What's New?
The PoD Roundtable
moderated by Bill Shoemaker

What’s New? is an email roundtable that draws together persons of diverse backgrounds to discuss the issues shaping jazz and constituent experimental musics in the early 21st Century.

The panelists for this roundtable include:

Jamie Baum Jamie Baum, a New York-based flutist, composer, and educator. After receiving her degrees from New England Conservatory and Manhattan School of Music in jazz flute and composition, Baum began performing with jazz artists including Uri Caine and Paul Motian, Indian music luminaries  V.  M. Bhatt and Hakim Ludin, and an array of musicians playing Brazilian, Latin and contemporary classical music. Her own ensembles have included, among others, Ralph Alessi, Tom Varner and Drew Gress. Baum’s work as an improviser and composer is represented by four albums, the latest of which – Solace (Sunnyside) – features extrapolations of materials found in the compositions of Charles Ives. She was a winner of the New Works: Creation and Presentation Award, a component of the Doris Duke/Chamber Music America Jazz Ensembles Project , and the International Jazz Composers Alliance/Julius Hemphill Composition Award; she is also a recipient of grants from the NEA, Meet the Composer and others. Baum is an active clinician and gives private instruction at The New School and Manhattan School of Music. For further information about Jamie Baum, consult: www.jamiebaum.com.

Graham Collier Graham Collier, a British composer, bandleader and educator residing in Greece. After graduating from the Berklee School of Music in 1963, Collier returned to the UK to form the first of many editions of Graham Collier Music, whose ranks included such luminaries as Harry Beckett, John Surman and Kenny Wheeler. The resulting albums – including Deep Dark Blue Centre (1967), Songs for my Father (’70), and The Day of the Dead (’78) – are considered to be basic items for a library of British jazz recordings. In the early 1980s, Collier developed the six-year jazz degree course at the Sibelius Institute in Helsinki, Finland and in 1986 he launched the jazz program at the Royal Academy of Music, where he remained artistic director 1999. Collier’s seventh book on jazz, the jazz composer, moving music off the paper will be published in May by Northway, while his 19th recording, directing 14 Jackson Pollocks, will be issued concurrently. He was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II in 1987. To learn more about Collier, visit grahamcolliermusic.com and read his blog at jazzcontinuum.com.

Kevin Norton Kevin Norton, a New Jersey-based percussionist, composer and educator. While studying at Hunter College, Norton worked and recorded with Milt Hinton.  After receiving his Masters from Manhattan School of Music, he became active on the Downtown scene, playing in Fred Frith’s Keep the Dog, the Microscopic Septet and Phillip Johnston’s Big Trouble. A decade-long association with Anthony Braxton began in the mid 1990s; Norton performed with Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music ensembles and his standards quartet. In the past decade, Norton’s projects, including album-length compositions like For Guy DeBard (in nine events) and Change Dance (Troubled Energy) have been issued on his Barking Hoop imprint. Norton’s compositional activities have been supported by Meet The Composer Commissioning Music/USA, the National Endowment for the Arts, The Helen F. Whitaker Fund, and the Target Foundation. He is currently on the faculty of William Paterson University. Current project include Breakfast of Champignon(s), Counterpoint and two cooperative ensembles, Ensemble Helacious with JD Parran and Peter Zummo, and the John Lindberg-Kevin Norton Quartet. For more information, visit:  www.kevinnorton.com.


Bill Shoemaker: Each of you has worked at various points with musicians you know quite well in terms of what they will bring to any given piece. How does that familiarity influence you in deciding what to specify in a score and what to leave to be shaped in rehearsals and performances?

Graham Collier: In my earlier years I worked mainly with a regular sextet where I hand picked the musicians because of their individual talents. Usually the written parts were given to specific musicians because of the musical effect I wanted, but sometimes it was left to be decided in performance, using some of the ideas I outline below. The order of solos was usually decided in performance, unless of course a specific musician was featured. In such cases the writing was shaped by my thinking about the way the soloist worked.

These ideas have developed throughout my career, which lately has led me to work more with larger groups. In terms of what is specified in those situations, some parts are designated for certain players because of their instrument or because of their particular strengths (stronger trumpet on the high notes and so on). But in the back of my mind there’s always the feeling that one player may be better on that note than another, but it’s not scientific, and can be changed if it doesn’t pan out.

