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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Jazz Composition 2 - The Soloist Conundrum

I was listening recently to a recording of pieces for jazz orchestra by Jim McNeely ‘Up From the Skies’, played by the great Vanguard band. Jim is of course one of the greatest writers in this idiom, his music is imaginative, original, brilliantly orchestrated and it’s music that demands great musicianship from the orchestra. Jim has been a member of the VJO for many years and knows the playing of all the members intimately. So when writing a programme of music for the band he can – in the tradition of Duke Ellington and many other jazz composers – decide who to assign the solos to most effectively. In other words he has control over the whole piece by astutely assigning the solos – he knows that player A and player B might be most effective soloing on this piece, while player C would be more effective on another piece etc.

However, I was also recently listening to a live recording of basically the same programme this time played by the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra, with Jim at the helm. Now I should say at the outset that the SJO are also a great band, with fine soloists, and they did the music no disservice, but played it very well and with great panache and no little skill. But – on listening to these versions of the same pieces I was struck by the feeling that rather than the pieces being written for a specific soloist, we were instead listening to a ‘tenor solo’ or an ‘alto solo’ - however well played they may have been – and I got a feeling of the solos (apart from Jim’s own) being mandatory rather than being necessary for the success of the pieces. In fact some of the pieces were so complexly and sophisticatedly orchestrated, and so brilliantly structured compositionally, that the solos actually seemed like an unwelcome intrusion and a distraction from the real business of the music – Jim’s writing and compositions.

None of this the fault of Jim or the band – it is symptomatic of the problem that faces the jazz composer of more involved forms – what to do with the soloists. In another post - Jazz Composition 1 – Composition or Ditty? I wrote about the issue of short form composition and whether much of what is knows as ‘composition’ in jazz amounts to anything more than an excuse for solos. The issue on which I’m writing now is different – it relates to how, as compositional techniques expand, the jazz composer can not only include solos in his or her compositions, but how they can justify them on musical grounds.

Since improvisation is the raison d’etre of jazz, most jazz compositions’ main function is to provide a vehicle for the soloing. As a result most jazz compositions tend to be short and to the point. But of course there is also another tradition of jazz composition which can be traced back to Ellington – and arguably Jellyroll Morton before that – of more extended form compositions that function as more than just solo vehicles, and this latter tradition has become more prevalent in the past 20 years. And where before the idea of using an extended form piece was largely confined to the big band world (with a few exceptions such as Charles Mingus’ groups etc.), more recently the interest in writing more involved compositions for smaller groups has grown considerably, and the act of composition is I think taken more seriously by more people in jazz than at any previous time.

But of course the more you start to add flesh to the bones of a composition, the more shape it takes, the more structurally complex it becomes and the more specific it becomes in terms of notation and instruction to the players, the more the role of the soloist is called into question. If one writes a piece that takes 15 or twenty minutes to play without solos, then the idea of just giving the soloist a set of changes to play over a form with an indeterminate set of repeats becomes highly questionable. If the composition is sophisticated enough to stand on its own, at what point do the solos become superfluous? Or maybe more to the point how can the jazz composer of more developed pieces find a way to include solos in such a way that they are NOT superfluous?

The problem becomes more acute the more sophisticated the compositions themselves become. If the composition is good enough to stand on its own as a composition, then does it need a soloist? Or to put it another way, is it the case that the more sophisticated the composition itself becomes, the more superfluous the soloist becomes? This then begs the question, does the improviser’s art really need good compositions in themselves, or, conversely, do improvisers ultimately get in the way of the true composer’s art?

I’ve begun to hear recordings of Jazz Orchestra material (especially ones where there’s a real composer at work, like McNeely or Brookmeyer) as being akin to a collection of concerti for the best players in the respective bands. And I wonder in this situation, does it become frustrating for these composers, whose familiarity with formal compositional techniques and structures is incredibly wide-ranging, to be confined to the concerto form? Do they wish to be able to write pieces that don’t demand soloists?

Of course if one goes down the latter route as a composer then you’re into the realms of the classical composition tradition and out of the jazz field. So is it possible to write music that values true compositional techniques, admits the soloist as a vital part of the composition, but avoids the ‘concerto’ model? And if so, how can that be brought about?

I think one of the best answers to this question was demonstrated on a recording made over fifty three years ago by the great George Russell – it’s called ’Jazz Workshop’ by the George Russell Smalltet, and is in my opinion a masterpiece of writing, playing and improvising.

