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Sunday, November 3, 2019

In The Cracks

Over the years I've written a lot of music that straddles classical and jazz music, and that uses elements from both traditions. I've written  orchestral, chamber and solo pieces, some of which have improvisation and some not. This is music that is truly 'in the cracks',  mostly using instrumentation and ensemble formats from the classical tradition, but using rhythmic and harmonic devices that come from other areas, particularly jazz.

Recently I created an album on Bandcamp called 'In The Cracks', comprised of a collection of these pieces, and downloadable for free. In this post I've written short descriptions of each piece on the album, with a link to the tracks themselves. There are some great musicians on here, both classical (National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, Ioana Petcu-Colan, Conor Linehan etc.), and from the world of jazz, (Dave Liebman, John Abercrombie, John Ruocco etc.), and I hope you find something to enjoy. If anyone is interested in the compositions themselves, and would like the scores of any of these pieces, just drop me a line 

Synapsis (Concertino for Orchestra)

This is a sort of mini concerto for orchestra. Written in 2008, it features, at various stages, every section of the orchestra and really gives them something to play. It's a technically difficult piece, and the RTE NSO play it really well. The title came from a word a friend mentioned in an email, and I liked the fact that it sounded like a cross between synapse and synopsis. I imagined the idea of the orchestra being a large brain, and its synapses firing ideas from one side of the orchestra to the other. It has a lot of jazz influences, particularly in the rhythmic language, but also in the fact that the opening, fast 16th note phrase, (and much of the subsequent material), was taken from something Brad Mehldau played in a solo on a Michael Brecker album. Thanks Brad!

Music for String Quartet

A piece for probably the most classic of classical ensembles, the string quartet. When you're writing music for string quartet you've got one of the most outrageously accomplished musical traditions looking over your shoulder. But intimidating though it can be, it's also so satisfying to write for - so perfectly balanced and capable of so many different kind of expression. This continuous piece is in three sections - a spiky rhythmic motif, a lyrical slow section that moves between dark and light atmospheres, and a groove finale that descends into some chromatic madness.

Dave Liebman

Macrocosmos III

This is genuinely in the cracks, since it uses a symphony orchestra, a big band, and an improvising soloist - the great Dave Liebman. This is the 3rd movement of a large-scale piece for the Manhattan School of Music Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra (their combined symphony and jazz orchestras), and is in effect a concerto for soprano sax and orchestra. This is the largest group I've ever written for (more than 130 musicians), and it was both a pleasure to have such forces at my disposal, and a challenge to use them effectively.

Michael Buckley

Pipe Dreams

3rd section of a concerto for jazz flute and chamber orchestra, written for the great flautist and saxophonist Michael Buckley and the Irish Chamber Orchestra- it features both written and improvised passages for the flute. I added a drum set to the string orchestra for this piece, and also use bass guitar in this movement.

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

Another daunting task for me - to write a piano concerto! In the classical tradition, as far as orchestra with soloist is concerned, there's probably no greater body of work than the piano concerto, and the greatest of the great - Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Bartok, Ravel, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff etc. - have written extraordinary and famous works in this idiom. So to take this on was a particularly challenging assignment for me. Although very familiar with many great piano concerti, I tried to use that tradition while at the same time bringing in elements from my own world, and influences from great pianists in that world, such as McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. Conor Linehan is the wonderful soloist here with the RTE NSO, recorded live in Dublin

Sonata for Solo Violin

Writing for a solo string instrument is a completely different challenge to writing for a full orchestra. You have to balance and contrast the generally linear nature of the instrument, with chorded passages to fill out the texture. This is the finale of what is actually a very big work in five movements that takes almost thirty minutes to play. This movement features some serious fireworks for the violin and the great technical challenges are brilliantly surmounted by the violinist who commissioned this work, Ioana Petcu-Colan

Ensemble Avalon

A Little Blues

This piece is, as the name suggests, a 12-bar blues. It's completely written, but there are some very jazz elements in it, particularly in the violin and piano writing. Performed here by the great young Irish chamber group the Ensemble Avalon, I later went on to write some music for the pianist in this group, the very talented Michael McHale, and had already worked extensively with the violinist Iona Petcu-Colan (see the solo violin sonata above).

