Buy 'Hands' - my new recording with Dave Binney, Tom Rainey, and Chris Guilfoyle!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Thanks and Happy New Year!

So, I reach the end of the first calendar year in which I've been doing this blog. I started it because I wanted to add to the rather slim ranks of musicians who write blogs, and write about the music in terms of the inner workings of the music as well as the social landscape in which it finds itself these days. This social aspect of the music is covered very well also by many non-musician bloggers - the NPR's "A Blog Supreme" is a particular favourite of mine in this respect - but I still think there's room for a bit more in-depth writing about the technical aspects of playing this music. I know I particularly enjoy reading musician's thoughts on all aspects of their profession, and I hope others will enjoy this blog for the same reason.

It's been an instructive seven months or so, some posts got amazing reaction in terms of comments, and others didn't - and I rarely know which subjects are going to provoke the most reaction - the massive response to the bass solos post was a case in point...........

I'd like to thank all who read the blog in 2009 and especially to those who took the time to write and respond - it's been a really interesting and stimulating experience for me and one I hope to continue into 2010. I'm off to Syria next week, where for reasons best known to themselves, the Government have banned Blogger, so my impressions of that trip, (I know it's not strictly music related, but the blog is call Mostly Music - my get-out clause for writing about other interests occasionally), will have to wait till I get back.

In the meantime I wish all of you a very Happy Christmas and peaceful and prosperous New Year.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Art and Craft

How important is craft to the art of jazz improvisation? In a music that developed out of many different approaches and solutions to technical, theoretical and aesthetic problems, can any one benchmark of craft be placed front and centre of the music as an identifier as to whether a performer is sufficiently proficient to be taken seriously in the music? How important is craft to the art? Is craft in itself something worthy of respect?

These thoughts were prompted by two things – something I read recently and something I watched. What I read was a post from the Groove Notes blog (thanks to the always interesting NPR 'A Blog Supreme' for this), ‘A jazz reminiscence by Dick Stein’, in which he told a story about how a less than proficient clarinettist was publicly humiliated by Jaki Byard
at a club in New York. The second thing that prompted the post was watching a Youtube clip of Hamiet Bluiett playing ‘Peggy’s Blue Skylight’ with the Charles Mingus group in 1972 (Posted below).

In the Byard story, he (Byard) not only heckles the clarinet player who is playing during the intermission in a duo with a drummer, but decides to prove that the clarinet player is a faker by going to the bandstand and challenging the guy to a trial by blues – accompanying him on the piano and punctuating the resultant performance with a profane ongoing critique, as a result of which a) the crowd are made to realise that the clarinet guy can’t play, b) they turn ugly, and c) clarinet guy turns tail and runs out into the night. At least that’s how the story is told – with no little relish – by Dick Stein.

This kind of story divides jazz readers into two camps — one camp would enjoy the story very much and see it as being a classic example of an interloper getting his comeuppance, someone who hasn’t done the necessary groundwork trying to put one over on the jazz public, and being found out, unmasked, and driven out by a crusader for the real jazz. This is definitely the view that would be taken by traditionalist defenders of the faith. On the other hand, there are doubtless readers of this story who would be outraged by it, and would see it as a typical piece of jazz fascism in which a very narrow view of what constitutes “correct” musicianship is foisted on all-comers, irrespective of their artistic leanings. I think this is definitely the view that would be taken by the post- free guys, who both argue for a broader definition of what constitutes jazz, and also question whether proficiency in playing over form, and over changes, constitutes any kind of litmus test of ability.

So which view is the correct one? Of course it’s impossible to tell from that story whether the clarinettist was as bad as was claimed or not. But should he have been given the opportunity to play his music unfettered by the views of Jaki Byard as to his abilities? In short, was Byard’s definition of craft — and insistence on the lack of it being shown here — too narrow, or did he have a point?