Lately I’ve been working with freer methods – such as one I call textured backgrounds, where, to accompany a solo or a melody statement, a chord progression is given to some or all of the musicians and, much like a pianist does, they work their way through the sequence, by using scale fragments, trills, individualized long notes and so on (and, importantly, not playing all the time). At other times they are asked to interpret melodic motifs by playing them freely in their own way, what I have called shadowing, or by playing and thickening a repeated riff by using the same rhythm but with different notes. Sometimes a group of musicians are asked to build up a chord by me directing them when to play their note, and giving indications as to dynamics and textural density. One musician, not previously known to me, who I worked with in Canada, used the phrase ‘I felt like a color in a paint box’ when he was used in this way.

Because of these approaches I see my role as a director, shaping what happens by using the talents in front of me, to be as important as my role as composer. What I present the musicians with as a composer is a kind of blueprint which we work on together – in rehearsal and performance - in order to create something that is unique for that occasion, rather than a piece which is set in stone, and meant to be played more or less the same every time.

In fact I would go so far as to say that, for me, a jazz composition can’t exist outside of its performance.

A friend of a friend, attending a jazz concert for the first time, described my approach as though I were "directing 14 Jackson Pollocks." I think that phrase gets very close to what I am trying to do: Not to write too much, which I feel inhibits jazz musicians and moves the music into a different territory, but to develop, in music which has a recognizable element of being written, the essence of jazz that makes it different from other musics, which is that jazz happens in real time, once.

Who plays which melody, and who gets the actual solo spots is, in most pieces, predetermined – because I feel they are the right person for that solo, in other compositions it may be left open to who jumps in, or who I give the nod to.

But of course all this depends on picking the right musicians to play with you. As the question implies I have been lucky enough to work with groups of musicians I know well. But there are times when you’re faced with an unknown group, and it’s interesting that with a professional band there are usually quite a few musicians who at first are resistant to my freer methods. They are usually won around before the end of the gig, but the approach they are used to – playing what’s written as accurately as possible – has to be suspended in much of my music. With a college workshop the opposite is usually the case as most of the players relish the fact that they can add their individuality to what is written. Again there could be some resistance – usually, as with the pros, in the brass section, many of whom have had classical training. Saxophones and rhythm section players, except for pianists, usually haven’t come from this background, and if they have, their role in a jazz group has made them looser in the way that they think.

Whoever the musicians are and whatever training they have had, there are times, as Billy Strayhorn said about Ellington’s methods, when you have to swap the parts around in rehearsal “because the man and the part weren’t the same character.”  But that’s what I see as one of the strengths of the concepts I have developed, and the way the parts are presented to the players. Each musician gets the same music, transposed as necessary. In this way each has a mini score and knows what is going on throughout the whole piece and it’s much easier if parts do have to be swapped around. Although many decisions can be made before the rehearsals start, much of the time who plays what when is worked out in rehearsal. And, practically speaking, if there is a passage which would suit four trombones but there are only two available, the passage can easily be changed to accommodate what is there instead of lamenting what isn’t.

Admittedly this misses out on some of the benefits of fuller scoring but it does throw up some interesting textures that are alive for that moment and that performance. This may lead to confusion from those unused to the way I work, and gnomic praise from those who do: A few years ago I was praised by a critic for my skill as an orchestrator. That may be, but the passage in question (the opening to Part One of Three Simple Pieces) was freely improvised using the textural background technique referred to above. I can take credit for the method, but the results owe as much to the musicians as they do to me. One of my musicians who knows my methods, remarked that in my latest CD (called, incidentally, directing 14 Jackson Pollocks) I was “in danger of being praised again for my meticulous choice of voicings, and the funny thing is they’d be right.”

Kevin Norton: At a certain point in my life as a musician, I would have considered myself a “classical percussionist”; in other words, playing percussion in symphony orchestras or chamber groups. I love the melodies and the harmonies of classical music and I love its organizing principals”, however, I learned to hate the uptight and nervous feeling about the “right notes”, being micro-managed by a conductor (especially when it came to rhythm – classical rhythms always seemed stiff and repressed. Perhaps ironically, the more contemporary the music, the more it seemed like a contrived effort to write the way improvisers played … so why not improvise?).