Groove Merchants

A funk piece for Wind Quintet? Why not! Commissioned and recorded by the outstanding UK wind quintet the Aurora Ensemble

Sonata for Solo Viola

Another piece for solo strings, this time the very underrated viola. This a four-movement piece which features a lot of rhythmic music and although the soloist for whom this was written - the notable and very accomplished Canadian violist Tanya Kalmanovitch - is a very fine improviser, and the music has many improvisatory flourishes, all of the the material is fully notated. This is the fourth movement, a groove piece.

John Ruocco

Music for Clarinet and String Trio

One of my earliest 'in the cracks' pieces, this time for string trio (the Hibernia String Trio), and clarinet, (on this performance the extraordinary virtuoso clarinettist John Ruocco who is equally at home in jazz or classical). This is the slow movement built on a kind of eastern modal melody that's later reharmonised. The clarinet is required to play both written passages and improvisation. John's improvisation on this is amazing

ARC - for 12 Saxophones

This is definitely the most unusual ensemble I've ever written for! This was commissioned by the European Saxophone Ensemble and they performed it all over Europe and recorded it. The challenge with this piece was not to make the ensemble sound like a giant accordion. The piece featured both written and improvised passages, and the instruments ranged from bass saxophone to sopranino, and rehearsals took place in a lovely small village in France - such a memorable experience for me for all kinds of reasons. I used the sound of the all the saxophonists fingering their instruments for the opening - a unique sonority.

John Abercrombie

Stillness/Movement (from Renaissance Man)

Music for string quartet and electric guitar - the first movement of 'Renaissance Man', a suite I wrote for jazz guitar trio and string quartet. This was written in memory of my father who had passed away thirty years earlier, and this movement was written based around a memory I had from my boyhood, walking in the forest at dawn with him, and the birds beginning to sing, quietly at first and then building to a cacophony of beautiful sound. In having this suite played I was privileged to have the guitar legend John Abercrombie play the guitar part - in this section he improvises in between the written passages for the strings

Friday, June 21, 2019

7 Cheers for the 70s!


It is a received wisdom that there was not much going on in jazz in the 1970s. This somewhat revisionist history first appeared in the 1980s with the advent of the 'Young Lions', with people such as Wynton Marsalis and his cohorts. While this generation of musicians’ focus on such traditional values as blues and swing was welcome, and possibly even timely, their blanket dismissal of what went on the 1970s was inaccurate and did a disservice to much great music that came out of the jazz tradition in that decade. In this post I’m going to revisit music of the 1970s, and highlight seven fantastic recordings performances that are really worth checking out, and will show the richness of the music in that decade.

The 1970s was a musical decade that was both influenced by what had happened in the 1960s via rock music and free jazz, but also looked to the future, and set the ground work for so much that came afterwards. The music often displayed the intensity with which both free music and rock music were played, yet also fostered the environment in which a distinctly European jazz dialect could emerge. In addition, many great figures from the previous decades were still active and producing great music.

Here then are seven great pieces from the 1970s

In choosing the music I’ve been conscious not to breach copyright. I’ve used material from YouTube from albums long out of print, or/and from Spotify. I still think Spotify sucks but since ECM gave up their entire catalogue to Spotify I’ve decided to give up the struggle!

