally alone for like 3 days. Be careful, but do what it takes. If you’re not Feeling, things get out of whack.
4) Don’t Mistake the Information for the Music
This is related to #3. As trained musicians, we can hear what Notes are being played and what Time Signature a song is in and whether the bass player has bad intonation in thumb position. This is fine but it is not Music. Think of everything that has been written about Coltrane, how much that music has been studied. Do we really know its secrets? To be clear, studying music is crucial for performers and composers, and musicology is a beautiful thing. But don’t forget that we are only studying the structural attributes of a force that we deeply, fundamentally, do not understand. This is not a science. Don’t forget this. Our brains are so well-trained to decipher all the different levels of Information, that sometimes we must turn our attention away from the Information, and towards the Music.
5) Listening is Consumption
Remember that if you consume a recording without remunerating the creator(s) of the recording, you are saying that either (1) you will pay them later, (2) someone else will pay them, (3) they have enough money to keep making recordings, or (4) you don’t care if they can keep making recordings. I’m not going to lie — I sometimes use YouTube, and Spotify, and Apple Music, and Tidal, even if I know it’s bad for artists. I think the accessibility of music on the Internet is too wonderful to resist, and is an incredible tool, especially for students and others who simply cannot afford to remunerate the creators. But please, keep in mind that counting on people creating great content for you to consume without you paying them is a bad idea. Maybe we will move towards a patronage system, or greater institutional support, or better deals with the corporate gatekeepers, but none of that is in place now. Please don’t create a future in which only rich kids can make albums.
6) I Am A Middle-Aged Person
6a) From approximately 1951 to approximately 2006, the standard format of a piece of recorded musical art was an “LP”, which usually lasts somewhere between 35 and 72 minutes and is usually divided into somewhere between 4 and 20 parts, or “songs”. There is nothing objective about this format, and it was the direct result of the technological innovations and constraints of its time. But it was the format in which these pieces of recorded musical art were conceived, like chapters of a book, photographs in an exhibition, or movements of a symphony. Playlists are great and singles are great and shuffle is great and remixes are great and outtakes are great. But, please, spend at least some of your listening time experiencing these works in the format in which their creators conceived of them.
6b) Maybe you think you can’t tell the difference between 256k mp3s and 512k MP3s and AIFFs and WAVs and CDs and OGGs and FLACs, but you can! You totally can. Please consult #4. Just because no Information is missing, or the missing Information is deemed to be insignificant by Technology Corporation, does not mean that you don’t Feel the difference. Maybe the part of “A Case of You” that makes you cry is located at 28.5khz and when that gets flattened you don’t cry the same way. Every device sounds different, every format sounds different. Also, the way we experience music depends on our relationship with the device that plays it for us. Do you really want the thing that sends you annoying work emails and depressing eHarmony results also being your source of spiritual sustenance?
6c) Liner notes are so important. They made every album an interdisciplinary work. Don’t trade that in for an indistinct thumbnail image.
6d) Hey! You’re doing too much stuff all the time, too much stuff at once. You’re training your brain to not be at peace, to not be able to focus on something and fully engage it. Think about how often we “check” something — check the news, check our email, check our texts. You don’t need to “check” stuff so much, everything is going to be fine. The part of your brain that was designed to tell you if a bear is going to eat you is being hijacked by Technology Corporation and retrained to obsessively check your Instagram comments. Dude — Technology Corporation is making Hell Of Money! And now you can’t concentrate long enough to read a book. Use your music-listening time as an opportunity to focus 100% on one thing.
I’ve noticed that for every little teensy bit I learn about Art, and Film, and Art Theory, and Philosophy, and Literary Theory, and History, and Linguistics, and Mathematics, my ability to understand, enjoy, and access various musics expands tenfold. Don’t shut out the rest of the world, it makes music richer and funner and more beautiful.
8) I Could Go On
There’s so much more to say. I’ve omitted basically everything. I was gonna talk about Paul Motian and Aphex Twin and trees. But I have to walk my dog, and a storm is rolling in. Just remember, the whole point of Art is that is makes people Feel things. That’s approximately 50% job of creator and 50% job of listener. So! Put all the time and love and focus and joy that you put into making music into listening to it, and we should be good. And, stop checking your phone — the bear is not going to eat you.
About the Author:
Adam Benjamin is a Grammy-nominated and critically acclaimed pianist, keyboardist, composer and educator. He is a founding member of the band Kneebody and is the director of the Program for Jazz and Improvised Music at the University of Nevada, Reno. Recognized as a “Rising Star in Jazz” in Downbeat magazine’s critic’s and reader’s polls for seven years running, his unmistakable sound crosses stylistic boundaries and challenges traditional notions of jazz. Adam maintains a humble and humorous approach that connects him with his audiences worldwide.
You can stay up to date with Kneebody at kneebody.com.