I’ve “composed” since I was a young kid, but after this experience of being an orchestral player, I vowed that I would not put musicians through that experience; feeling like the player is a cannon fodder in war for the victory of a composer. So, to your question, “that familiarity” is everything and the “familiarity” is both “global” and “specific:” in other words, I want to respect and acknowledge all musicians, the ones I know and the ones that I don’t personally know. I’ve written music for “violin and clarinet” and for Anthony Braxton and John Lindberg. Though I may not know who the violinist might be or who the clarinetist might be, I know that I will be connecting with those musicians and so I wouldn’t write in a way that would give them a hard time. My imagination is unlimited, but the players must feel that they are equal partners in the music making process. Specifically, writing for John Lindberg in the Bauhaus Quartet, I loved the way he played with Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray and I thought about how I might express that in notation to a classical player, wrote it, and then said, “well, I’m not interested in this being 100% accurate, I’m interested in getting your impression of these notes and rhythms to a vibe-zone of Jump Up.” I could write these lines for a classical bassist or John Lindberg, but the classical bassist would be trying to get the written music accurate, that’s his or her raison d’être. While Lindberg will go for whom he is in relation to the notation. As a composer, I think of how I can shape sound. As a player I think: What’s in it for me? As “jazz composers,” we put the two agendas together. So, all is process and the distinction between rehearsal and performance is minimal; we seek to make music in every move we make – scores, rehearsals, performances, etc.

Jamie Baum: The familiarity with the musicians in my band offers me a variety of options. I can write in a way that I think addresses their particular strengths or to challenge them in a way that I think they would either enjoy or find stimulating, both with the written material and/or the improvised sections. For example, sometimes I'll use the extreme ranges of an instrument to create a particular color, tension or energy which can be challenging while still being mindful of the capability of the instrument as well as the artist. Also, I will often make a decision about who I want to solo on each piece ahead of time based on knowing how they will deal with the material and the kind of color change or type of energy I want to compliment the written material. 

The fact is that I often work with the same musicians, at least in my septet, and because they have such a high level of musicianship and musical point of view means that aside from an occasional word or two about a concept I might be trying to express with the piece, I prefer not to say much and let them do their thing. In effect, I choose these musicians because of what they will bring and add to the music. Of course, the more we play a piece, the more comfortable everyone becomes, which lends itself to both shaping and interpreting it as well as having the freedom to play it differently each time. In fact, we were just on tour last week and one of the band members came over to me after the gig and said about one of the tunes we played: “ I bet you were mad that the pianist changed the groove during his solo and took the piece in a whole other direction”. My response was, “on the contrary, I love when a musician feels comfortable enough with the material and is inspired (and hopefully the material lends itself) to make it personal to take the music in a different and unexpected place…” to me that’s the point.

Shoemaker: What type of changes have you made to a score based on the input from your musicians? Do they tend to be minor, or have you gone back to the drawing board based on initial rehearsals? 

Collier: Usually the changes are minor. The music is generally so open that I need the input of the musicians playing – in rehearsals and on gigs – to make the piece work. However, I usually like to have time on my own – after partial rehearsal – to quietly re-assess the piece and how it is shaping up before plunging back into the maelstrom, but often that’s not available. I can’t recall ever going back to the drawing board completely, but there are times when I’ve changed things overnight – or in the lunch break – to make things clearer. This may involve cutting something that doesn’t seem to work at that particular time – sometimes because you realize rehearsal time is running out. At times I’ve come back to that section in subsequent rehearsals and found it does work well. At other times I’ve decided that either that section doesn’t work, and that my instinct to drop it during rehearsal was the right one, or that the composition as a whole works very well without that section so it’s not needed anymore.

On that last point in my new book the jazz composer I have been tiptoeing around the idea that there is something which can be called jazz form: that a jazz composition finds its own form (usually during a performance) in terms of its overall length, its internal structure and that this is some kind of explanation as to how I can drop sections which I thought were essential. It also offers an explanation as to why my pieces usually have the same duration whichever group of musicians is playing them. And, tentatively, why Ellington was a more successful writer of larger pieces than he is often given credit for… I wonder if Jamie and Kevin have any thoughts on this.