What Russell does is to compose a series of pieces which involve solos arising out of the ensemble writing and then becoming subsumed again by the ensemble. As you listen to the pieces it’s often very hard to figure out whether various players are improvising or playing written material. It should be noted that there are fourteen different pieces on this recording the longest of which is just over four minutes long – but all the pieces are packed with incident.

Russell’s ability to find different ways of incorporating the solos into the formal structures of these little gems is extraordinary. One particularly noteworthy feature of the pieces is the extensive use of counterpoint, (a very underused and underrated technique in jazz composition) which is very effective in creating the kind of musical milieu out of which a solo can emerge, make its presence felt and merge back with the ensemble. In general on this recording the archetypical bop soloing procedure, whereby the melody is played and then the decks are cleared for the soloist to do his stuff, is generally either avoided or circumvented.

I find this recording to be incredibly satisfying on so many levels – compositional, improvisational, creativity, originality – I’m always baffled as to how it’s not better known and recognised as the masterpiece it so undoubtedly is. As a performing musician too I can listen to it with great admiration for the sheer proficiency that is displayed by all the players (including a very young and completely burning Bill Evans – check out ‘Concerto for Billy the Kid’!) in executing these very difficult charts – this is music that was way ahead of its time and is an object lesson on some ways to solve the compositional/soloist dichotomy.

You can see a video of some of the music of Russell from this period here

And there’s a fascinating programme about this music from ‘The Subject is Jazz’ a wonderfully made US TV programme from 1958 which includes an interview with Russell and a version of ‘Concerto for Billy the Kid’ (at 6.08) - you can see that here

And finally there’s a very nice radio programme about the altoist Hal McCusick – who played on the Russell album and made a fine ‘Jazz Workshop’ recording of his own – which features some tracks from the ‘Smalltet’ recording – well worth a listen, you can hear it here

There’s much more to be said on this compositional/soloing problem, and I will return to it in a future post soon, but for now, if you haven’t already, check out ‘Jazz Workshop’ for a masterclass on how to seamlessly integrate improvised solos into complex compositions without sacrificing the quality of either element.

1 comment:

  1. You've made so many good points here, Ronan. If I may add my two cents' worth:

    1) One of the primary issue in large-form composition is the balance between pre-composed material and material improvised in the moment. The fixed meets the fluid; past meets present. The role of the soloist in a large jazz ensemble (okay, big band!), and the creation of the right structure for specific soloists, and making sure that the soloist really responds to the piece; these are all paramount to the music I write. For me the godfathers are Ellington and Gil Evans. But others, too--George Russell, Bob Brookmeyer. I recently wrote a project for Richie and Lieb with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. Both of them were struck by how well the arrangements fit them. And I must say that I wrote them for those two players--I cannot imagine anyone else playing them. I could go on and on about how I try to write for ensembles like a playwright; inventing characters and developing them; sometimes the characters are the actual players, sometimes figments of my imagination (when I wrote the music for Up from the Skies, the main character was the whole VJO; I thought "What should they do now at this point in their existence?")

    2) You're right that, as far as form and solo roles go, one of my "main men" is Jelly Roll Morton. And Ellington. etc. etc. etc. There's plenty of early precedent for this kind of thinking in jazz; but as the bebop model took over (play a head, blow, play the head again), then the Coltrane extension of same (play the head, b---l---o---w, b---l---o---w, b---l---o---w, play the head), we were faced with soloists applying that aesthetic to soloing in long-form jazz compositions. This is not to demean what he did; one of my 5 "desert island" records will always be "A Love Supreme". But I've always appreciated countless recordings from the swing era where a guy had 8 bars to make sense and then get out of the way. The solo was part of the overall texture of the piece. Maybe Rex Stewart wouldn't have articulated it that way, but that's the way he played it. Those guys were on to something!

    3) Mozart wrote his clarinet concerto for Anton Stadler. Countless soloists, from Stanley Drucker, Reginald Kell, Benny Goodman, down to yours truly (back in the day) have tried to play that piece ever since (hint: take the Drucker over the McNeely!!!). Do any of these versions of the piece sound the same, as good as, or better than the Stadler version? We can't really know. But one hopes that the soloist cops to the spirit of the piece, brings their own soul to the performance, and fulfills the role. Lee J. Cobb or Dustin Hoffman in "Death of a Salesman?" Guinness or Gielgud (or Pacino???) as Hamlet? One hopes that the play stands, regardless of who is the "soloist"; if he or she happens to be a motherf***er, well, all the better!