Again, it’s impossible to tell at this distance and at this remove from the incident itself whether the guy could play or not, but as far as my opinion is concerned, if the guy was as bad as suggested, then I have to have a certain sympathy with Byard’s views. I do think a certain element of craft is necessary in anybody who pertains to be a professional musician of any stripe, and in particular a professional jazz musician. I think anyone who demands money from the public to listen to their music, has a certain responsibility to that public to be a valid practitioner of a certain level — a musician that is of a high enough level to charge for his or her services. But what is the yardstick by which one can tell whether said musician is of a professional level?

Sound? This is a VERY subjective call, especially in jazz where you can hear such a huge divergence in sound – listen to Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane for an example of two acknowledged giants who could almost be playing different instruments, so great is the difference in their respective sounds. Classical music has a much narrower definition of what constitutes a ‘good’ sound – in jazz it’s a moveable feast, depending on era, style, approach and many other factors.

Intonation? Again, this is a grey area in jazz – less grey than it used to be, but grey nevertheless. While it’s true to say that there is more uniformity of opinion of what it means to be ‘in tune’ these days, there have been many examples of great jazz players whose approach to intonation would have raised many an eyebrow in other music, and often did even in jazz itself. And again the response to these different intonation approaches can be very subjective. In my own case I love the acerbic sound that Jackie McLean achieved largely by dint of his wayward intonation, yet I can barely listen to Eric Dolphy’s flute playing for the same reason. Go figure, as they say.

Speed? Technique is often defined by velocity, unfortunately. The speed somebody can play at is often taken as a measure of how good they are – i.e the faster you are, the better you are. Which is of course a very shallow way to listen to music and to judge music – but it appeals to certain types, especially young male jazz musicians! But leaving aside what the speed is used for, for the moment, there is no doubt that the ability to play fast and in time, (and this is a crucial distinction between those who are simply moving their fingers quickly and those who are relating what they’re playing to the underlying pulse), is definitely evidence of craft. The ability to play fast and in time is something that can only be achieved through years of dedicated practice and hard work. If somebody can do that well, they are definitely exhibiting a high level of craft. Whether they apply that craft in the service of art is a whole other question........

Ability to play on changes? Definitely a high craft factor here too – playing well over changes is HARD! Again it’s something that can only be done if you’ve spent long hours in the practice room, and it’s something that involves the ear, instrumental technique and rhythmic strength. There’s no doubt in my mind that anyone who can play well over changes, and negotiate them with good voice leading, and good time and feel is demonstrating a high level of craftsmanship.

But of course it's too easy to get into a narrow definition of what defines craft, and this is often done in jazz. There's a story about Thelonious Monk that describes how much he loved Bud Powell's playing and how in private he (Monk) would demonstrate his love for Bud by playing exactly like him. I've heard this story several times and have always hated it, since its agenda is really clear. This story sets out out to apologise for Monk's playing and 'validate' him by showing that he could play the way the piano should really be played if he chose to. I'm pretty sure that a) Monk couldn't play in the Powell style, (any more than Powell could have played in Monk's), and b) wouldn't have wanted to either. Because, like Powell, Monk's technique was of the highest level in that it was perfectly fashioned to express what it was he wanted to express.

And this seems to me to be the definition of craft serving art - a situation where the player has worked hard to reach a level of instrumental (or vocal) skill where he or she is perfectly equipped to express the musical ideas they have. Which is why the Monk/Powell story outlined above is so screwed up, since it implies that Monk’s craft or technique was less than Powell’s. This feeds into the idea that craft can be defined by very narrow parameters such as speed and dexterity. Speed and dexterity, assuming they’re aligned with a strong rhythmic sense, ARE signs of high levels of craft, but they’re not the only ones by any means.

When I was younger I must admit to being as bad as anybody in confusing speed with technique, or defining an ability to play by how well someone displayed a conventional technique on an instrument. For example in my early days as a player I just didn’t get Charlie Haden – I saw him as a primitive in comparison to say Paul Chambers or Scott LaFaro. It took several years for the penny to drop and for me to see the extraordinary levels of craft involved in what Haden did and to recognise that there’s more than one way to skin a cat, technique-wise.