My first experiences as a composer/arranger probably began when I was somewhere in the vicinity of 8 years old. I would sit at a piano for countless hours on end, experimenting with combinations of notes, chords, sounds, rhythms, and things resembling songs I might have heard on the radio, television, or an LP. Through trial and error I would stumble onto a chord progression and perhaps a corresponding melody that fit with that chord progression, playing it for a long time in wonderment. These early explorations were quite naive and not particularly well informed. Yet that spark of interest and drive to find nice combinations of notes was the catalyst that has pushed me to listen/learn/compose with great enthusiasm to this very day.
Our influences as composers/arrangers are, to my way of thinking, environmental. The music we grew up listening to, the bands we played in, the tunes that coincide with profound life experiences all help to shape our individual sound in our writing. This is somewhat like a recipe we’ve made many times, ever evolving as we alter the ingredients a little at a time.
I’ve always spent a good deal of time trying to recreate music that moves me on the piano, sometimes on the guitar, and ultimately on the saxophone. I would try for emulating as much detail as possible. Being that I was very curious as to how the “whole picture” worked, I would inevitably pay careful attention to what each individual instrument was doing; piano voicings, piano comping, bass lines, drum patterns, and some understanding of how the whole band fit their individual parts together. To me it seemed like an incredible puzzle that beckoned one to take apart and re-assemble.
Playing through the great american songbook on the piano was another integral part of developing a compositional vocabulary for me. This inevitably led to expanding upon traditional versions of these great tunes through expansion of form, some reharmonization, and integrating various rhythmical side trips within the form. Becoming comfortable with playing tunes on the piano ultimately led to an ability to conceptualize the instrument without actually having to physically access the piano during the writing process.
My first large ensemble writing experience happened on the Buddy Rich band. I had the incredible opportunity to write my first 6 big band pieces for this great band, to record them and play them every night. On Buddy’s band I had the good and bad aspects in each pieces staring me in the face on a nightly basis, and was able to adjust my approach with each subsequent venture. What a crazy great situation! I hadn’t had the time to study arranging up to that point, being that arranging for big band was not yet on my radar. Little did I know which way the road would turn.
In hindsight I realize that if an aspiring arranger spent time playing piano, learning the jazz language, going on from there to explore various voicings, combinations of notes, rhythm possibilities, and melodic development, and then sat in a big band for an extended period of time, they would have much of the machinery in place to fashion a decent big band arrangement. Without knowing it, I constructed a piece that had development, variety, and shape, qualities that I had been exposed to via playing the great arrangements in the Buddy Rich book. Being confronted with the opportunity to write that first big band piece forced me to consider the various musical qualities associated with any compelling piece of music: a story line, form, motion, variety, and texture. While my orchestrational abilities were in the beginning stages, I never the less could access the sound of the big band that was in my head, melding
this sound with ideas that I had found on the piano earlier. Also inherent in this initial experience was the thinking of what Buddy would like to hear, and how I might create an environment in which I would enjoy playing with him. These first few big band attempts were just that: attempts. But they definitely framed what lied ahead in terms of developing a sound and process.
I went on to write some for Mel Lewis, the Sam Jones Tom Harrell small big band, did some orchestrating for television (not really for me) and in 1983 put my first big band together. Hard to believe that in the last 34 years we’ve recorded 20 big band projects. Between these projects and various european radio band experiences, I’ve written close to 500 arrangements. I still feel like there is plenty to learn and plenty of avenues to explore. What all this writing has afforded me is a certain level of fluidity and confidence.
One of the most critical components of fashioning a big band or other large ensemble arrangement is having a set of parameters already in place. I generally think about who I am writing for, what kind of groove may be appropriate, what key best fits the intent of the piece, and sometimes a particular scenario that the music might underscore. Also to be considered is what kind of form may be utilized. What then follows is a sketch of the piece where I establish much of the above mentioned. I usually start with framing the form by inputting primary themes and perhaps some harmonic information. If various orchestrational devices occur to me I may write a description in words of what that orchestration might look like, and keep moving. (unison trumpets-tutti saxophones) If I can sketch out most of the piece it gives me a good head start on the writing. Often times I will program a drum loop in Sibelius and then add a bass part and then piano/guitar parts. This creates a nice bed to set horn parts on top of. With each subsequent pass through the piece, I add a little more detail, usually leaving the major voicings and detailed orchestrational devices for last.
Since I am generally writing for a recording project or some sort of production that involves 8-12 tunes I wind up working simultaneously on all the pieces. It makes things go more smoothly when I toggle between pieces, and things are less likely to stall in this scenario. The mantra is “keep moving”. The other plus with working on multiple pieces simultaneously is that you get a sense of how the full program of tunes will work together.