1. Shakti

While what are known as ‘world music’ projects are very common these days, in the early 70s they were rare, and often not very good. The great guitarist John McLaughlin however put together one of the earliest, and by far one of the best bands in this genre in the mid 70s. Shakti was a band heavily influenced by Carnatic music but also used techniques from the jazz world. Highly virtuosic, Shakti’s incorporation of the various elements into a very convincing whole created some spectacular music which set the standard for these kinds of collaborations, and remains one of the benchmarks of how to work with Indian music if you’re a jazz musician. One of the reasons these projects often fail is because of the lack of in-depth knowledge by the jazz musicians of the music that they are incorporating into the genre. McLaughlin however did an in-depth study of the Veena and really understood both Indian ragas and rhythmic constructs. Because of this, he could interact seamlessly with the percussionists and the other musicians in the band. Here is a blistering performance of joy from the Montreux festival in 1976.

2. Joanne Brackeen

Brackeen cut her teeth back in the 60s with Art Blakey, and making a name for herself in the very male dominated world of 60s jazz. She was also well known for stints in the bands of stellar players such as Stan Getz and Joe Henderson. In the mid-70s she began releasing her own albums as a leader and I first became aware of her from the duo album ‘New True Illusion’, with the great bassist Clint Houston. She is a very powerful player with definite influences from both McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea, but with a looseness and a way of unleashing great bursts of notes that’s all her own. She’s also a very interesting composer, writing pieces that were more involved and developed than those of a lot of her peers at the time. Here’s a typically personable Brackeen tune, ‘Off Glimpse’, from the album ’Keyed In’ with Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette , (one of my favourite bass and drum teams). After the very characterful melody we get a typical Brackeen burn!

3. John Abercrombie

The 1970s produced a rich crop of great guitarists. John Scofield, Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin, (though he was active in the late 60s too), Ralph Towner, and John Abercrombie. In a way the 70s was the decade where the guitar came into its own as a major jazz instrument. Of course there had been great guitarists before  - Wes, George Benson, Jim Hall, Grant Green, and the father of it all, Charlie Christian – but in the 70s - post-Hendrix and the rock revolution - the guitar took centre stage ,and the result was much great music.

John Abercrombie was a singular voice on the guitar, influenced by both rock and jazz, he could really burn with the best of them, but also had a crafty improvisational approach to everything he played, redolent at times of a very electric Jim Hall. His first album ‘Timeless’, with Jan Hammer, and Jack DeJohnette, (on his first ECM album), became an instant classic, due in no small part to the extraordinary opening track ‘Lungs’ which leaps out of the speakers at you. It’s completely no prisoners music – organ trio, yes, but not as we know it!

(You’ll have to go to Spotify for the complete track – or, even better, buy the album!)

4. McCoy Tyner

Of course McCoy is a product of the 60s and produced so much great music then, both under his own name and of course with Trane. But there’s something about his 70s music that is just extraordinary. All of the qualities he had in the 60s are there, the incredibly swinging right hand, the restless left hand, the rhythmic drive, the unique harmonic approach etc. But in the 70s he added something else to that – massive power. He was always a powerful pianist of course, he had to be playing with Trane. But in the 70s it was if he had, musically speaking, bulked up even further, and achieves a relentless physical power that has perhaps never been equalled, not even perhaps by Cecil Taylor in his pomp.

He also started to compose very simple pieces based off modal vamps, and then expanding on that by sheer power and drive. The complexity of his playing at this point, the torrent of notes and never ending harmonic movement, is unprecedented both in his own playing, or in anyone else’s. Here’s ‘Ebony Queen’ from 1972 which is a classic example of his music at this period. With a powerhouse quartet of Sonny Fortune, the mysterious bassist Calvin Hill, and Alphonse Mouzon on drums, they take McCoy’s simple theme and deliver nine minutes of raw power, rhythmic drive and sophisticated musical science. The piano solo on this is a wonder of the musical world.

5. Enrico Rava

One of the major developments in the music in the 70s was the maturation of European jazz and its development of a separate identity (or identities). Europe had always had fine players, but they were usually closely based on the American model. In the 1970s there was a divergence of approach by many European musicians and the music more reflected a European aesthetic, with less swing rhythms, and much less echoes of the blues. The rise of the ECM and ENJA labels did a lot to promote this other approach, and gave a home to many European heavyweights such as Jan Garbarek and Bobo Stenson, not to mention Jarrett’s ‘European Quartet.’ 