But I have to say that I also believe there are measurable levels of craft on display when listening to a musician perform – i.e not everybody is of the same level of technique and craft in music. For me it comes down to being able to adequately deal with the technical challenges of the music you choose to play. There’s a very cruel, though funny, aphorism attributed to the great guitarist and pedagogue Mick Goodrick in which he will say to somebody struggling through something - ‘Yeah man, I hear what you’re trying to say......’ Which kind of sums it up for me – is the player technically equipped to deal with the musical challenges of a given piece of music? If so, this is a real demonstration of craft. But if a musician is struggling through something and clearly trying to play something that is beyond them technically, then there's definitely a craft problem.

Which brings me back to the Hamiet Bluiett video mentioned earlier. Bluiett is well known, and highly regarded as a member of the World Saxophone Quartet, and is a player from the freer end of the spectrum of jazz. But here he’s playing ‘Peggy’s Blue Skylight’ with Charles Mingus, a piece with both form and changes, and when it comes to the playing over the changes, his level of craft in this area is just not high enough to make his playing sound convincing. He opens his solo with a sonic barrage, which is very impressive, and you can clearly see that this is an area in which he’s very comfortable, and there’s no doubting the raw excitement it generates, with both audience and drummer Roy Books responding to it. But throughout the solo he alternates these frenzied passages with playing lines over the changes, and whenever he does the latter the rhythm is poor, the voice leading is poor - in short the craft is poor. And he’s clearly trying to play conventional lines in these sections, but he just hasn’t put in the man-hours on this particular facet of improvising to be convincing in it. This to me is a demonstrable lack of craft, and prevents me from enjoying the solo since there are so many flaws in the technique that it gets in then way of the music. The craft doesn’t support the art.

Opinion in the jazz world seems to be divided on the issue of craft. On the one hand you have the people who revere a very narrow definition of instrumental technique and equate that with musical greatness. This is clearly a very myopic and shallow way to think about music – craft does not automatically equal art, nor is there only one kind of craft.

On the opposing side you have the people who dismiss musicians who do have high levels of technical craft in their armoury, for just that reason – implying that the playing of changes with ease, (for example), automatically makes the musician a hollow vessel, incapable of real feeling, emotion and creativity. This attitude not only disrespects the work that’s been undertaken by the musician to achieve a high level of craft, it also denies craft in itself as being something worthy of respect.

Both of these attitudes are seriously flawed – a plague on both their houses just about sums it up. As someone who has spent the majority of his life, playing, thinking and talking about jazz, I do believe there’s far too much high craft put to poor use these days – far too much technical skill used for far too little result. But as a musician, I will always respect the craft of good musicians. Someone who can play at a high technical level has spent years getting to that level, which means they must be serious about what they do. Whether we like the result or not, the effort, skill and sheer hard work that’s gone into the music should be respected. Sometimes the art and the craft are in perfect harmony, sometimes they’re not, but though great art may be the ultimate goal for all creative musicians, great craft should equally be something that’s respected and recognised.

Art and Craft - like so many things in jazz, and in life, it's not simply an either/or issue.....................

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

On the Road

Métier recently had a series of three gigs (which counts as a tour these days..........) culminating in an appearance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of the London Jazz Festival. I decided to keep a road diary and take some photos and film footage - the results are below.

Limerick, Wednesday

I head off on what can only be described as a dreary drive to Limerick. Driving through the midlands is never a good advertisement for the island of Ireland - the road is pretty featureless and the greyness of the day does nothing to add to its meagre charms. The highight of the trip is when I hear a wonderful malapropism on the radio when one of the presenters describes last year's Christmas party as being a 'damp squid'.

I arrive in Limerick in the middle of a deluge, find the hotel (thanks Satnav!), check in quickly and head over to Dolan's Warehouse at around 4.30 - I'm doing a workshop at 6 with some local kids and I've arranged to meet the band beforehand to run through the material for tonight's gig - we haven't played in a while and we need to chip a bit of the rust off the written parts of the music. Of course as always in these situations the rehearsal starts later than advertised, but eventually we're all there and manage to get through all the material before the workshop starts.