Frequently I have heard a piece of music that inspires me, and manages to spark a sound in my head that borrows from the groove or some aspect of the harmony or melody of the piece. If you take one of the three as a foundation (rhythm, harmony, melody) and then build on top of that, more ofter than not you wind up with something that sounds nothing like the original inspiration. I think the primary effect in these cases is that the excitement of hearing a moving piece of music gets the creative juices flowing, and makes you want to write something.
A great way to get a new piece started (on top of listening to all kinds of music) is to sit quietly and imagine what the piece you are going to write sounds like. You might hear general shapes of sound that translate nicely into a sketch, one that can be developed later in terms of detail. I frequently hear a sound, a rhythm or bass line or melody when I am walking. Something about that form of rhythmical bodily movement inspires musical ideas to emerge. If the initial idea comes from something other than you playing an instrument, as in your imagination, you are far more free to hear something well beyond what you might play.
Another approach for me is to improvise freely on either piano or saxophone, and wait for something compelling to emerge. Once I detect something of interest, I play the idea repeatedly, elaborating on the initial idea a little at a time. Once it seems like a fairly complete sentence I move on the perhaps a complimentary section with a new melody or progression. Little by little a composition emerges. Some of the better compositions come quickly and are not terribly complicated. Simple is allowed! With simplicity there winds up being room for complexity used in a strategic manor to create tension/release and a general sense of variety.
Aside from grabbing ideas from pre existing pieces of music, there is a lot you can do in terms of moving things around at the piano. Take a 1-4-5 three note voicing and move it around in a variety of ways, whole steps or minor thirds apart, for example. Try different bass notes against this voicing. Have the top note of the voicing form a melodic shape while simultaneously having the bass line create a melodic shape of it’s own. Utilize contrary motion between bass line and chord voicing. Take a 1-4-5 voicing and move it diatonically through a variety of scale qualities (1/2-w diminished, altered dominant for example). There are an infinite number of devices of this kind that can spin off into a potential composition. And seemingly if you start to operate this way the ideas manage to come more quickly, where one shape leads to an offshoot of that shape, and onward from there. Patterns are a great device for planting a seed for a new composition.
There is far more to discuss as far as process. Being a self taught arranger much of my process involves “making it up as you go”. There is definitely an improvisatory thing at play when writing and arranging, where one idea leads you to the next. I generally have no shortage of ideas. Being fairly active in the music scene usually primes the pump as far as generating ideas go. Once the idea emerges, then the real hard work begins. Fashioning a well constructed, compelling piece of music involves much editing, re arranging, and refining. This part of the process never seems to end. I can always find ways to improve, or at least update anything I have written. Small tweaking of articulation, voicings, and melodic lines are all part of the journey to arriving at a good piece of music. That journey is why I get up in the morning.
The final piece of the puzzle of composition/arranging is getting you music performed, hopefully by a group of great musicians of your choosing. This is the wild card that inevitably takes the music to places you never thought existed. Hence it is critical to leave lots of room for the personal input of each player, where every member of the ensemble contributes to the musical conversation in their own particular way. This is the basic premise of jazz music. As a composer/arranger it is my roll to stay out of the way of the conversation by way of leaving room in the writing for interplay and conversation.
So much more to learn, so much more to write. So many gems in the classical repertoire to draw upon. Many interesting rhythms and textures in indigenous music from all corners of the globe. Keep searching, keep putting the puzzle together. Stay current as far as what young players/writers are up to. Write yourself into the picture as a player, an instigator, an orator. Keep moving!
Mintzer Big Band examples
Get Up! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5UwWXVH0Lg
These three tunes from the MCG Jazz cd “Get Up”
Please visit bobmintzer.com for more examples.
About the Author:
Bob Mintzer, born January 27, 1953 and a native of New Rochelle, New York is what’s known as a triple threat musician. He is equally active in the areas of performance, composing/arranging, and music education. While touring with the Yellowjackets or his own quartet, or big band, Bob is busy writing music for big band, various small bands, saxophone quartets, orchestral and concert band music.
Bob is also on the faculty of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles along with long-time cohorts Peter Erskine, Alan Pasqua, Vince Mendoza, and fellow Yellowjacket Russell Ferrante. where he teaches jazz composition,, saxophone, directs the Thornton Jazz Orchestra, and conducts a jazz workshop class for incoming freshmen and sophomore jazz students. He also does workshops all over the globe, writes books on a variety of musical subjects, plays on countless recordings every year, and is summoned to be guest conductor and soloist with large and small bands all over the world.
Bob has played/recorded with a wide variety of artists ranging from Tito Puente, Buddy Rich, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, James Taylor, The New York Philharmonic,National Symphony, American Saxophone Quartet, Art Blakey, Donald Fagan, Bobby McFerrin, Nancy Wilson, Kurt Elling, to Jaco Pastorius, Mike Manieri, and Randy Brecker.