The musicians can and do contribute, but the sad fact is that, as a leader of large groups, almost always rehearsal time is at a premium, and the musicians are often too busy getting into the piece to make their contributions. But they do speak up and the suggestions are usually well worth considering – though they may not be always acted on for a variety of reasons: time-constraints again and, quite possibly, my feeling that I’d already thought of, and rejected, that particular idea while I was writing the piece.

From a slightly different angle: after Hoarded Dreams had been performed in Cologne some of the musicians came and told me afterwards that I had let some of the soloists go on too long (in my defense they were excellent solos!). ‘The audience hasn’t come to hear the musicians as though they were playing in a club. They’ve come to hear your composition.’ Comments somewhat sobering for a director, but encouraging for a composer. 

Baum: I find that for the most part, a new composition will need to be played, even performed a few times before I feel it is completely finished. Similarly to what Graham was suggesting, I find I need to hear it in the context with the improvisations to get a real sense of the overall piece, whether I want to add or take away something, and if the improvisation sections compliment the written material and vise versa. 

For the past several years I have been using Digital Performer, a music sequencing program that allows me to input the composition and hear it back in "real time" with all of the parts. This has made a huge difference for me since I tend to write multi-layered compositions that are often difficult for me to play on the piano. It is much easier for me to hear the piece and make adjustments before I even bring the piece into the first rehearsal and because of this, I tend to not have to go completely back to "the drawing board" like I used to. 

Once I have brought the composition into rehearsal and it has been played, I usually know pretty quickly what changes need to be made, at least the obvious ones. Those tend to be dealing with orchestration since a sequencing program is limited ... I can usually predict what issues might come up ahead of time. 

I will often request and get feedback from the other musicians and will take their suggestions into consideration though I do tend to have pretty definite reasons for the choices I make and may not, heed their suggestions. There are times when I really hear a particular musician soloing on something, and they may not feel it but accommodate me anyway. Often after playing the piece a few times, they end up hearing what I'm going for.

Norton:  I guess the first thing that struck me about this question was the phrase “going back to the drawing board.” Maybe I’m crazy, but I’m not against coming up with a totally new piece the night before a gig: I guess that might be considered “going back to the drawing board.” For instance, in my project, Breakfast of Champignon(s) I wrote a piece for Angelica Sanchez’s newly acquired toy piano. It’s not about feedback about a “mistake” but more like, “Cool! You have a new instrument, a new sound!” This was a discovery at an afternoon rehearsal with the gig on the following evening. I do write “tunes” and through composed pieces that I work on something like Jamie –  I use Finale software, which makes it easy to transpose parts and then spit them out quickly. I also agree with Jamie’s feeling that piece isn’t really “finished” until it’s been “road tested.” However, since the late 1980s or early 90s I’ve used a style of notation that is in between graphic, textual instructions and traditional notation, usually on 11 x 17 paper and read sideways. I could go into more details, but the point is that a newer, more open style of notation allows the musician to immediately “feedback” with the composition.  In another recent band/project, Counterpoint (a trio of vibes, bass and drums), I started to write in the more traditional way, measure to measure, because I thought that these younger guys would relate to that traditional type of notation more  and as players we related to that small part of the jazz tradition, with pleasure. However, when Jesse Stern (the bass player in Counterpoint) attended a Breakfast of Champignon(s) gig he was very interested in how the resultant music was arrived at. Of course, part of the answer is the individual musicians and their skills and experience but I started to try to apply to this other type of notation to Counterpoint. I’m not ready to abandon “traditional” notation but I’ve recently used this hybrid notation again in a new piece for Ensemble Helacious (with J.D. Parran and Peter Zummo) and it worked beautifully. My changes to the score after the dress rehearsal were only to make the score neater, even clearer. This reminds me of something that maybe Graham could clarify: wasn’t it Ellington who said, “I keep re-writing the same piece”?   I think my main concern is to get the sound of the composition to flow like improvisation and the flow of the improvisation to have sonic detail of composition. Where does revision stop and a new piece begin?

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