We finish the last few notes of the rehearsal in front of a possibly interested, (it's hard to tell, so blank are their expressions), audience of kids - aged between 12 and 17 or so, who have come for the workshop. Limerick Jazz Society who are putting on the gig, are not only doing a great service in keeping the music alive in this part of the country, but are also doing trojan work in organising workshops for kids and giving them an opportunity to have access to proper instrumental training as well as introducing them to jazz.


But though they're not strangers to the concept of jazz, it's hard to know what to usefully do with an unknown group of teenagers in an hour and a half. They're very shy too, as is often the case in these situations, so there's nothing really coming back off them and it's difficult to know whether what I'm pitching to them is getting a response. I've opted for a two pronged approach - talk a bit about jazz, discuss what some of the most common constituents in the music might be, see what they know about the music - and secondly, play with them and see what that brings up in terms of conversation points.

Regarding chatting with them, it's hard to tell what they think or what they know, since my invitation to them to contribute to the conversation is not enthusiastically taken up - shyness gets the better of them and they have the look of a group who have been sentenced by a court to attend a jazz workshop....... As always, there's one kid who's really into it and asks lots of questions, while the rest are content to let him!

Things perk up a bit when we get up to play - I ask the drummer to play any kind of groove he wants since he's a bit self-conscious about playing any jazz things, so he goes into a rock groove played at the most phenomenal volume....... It's extraordinary the tolerance these kids have for volume, the noise he's making is absolutely deafening and my little Acoustic Image amp and acoustic bass wouldn't have a hope pitted against that. So I ask him to keep the same groove, but play quieter, which, he says, makes it much harder for him to play because now he's 'holding back'. But we eventually get something going and I agree on playing a blues with the third member of our trio, a really talented 12 year old who has the most astonishing technical facility for someone so young, and a lot of vocabulary. He's a student of Joe's, living in Limerick, though originally from Slovenia, and, all things being equal, a real prospect for the future.

After this trio I get another group up to play and we again do a blues (the true Lingua Franca of contemporary music), and this time the volume is being blasted out from both drums AND guitar! We eventually get that under control and then form issues raise their ugly head. It is always interesting to me when I hear people just play their licks, but don't notice that said licks don't work over the form they're allegedly playing. It's a really common problem and comes from the typical rock way of learning to play - attack the instrument first, learn some licks, and no matter what the context, get those licks in! It's a very instrument-driven way of learning, and uses the eyes as much as the ears, but it's hard to get the kids to let go of the safety net of what they know works technically, and just play by ear. To paraphrase the old saying, there's nothing to fear but ear itself.............

As always with these things, when the workshop is officially over and the kids are released from the dread of being asked to play in front of everybody, the atmosphere palpably relaxes and chatter breaks out for the first time.

It's hard to know how much the kids got from the workshop, but hopefully there'll be something in there for at least some of them which might spark their interest in investigating jazz a bit more.

At least one satisfied customer........

One great thing about playing in Dolan's is that they have a 'band menu' down in the restaurant section, a good variety of stuff, well prepared, and all for a tenner - the best deal in town by far.It should never be underestimated how large looms the importance of having somewhere to eat and a good hotel when one is on the road. Promoters often don't get this, and are surpised at the vehemence of a band's reaction when they're offered substandard accommodation or if no consideration is given to how, when or where they're going to eat before or after the gig. What people forget is that when you've spent all day travelling in an enclosed space, with the same people, what you want at the end of the day is something decent to eat and a decent place where you can have a rest and get a bit of privacy for a few hours.

The gig itself is fun - as always with these things, all the other stuff you go through, the driving, the hanging around, dealing with the little and large annoyances of being on the road, all fade into the background once you start playing, and suddenly you remember why you play this music in the first place. Since Limerick Jazz Society is a dedicated jazz organisation, you're always playing to a jazz audience there, which is nice. There's a decent crowd (for a jazz gig on a Wednesday evening when it's lashing rain outside.......), and they give us a good response.