“Music chose me at a very early age” says Bob. “I was completely taken by the 12 tones, whether hearing music played on the radio, television, recordings, or live concerts around the New York City area. I was not only struck by the emotional outpouring of great musical performance, but also found myself completely consumed with how the music fit together in all its glorious detail. I could spend hours sitting at a piano, trying to replicate the songs I would hear others play.
“Jazzmobile, an organization that sponsored jazz performances around the greater New York metropolitan area, sent a quintet consisting of Dr. Billy Taylor, Grady Tate, Ron Carter, Harold Land, and Blue Mitchell to the New Rochelle High School in 1967. I was a sophomore at the time. I think it was then and there that I decided that music would be my calling. Later that year I was taken to the Village Gate to hear the double bill of the Miles Davis quintet and the Thelonious Monk Quartet. From that point on I went to as many live performances as I could on the budget of a 16-18 year old. During my formative years I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to hear Sonny Rollins, Miles, Monk, Sonny Stitt, Dexter Gordon, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and many of the jazz greats play around New York.
“In 1969 my folks had the foresight to encourage me to audition for the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. I received a scholarship to attend this great school for my senior year of high school. My classmates were Peter Erskine, Danny Brubeck, Elaine Duvas (principal oboist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra), and Tom Hulce (who played Mozart in the film Amadeus). This year provided the inspiration and information that was to establish my practice and training regimen for years to come. I was studying classical clarinet, playing guitar and piano, learning how to play the saxophone and flute,learning songs and writing tunes for the little combos we would put together.”
In 1970 Bob attended the Hartt College of Music in Hartford Connecticut on a classical clarinet scholarship. Jackie McLean had just started a jazz program at Hart, and Bob spent time with Jackie while working on a multitude of skills.
“I was very interested in all kinds of music and was attempting to learn how to play flutes, clarinets, saxophones, piano, work on composition, and get my school work done, Bob explains. “I played clarinet in the orchestra and various chamber music groups. I also played early music in a small group for a while. There were some crazy rhythms in much of early music that paralleled what jazz improvisers were doing as far as playing over the bar line. It was all fantastic! After school I would listen to jazz recordings and go and sit in with local jazz musicians. There was a pretty vibrant scene at that time around Hartford, where one core group of musicians were working 6 nights a week in different joints.”
Jackie eventually pushed Bob to consider moving down to New York City and jump into the jazz community down there. He took the suggestion and transferred to Manhattan School of Music in 1973. At that time there was a lot of playing going on in the lofts, which were commercial spaces newly converted to living quarters, and very affordable.
Bob’s contemporaries during the period were Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman, Steve Grossman, Richie Bierach, John Abercrombie, and countless other musicians. “The musicians I encountered in NYC in the early 70’s were all about the music,” Bob remembers. “Rents were affordable, and guys would get together in the lofts to play and compare ideas. Everyone’s aspiration was to land a gig with a working jazz group. In the interim I paid the rent doing whatever would come along, from subbing in broadway shows, to doing odd recording sessions or club dates.
In 1974 Bob was recommended to Eumir Deodato by a Manhattan School of Music classmate. Bob toured with Deodato for one year, playing large venues all over the world. “Eumir had a hit record with his rendition of the Strauss Zarathustra melody. He was a teriffic arranger! Check out the arrangements he did for Sinatra and Jobim on their duo recording in the 60’s. I met several musicians on that band that took the time to show me things about all kinds of music. Rubens Bassini, former percussionist with Brazil 66 took me under his wing and showed me many things about the rhythms of Brazil.”
During that same year Bob started playing with the Tito Puente Orchestra. This was a steady gig around the New York area. This music had a lasting impact on Bob’s writing and playing for years to come. He later played with Eddie Palmieri and Mongo Santamaria.
In 1975 Bob joined the Buddy Rich Big Band and spent two and a half years playing every night with Buddy, except for a week off at Christmas time. “On Buddy’s band,” Bob explains, “we played in every small town in the U.S. as well as in other countries. I was so thrilled to be playing every night and seeing new places all the time. We would go out after the concerts and find a place to sit in with a local band. If there was no jazz club we would play with whatever band there was. I remember playing with a cowboy band in El PasoTexas one night. I also learned how to write big band arrangements on Buddy’s band. He was very gracious about letting me write for his band.”
While on Buddy’s band Bob also wrote music for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and did a brief stint with the band at the Village Gate in NYC. He also did a tour with Hubert Laws playing a utility reed chair.
Bob left Buddy in 1977 and settled down in New York to work on his writing and playing. He played with Joe Chambers, Ray Mantilla, Tom Harrell, Teramasa Hino, Sam Jones, and began to do some freelance work in the studios, with symphony orchestras, and in Broadway pit orchestras. In 1978 he joined the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band. He also became a member of the band Stone Alliance (Don Alias, Kenny Kirkland, Gene Perla) that year.