At this point there was a preponderance of Scandinavian musicians represented on ECM, but not all were northerners and the great Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava made many fine recordings for the label. Rava, despite his obvious admiration for Miles, is very much his own man, with a genius for making the most out of very simple material. His composition ‘Tribe’, from the album ‘The Plot’ from 1976 ,is a classic example of this. He takes a simple, almost banal 16 bar melody, and, with the aid of his very creative cohorts John Abercrombie, and the legendary bass and drum team of Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen, slowly works it up to an intense maelstrom via collective improvisation, rather than through a series of solos. This is a classic piece of European jazz, and its slow burning brilliance still shines more than 40 years later

(You’ll have to go to Spotify for the complete track – or, even better, buy the album!)

6. Woody Shaw

Shaw of course emerged in the 60s playing and serving his apprenticeship, from a very young age, with some of the legends of the music. He was a very individual trumpet player from the very beginning but really came into his own in the 1970s with a series of outstanding albums under his own name and the perfecting of his unique approach to the trumpet and to music.

Woody Shaw was an extraordinary trumpeter with a rich, burnished, full sound, and a very unusual intervallic approach on the instrument. Lots of 4ths and wide intervals, which are very difficult to play accurately and affectively on the instrument, made him stand out among his peers. When you add to that a complete immersion in the jazz tradition, and tremendous physical strength and intensity, (more echoes of the 60s…), you are confronted with one of the greatest soloists in jazz in the modern era. He was at his best in live performance, (I had a life changing experience seeing him at the Vanguard in the early 80s), and ‘Stepping Stones’ from 1978 is one of the best recorded examples of Shaw in full flight. Here’s ‘In A Capricornian Way’ a Shaw original in which all the trademarks are on display – the burnished sound with vibrato at the end of phrases, the brilliant outside/inside harmonic approach, and blistering intensity. Truly one of the greats.

7. Kenny Wheeler

A very different trumpeter to Shaw, (and indeed Rava), Kenny Wheeler is nevertheless a musician who also came into his full maturity in the 1970s. Active in the 1960s, and becoming known as a big band writer and composer of lyrical and somewhat poignant tunes, as well as a very individual soloist, Wheeler’s sound and harmonic approach matched perfectly the way he wrote. Canadian, but in the UK since the 1950s, Wheeler was very well known on the UK jazz scene, and in certain parts of the European free scene. But the announcement to the world of the arrival a major new trumpet and compositional voice came via his first ECM album ‘Gnu High’ in 1976.

The stellar quartet of Wheeler, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette was completed by Keith Jarrett, in his last ever appearance on a recording as a sideman. The importance of Jarrett’s presence on this recording can’t be overstated, he brings all of his improvisational, technical, and harmonic brilliance to bear on Wheeler’s beautiful compositions, and when listening to this recording it’s difficult to believe that the one and only time they played together as a group was on this recording. Kenny told me that Keith was a reluctant participant in the session initially, and didn’t really look at the music before the recording. So what you’re hearing is him basically sight reading the music. This is extraordinary given how much Jarrett contributes to the greatness of this recording, plays brilliantly with the others, and negotiates Wheeler’s challenging pieces with ease. Here’s a great example,  ‘Smatter’, with its classic descending ¾ tag which traps lesser players into a rhythmic and harmonic straightjacket. Not here. A Desert Island Disc.

(You’ll have to go to Spotify for the complete track – or, even better, buy the album!)

This just a tiny sample of the huge amount, and wide variety of wonderful music which came out in the 1970s. I could have easily tripled the examples here, there is so much stuff – Billy Harper,  Weather Report, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Headhunters, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Charles Tolliver, Bob Degen, John Surman, and on and on…. Ignore the naysayers, creatively, the 70s were great for jazz – check it out.