We've opted for one long set rather than two shorter ones - this 90 minute festival-style set is one I'm a big fan of. I think it's just long enough for the band to really get going, yet not too long where you get into the situation where it's too long for the audience and musicians alike and where both lose focus. I like this long set format both as a listener and as a player. Sometimes the two-set format makes for too long an evening, unless the band plays a 45 minutes first set, followed by a 2nd of roughly the same length. Often jazz groups play for an hour, then take an interminably long break and come back and play for another hour or so. By which time some of the audience have left to catch buses etc, some have drunk too much and are noisy, or are suffering from too much music fatigue. I'm not sure that more music is always better - for example how often have you listened to all 70 minutes of a contemporary CD? The older 40-50 minutes format of LPs definitely made it easier to assimilate a whole programme of music - to me 'A Love Supreme' or 'Kind of Blue' would not necessarily have benefitted by having another 25 minutes of music tacked onto them........

So, the gig is fun, though we were a bit dodgy on some of the written material - when you've five people in a band playing challenging music, and especially when it's challenging music you haven't played for a while, or very often, you've five possibilities of something going wrong at any one time. So inevitably there will be a few hiccups, and indeed there were on this gig. But nothing major and the improv sections were all really strong. Everybody in the band is both a strong soloist and has a strong personality and this makes for very satisfying music. The group's been together with just one personnel change for nearly three years now, and it shows. We played some pieces from our CD Cascade, and from the recent suite of music I composed, about contemporary Ireland, called 'Fiasco', and the balance of the material works quite well - I think I'll keep this set list for tomorrow night's gig in Wexford as well..........

Musician, film thyself.......

Wexford, Thursday

Leaving the hotel the next morning I misjudge the exit from their underground car park and give my car a good scraping on the left rear of the vehicle - nice! Another campaign scar earned in the cause of jazz..................

According to the AA Routeplanner Wexford is only 189 Km from Limerick, yet according to the same source it will take me almost three hours to cover that distance. On setting out it soon becomes obvious why this skewed distance vs. time ratio is suggested - the road between Limerick and Wexford is completely shite! Single carriageway for much of it, infested with agricultural vehicles of all kinds, peopled by overtaking maniacs who refuse to accept the limitations of driving on such a road and who thunder past in a homicidal manner, and intermittent showers all make for a testing drive. At least the newly opened Waterford bypass has saved me from the hell of entering Waterford city during rush hour.

The roads in Ireland are definitely getting better, but there are still rogue sections like this one, which are completely motorway-free and would probably be recognisable to someone who'd driven these roads in the 1930s. But one of the few nice things about driving on Irish roads is that you often come across many unexpectedly picturesque and beautiful sights. The quality of the light is kind of unique in this country and even in November you can come across sights like this:

and this:

Great town names like this:

and even evidence that great jazz pianists have been reincarnated and are now making a living in the construction industry in Tipperary:

And, coming through New Ross I came across the 'Dunbrody Famine Ship' - a restored ship of the type that took many Irish to America during the Famine in the 19th Century - its masts silhouetted against the evening sun........

Eventually I arrive in Wexford, where we're playing at the Arts Centre. I decide to check into the hotel first - the Maldron - but on arrival in my room I find it's not very promising. The room is cold, there's a fair bit of traffic noise outside and the wireless internet (that indispensable aid to travelling musicians these days), is not working in the room. Wexford is only 90 minutes away from Dublin, so I decide that I'll just leave my suitcase and computer here, do the gig, pick the stuff up and drive back home after the gig. A lot of musicians I know are quite into driving home after out of town gigs if it's at all feasible - but I'm not one of them. In general I like to relax after a gig and not get into the car and drive while tired, in the dark and on roads often unsuited to night driving of any kind. But this room seems so uninviting that I decide I'll just split after the gig and get a comfortable night's sleep at home.