In 1981 Bob joined Jaco Pastorius’ Word of Mouth Band with Michael Brecker, Peter Erskine, Don Alias, and Othello Molineaux. He played tenor sax and bass clarinet in that band as well as doing some arranging for the large ensemble version. Three recordings and a video document this music and show Bob to have quite a unique voice on the bass clarinetist. Around this time Bob was also playing with Mike Manieri and Randy Brecker. He also did his first two solo recordings for the Pony Canyon Label in Japan. (Hornmanand The Source)
In 1983 Bob put a big band together to play at the club owned by Mike and Randy Brecker called Seventh Avenue South. In NYC. It was a one-off project initially to showcase the various musicians that had been playing in the club with their own bands. Dave Sanborn, Mike and Randy Brecker, Don Grolnick, Peter Erskine, Lew Soloff, Will Lee, Barry Rogers were all on board. The band became an instant success and did a recording for CBS Sony in Japan called Papa Lips.
Around that same time Tom Jung started an audiophile jazz label called DMP Records. After hearing the band play at Seventh Avenue South. Bob and Tom Jung embarked on a recording relationship that lasted for 22 years and produced 13 cd’s with 3 Grammy Nominations(One Music, Departure,Only in New York) and a Grammy win for the Homage to Count Basie CD.
For the rest of the 80’s Bob worked with his big band; playing the Berlin Jazz Festival, playing the Village Vanguard in place of Mel Lewis’ big band when the band was on the road. Kendor Music (the publisher that published the Thad Jones and Gil Evans series) stared the Bob Mintzer series. School and pro bands around the world started playing his music, which had a fresh signature sound and blended the jazz tradition with a variety of other influences. Bob also joined the faculty of the jazz department at Manhattan School of Music, where he resided for the next 25 years.
During the later part of the eighties Bob was doing a fair amount of studio work, playing recordings by Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Queen, James Taylor, and Steve Winwood. He also became a member of the American Saxophone Quartet and performed regularly with the New York Philharmonic, American Ballet Theatre, and American Composers Orchestra. As a composer/arranger Bob wrote for the St Lukes Orchestra, ABC, NBC and the academy Awards show.
Bob recorded several small bad projects in the later 80’s-early 90’s including 2 CDs for Owl records in France (N.Y Jazz Quartet, Longing) , two CDs for BMG (I Remember Jaco and Twin Tenors w/ Michael Brecker) , and a cd for the TVT label (Quality Time). His quartet CD, One Music for the DMP label was nominated for a Grammy.
1990 was a pivotal year for Bob He was asked to record with the Yellowjackets on the GRP CD Greenhouse, which was the start of a twenty plus year stint with one of the premier bands in jazz music. The band has received 13 Grammy nominations, has been voted best contemporary jazz group almost every year in the jazz magazine readers polls, and continues to play major jazz venues all over the world.
Yellowjackets is a leaderless band where each member is called upon to write, arrange, play, and make decisions as an equal partner. The band has consistently demonstrated that four people from diverse backgrounds can work together and create an art form where the whole is far greater than the separate parts.
In 2005 Bob began a relationship with the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild (MCG Jazz)resulting in the recording of 3 big band recordings: Live at MCG, Old School New Lessons, and Swing Out. Kurt Elling sings on all three of these cd’s. Bob also recorded a quartet CD, In the Moment for Art of Life Records with Phil Markowitz, Jay Anderson, and John Riley.
In 2008 Bob and his family moved to Los Angeles, where Bob joined the faculty of the University of Southern California. He put together a big band in Los Angeles and plays regularly at Vibrato Grill in Bel Air. Bob maintains a busy touring schedule, playing with the Yellowjackets, his quartet, big band, and as a guest conductor/ soloist with college and pro bands.
Bob’s latest small band recording is called Canyon Cove, and is a swingin organ cd with Larry Goldings and Peter Erskine.
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.
As we all know, learning to compose, arrange and orchestrate is an ongoing, lifelong pursuit. For this month’s blog entry I thought I’d share some personal recollections of the ways that I acquired skills and attempted to improve my writing over the years. This is a personal account, a sort of memoir, not an offering any sort of formula or even ideal way to progress. Everyone learns in his or her own way. That said, I hope these reflections may be of interest or of use to some.
1. Listening: Recordings, Concerts and Performing
I’ll start with an observation. Some astonishing music was recorded in 1959. I was eleven years old:
- Kind of Blue (Miles Davis)
- Giant Steps (John Coltrane)
- Mingus Ah Um (Charles Mingus)
- The Shape of Jazz to Come (Ornette Coleman)
- Time Out (Dave Brubeck)
- Sketches of Spain (Miles Davis and Gil Evans – released in 1960)
- Blowin’ the Blues Away (Horace Silver)
- Portrait in Jazz (Bill Evans)
- Live at the Half Note (Lee Konitz)
These landmark recordings contained a high percentage of new compositions. There were new ideas, styles, approaches, and they all were, I think I’m safe in saying, game-changers. I imagine I’ve missed one or more of your favourites, so please add to the list by leaving a comment below this blog. It would be interesting to compile a longer list.
Of course, I didn’t listen to most of these recordings until well after 1959. Hey, I was just getting started. My listening drifted chronologically all over the place. For example, I didn’t hear “Live at the Half Note” until about 10 years ago when I went on a Lee Konitz kick. I couldn’t believe how fresh it sounded. I don’t think I listened to ‘Sketches of Spain’ until some time in the mid sixties. It still amazes me how many great recordings happened in the same year.
But it was in 1959 that I first started to pay attention to my father’s jazz LPs. He had a membership in something called the “Columbia Record Club” and at regular intervals (maybe every 2 months) the club would send one or more recordings in the mail. If you weren’t interested, you sent them back. This presents quite a contrast to today’s distribution challenges. The merits of iTunes, Spotify, CD Baby, Rhapsody, Beats, Mog, GooglePlay, Deezer, etc. is a potentially contentious topic. That’s for another blog on another day.
My father’s listening (and, therefore, mine) included ‘classical’ music, Broadway musicals, jazz, marches and all sorts of other things. I still think it is important to study many kinds of music. I learned that it was important to observe ‘forensically’, to analyze and pay close attention!!
One of the jazz albums that I heard very early on was, “Ellington Indigos” (recorded in 1957). The album is available now on CD and on-line, re-mastered and included on “The Complete Ellington Indigos” – and you can still find vinyl copies for sale on line. Here are some stats:
I vividly remember being drawn to Duke’s “Solitude” which is the first ‘cut’1I guess we don’t refer to ‘cuts’ anymore. ☺ on the album.2Much later, it occurred to me that this was a remarkable way for an album to start. Maybe even a little audacious. It was certainly a different type of ‘attention getter’. The arrangement begins with a rubato piano solo (probably improvised). I had absolutely no idea what he was doing, but I liked it…a LOT. So I tried to figure it out through much trial and much error at the piano. As I recall I was pretty hard on the LP, dropping the needle, picking it up and dropping it again. Not always with precision.
Here is a bit of the solo piano intro that I heard:
I was intrigued and decided to search for those sounds on the piano. What I heard (and knew nothing about) was:
- the sound of the half step grind at the bottom of the chords. And not just major 3rds over a pitch a half step down, but also the minor 3rd in measure 4 (That one took a few reps to figure out).
- the harmony above the melody which then beautifully shifted to the soprano voice in m.5.
- that the approach was so economical. Duke moved smoothly to open voicings in m.8.
- the low b9 in bar 9. Of course, I didn’t know that was what it was called.
Of course, there are thousands and thousands of examples of ½ step dissonances and b9 intervals or ‘grinds’ in all sorts of music written long before 1957. But this was my first moment when I paid close attention and realized what it was that I was hearing. I guess I could have started with any record, but this is what I remember hearing very early on.
I did a lot of listening to all sorts of jazz once I caught ‘the bug’. I remember that I fell head over heels for the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s 1964 Carnegie Hall recording. I did try to find some of those sounds on the piano, but what I did more of was SINGING. Particularly the Paul Desmond solos. I can still sing along with that record. I learned a lot about melody from doing that. Sometimes I would figure out a chord by trying to arpeggiate (with my voice and the piano). I followed this routine with other recordings. I can still ‘sing’ many of George Coleman’s solos on the Miles Davis 1964 pair of records, “My Funny Valentine” and “Four and More” (Columbia).
Another big band album I listened to a lot back then was, “Li’l Old Groovemaker” by the Basie band with all the charts written by Quincy Jones. One memory is that cut 1, side 2 was “Nasty Magnus” which was great for learning one way to build excitement. The seemingly endless repetition of one idea behind the tenor solo worked wonders. Like you, I heard lots of Basie, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Holman, Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, Gil Evans, Marty Paitch and on and on. And I was lucky, growing up in Canada, to be able to hear Nimmons ‘N’ Nine on weekly radio show on CBC Radio. Phil Nimmons is one of our (Canadian) great musical treasures.
Apart from recordings and radio, hearing the music played live for the first time was a profound experience. In the late sixties I recall hearing small groups including Mongo Santamaria, and the Miles Davis band with Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, Chick Corea and Jack DeJohnette. And then the big bands of Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Maynard Ferguson all came to Toronto. Listening to these large groups and hearing the orchestrations live helped me take more steps forward.
Another big step forward came from playing with other musicians, which allowed me to hear the sounds in yet another way. Checking out the music from that perspective was yet another ear opener. It really improved my ability to be able to hear combinations of instruments, the sound of various trumpet and trombone mutes, and so on when I was writing at a desk or piano.
Gradually I started transcribing. Simple things at first and then more complicated things.
I have a clear memory of hearing for the first time the iconic “Blues and the Abstract Truth” by Oliver Nelson3Impulse! Recording. Engineered by Rudy Van Gelder. One early revelation was figuring out that in “Butch and Butch” the trumpet and saxophone go from playing in unison to parallel major 2nds. Definitely a wow moment. The melodies on the album were full of interesting intervals. And the music swung like crazy!
Transcribing jazz orchestra charts came later for me – out of necessity. I taught in a high school for 6 years in the 1970s and while there were some great Thad Jones charts in print and Kendor was also publishing Sammy Nestico but those were few and far between. (I recall that Gil Evans’ “Maids of Cadiz” was published, but it was an exception to the rule. At that time I had very motivated students and I wanted them to have the experience of playing good music. So I started lifting, among others: “Tones for Joan’s Bones” (Chick Corea, arr. Duke Pearson), “La Fiesta” (Chick Corea, arr. Tony Klatka),4it was eventually published so I could check for accuracy. “In A Sentimental Mood” (Duke Ellington, arr. Bill Holman). “The Quintessence” (Quincy Jones), “Evening in Paris” (Quincy Jones), “Round Midnight” (Monk, arr. Marty Paitch) – those last three were alto saxophone features and I had a killer alto player in my high school band so, the mother of invention is necessity, right?
Regarding transcribing Quincy Jones’ “The Quintessence”, which featured Phil Woods. I used a reel-to-reel tape recorder in those days. And I used it a lot. Those machines had three speeds: 7 ½, 3 ¾, and 1 7/8ths. The high speed was good for hearing roots and bass lines, and of course the slowest speed was great for slowing down fast tempos. Music recorded at 3 ¾ would sound normal, 7 ½ would be twice as fast and an octave higher and 1 7/8 was an octave lower than normal. Somehow, either the turntable I used to play the original into the tape recorder, or the tape machine itself, were out of whack. And the music I heard was in Gb major. So I lifted what I heard and had my high school band and later on a college band I directed play it in that key. It was later that I realized the tape recorder hadn’t been calibrated properly (I guess) and played back the recording up a ½ step. Once I realized my mistake, I changed it to the correct key of F major. Lesson learned (but no longer relevant) was to check several sources for accuracy.
3. Studying Arranging and Composing Texts
I picked up techniques from various books over the years. For my 16th birthday, my parents gave me a copy of “Sounds and Scores” by Henry Mancini. It came with small vinyl discs containing recordings of many of the examples in the text. I remember I learned a lot from that one. Everything from laying out a score to rather advanced orchestration. Hank loved those alto flutes, didn’t he? Another gift when I went to university was William Russo’s “Composing Music”. Over the years there have been many books I’ve found very useful and inspiring. In no particular order, texts by these authors have been valuable: Russ Garcia, Don Sebesky, Sammy Nestico, Simon Adler, Bill Dobbins, Gary Lindsay, Richard Sussman and Michael Abene, Jim McNeely, Mike Tomaro, Nelson Riddle, Ted Pease, and more.
In 1966 I was a first year music major at the University of Toronto. The courses were challenging and I learned a lot, but I really wanted to study jazz arranging and composition and, in those days, you lowered your voice when you said “jazz” in those hallowed halls. (At that time they didn’t admit saxophone majors – you had to play clarinet instead).
So I began private studies in theory, counterpoint, arranging and composition with Gordon Delamont who was the go-to guy at that time in Toronto. Among his students were Rob McConnell and Ron Collier, and many others. He had five texts published by Kendor which I believe are still available.5I think they stand up fairly well these many years later, but while still full of great information the arranging text could use an update. Subsequently I was also fortunate to have instruction from Ted Pease, Walter Buczinski, John Beckwith and one fabulous 4-hour session with Jim McNeely. Grabbing a lesson or series of lessons with someone whose music you love is highly recommended.
4. Score Study
I’m a score junkie. I have found score study to be extremely valuable throughout my musical life. I was fortunate to lead big bands in college and university for nearly 40 years and so I saw a lot of full scores. Learning to read transposed scores was a skill I acquired a bit later than some. When I transcribed I got in the habit of writing in concert pitch. But it is clear to me that learning to read transposed scores is essential. Most published scores are transposed. Many writers prefer to write transposed scores.
Nowadays you can find published scores by a many great jazz arrangers and composers for performance and study.6For example, I recently discovered a link where you can find out lots about Gil Evans’ “My Ship” arrangement. Go to: http://jazzarrangingclass.com/gil-evans-arrangement-of-my-ship-w-transcription. It is wonderful to see the music preserved and published.
I continue to collect scores. I’ve obtained scores directly from composers like Jim McNeely, Mike Holober, Asuka Takitani, Chuck Owen and Fred Stride and through ArtistShare I’ve purchased scores by Maria Schneider and Bob Brookmeyer. E-Jazz Lines, Sierra Music and others provide other great resources.7An aside: the late, great Canadian arranger, Rob McConnell donated all his original Boss Brass paper and pencil scores to the Music Library at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto. They aren’t in regular circulation, but if trying to track down something of Rob’s you could try contacting that library for more information. http://library.music.utoronto.ca
For ANY public domain ‘classical’ music score, visit http://imslp.org. You may do what I did and purchase a membership. You can download pdf files to study off-line. No copyright infringement.
Speaking of possible copyright infringement, it appears that there are hundreds of recordings on YouTube with video of the scores sync’d to the audio. That said, I understand there are new efforts underway to improve the tracking of streaming on YouTube, SoundCloud and other sites so that music creators get paid when their music is played. Check out http://www.audiam.com for one service I just heard about.
A more recent discovery is that you can view a great number of scores that have been performed by the New York Philharmonic. They are in the Leon Levy Digital Archives. The scores are images of the complete scores complete with pencilled annotations and other markings by whoever was conducting at the time the score was archived. It’s a bit of history I find very interesting. And there are many scores still under copyright. You can’t download, but you can study them on your computer display. One example: I found Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat” there.
5. Write, Hear, Edit, Hear, Write, Edit…
I’ve learned a great deal of what I know about writing from actually doing it. And, even more important, hearing the music performed by musicians. MIDI is okay in a limited way, but hearing live musicians interpret your music is invaluable. I’ve also learned a lot by listening to players’ advice and feedback about playability of my music. For example, I learned how to greatly improve my drum parts by listening to various drummers’ advice (don’t overwrite, consider the page turns, etc.).
One final anecdote: In 1971, I had my final lesson with Gord Delamont and he gave me a present to commemorate our time together. It was an oversized eraser. The perfect gift. I’m still learning and relearning to use it…often.
I never anticipated writing an article for this blog, but I guess it was inevitable that a month would come along when my invitations to others to contribute would not bear fruit. Many who have been invited have written to say they were interested but that they were in the middle of a project or busy in other ways and, could they write later. This is great news. Composers and arrangers (and all musicians) should be busy (and hopefully, remunerated handsomely).
If you have suggestions or comments about this or any of the other articles, please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org or post a comment below.
Sincere thanks to those who have contributed one or more articles to date: John La Barbera (2), Adam Benjamin, David Berger, Rick Lawn (2), Bill Dobbins and Florian Ross. Their knowledge, insights and music have been informative and inspiring.
About the Author:
PAUL READ (pianist, composer, arranger) lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Currently he curates the blog for the International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers. He was a member of the Humber College Music Faculty in Toronto from 1979 to 1991, Program Coordinator there from 1982 to 1987, and Director of Music from 1987 to 1991. In 1991, he founded degree programs in jazz studies at the University of Toronto (Mus. Bac., M. Mus. and DMA) where he was Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies and following that, Director of Graduate Jazz Studies. He was Canada’s Representative on the Board of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) from 2002-2008, and was the founding Director of the National Music Camp (NMC) Jazz Camp (1987 to 2006). He has also taught in the summers at the Ken Kistner Jazz Camp (Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan) and the jazz faculty of the Prairielands Jazz Camp (Regina, Saskatchewan). He is now retired from education.
The Dance Never Ends – with Trish Colter (1998, At Long Last Love – Trish Colter (2002), The Heart of Summer – Paul Read Quartet featuring Scott Robinson. (2004) Now available on CD Baby, and Arc-en-ciel Addo Records – Paul Read Orchestra (2013) Now available on CD Baby.
2015 Muriel Sherrin Award for International Achievement in Music (Toronto Arts Foundation), 2008 Paul Read Orchestra (PRO) nominated for a Canadian National Jazz Award, 2007-2008 Awarded a Canada Council for the Arts Recording Grant, 1993 Awarded the University of Toronto Senior Alumni Award for Innovation in Teaching and finally, 1972 Winner of the Rob McConnell/Gordon Delamont Arranging & Composition Award.
Paul’s Website: www.paulread.ca
|↑1||I guess we don’t refer to ‘cuts’ anymore. ☺|
|↑2||Much later, it occurred to me that this was a remarkable way for an album to start. Maybe even a little audacious. It was certainly a different type of ‘attention getter’.|
|↑3||Impulse! Recording. Engineered by Rudy Van Gelder|
|↑4||it was eventually published so I could check for accuracy.|
|↑5||I think they stand up fairly well these many years later, but while still full of great information the arranging text could use an update.|
|↑6||For example, I recently discovered a link where you can find out lots about Gil Evans’ “My Ship” arrangement. Go to: http://jazzarrangingclass.com/gil-evans-arrangement-of-my-ship-w-transcription.|
|↑7||An aside: the late, great Canadian arranger, Rob McConnell donated all his original Boss Brass paper and pencil scores to the Music Library at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto. They aren’t in regular circulation, but if trying to track down something of Rob’s you could try contacting that library for more information. http://library.music.utoronto.ca|