Wexford has a world famous Opera Festival, and through this has a reputation for music and cuture. But strangely enough it's never been a regular stop on the jazz circuit in Ireland, neighbouring Waterford having much more activity happening in the jazz field, mainly due to the pro-jazz leanings of the Garter Lane Arts Centre there. So up to fairly recently I'd hardly ever played in Wexford. However that changed recently with a more pro-jazz policy emanating from the Wexford Arts Centre, and I'd already played two very nice gigs there earlier this year, one in January, playing the music of John Coltrane, and one later playing in a trio with Tommy Halferty.

It's a good place to play, audiences are enthusiastic and the management are cool - however before getting to play one has to negotiate two flights of stairs. So often jazz gigs are upstairs - or downstairs - as if the music wasn't difficult enough to play, rhythm section players have to add the skills of a stevedore to their portfolio if they're to make it in the jazz world. It's at times like these that I give thanks to the people at Acoustic Image who at last have figured out how to make a small bass amp that sounds good..........

(Setting up in Wexford)

We carry the gear upstairs and get set up, (one thing I find incredibly wearing - musicians practicing on stage while everyone's getting set up, maybe I'm becoming a grumpy old man, but it always seems so inconsiderate to be blasting through your shit while people are all around you trying to set their gear up), run through a couple of things that were untidy the night before, agree on the set list and soundcheck. We're playing mostly acoustically, with only the tenor going through the PA which always speeds things up. Michael discovers a piano in a cupboard and plays some true upright piano........

I remember Tom Rainey saying to me on a gig that the four most important words at a soundcheck are 'sounds great, let's eat!' - and how right he was. Another nice thing about playing Wexford is that there's an excellent Italian restaurant right across the road - 'La Scala' - a very unprepossessing looking place but one that nevertheless serves really good and different Italian food - wish it was in Dublin............

So, food eaten, (Papardelle with porcini mushrooms and truffle oil - result!), we head back to the venue for the gig - the usual stage wait in an ante-room, though this one is a cut above the normal dressing room since it's also part of an art exhibition at the Centre. It's very true to say that being on the road is like being in the army during a war - lots of travelling, boredom and hanging around followed by forty five minutes of fear, confusion, and chaos!

(Joe, Sean, and Justin contemplate the infinite while waiting to go over the top..........)

The Gig

Definitely better than the night before - playing music properly has so much to do with just playing it enough times. Compared to our jazz ancestors we play hardly at all - one can never underestimate the effect that the number of gigs that earlier generations of jazz musicians played must have had on their techniques, their stamina, their ability to play at a consistently high level and of course, by extension, the quality of the music that they produced. I notice immediately the difference in my own ability to play when I have the chance to play a few gigs in a row. It has something to do with the physical technique becoming more lubricated, and this has a knock-on effect on the creative mind. With the fingers working better you become less distracted by the physical and the instrument seems to play itself somehow.

And of course playing a series of gigs with a band has the effect of both tightening up the ensemble passages and at the same time (in a creative band at least), making everything looser. Because the band members are more immediately comfortable with what comes next in each tune - where the backgrounds happen, how the tune ends, who solos where, what the cues are etc. - everyone feels freer to take chances in the full confidence that if something doesn't quite work out the music won't fall apart. Tonight's gig definitely feels like that - there's more confidence in the band and having a second go at the same set definitely helps in freeing any creative shackles that may have been there previously. Since we have a fairly major gig in London coming up on Saturday, having these two gigs has been really useful to us and I feel we're more than ready to play the London Jazz Festival.

On arrival back to the hotel I find that the heating is now on, the wireless now working and the noise from the road has disappeared - I reconsider my decision to drive back to Dublin.................

London, Saturday

The ‘Red Eye’ is well named — those flights that leave at an ungodly hour, and that seemed to make up 90% of all flights that musicians are condemned to take. Red eyes are not the only thing that you suffer from on these flights, I always have a feeling that my eyes are about to drop out of my head when the alarm clock rudely interrupts what would otherwise be a perfectly satisfactory sleep. Those first 20 minutes are the worst, after that it kind of becomes okay to the point where I often arrive at the airport terminal and am actually surprised to realise that it's only 5:30 AM. This flight is not too early - 9 AM, but that means being at the airport at 7 AM, which means leaving my house at 5:45 AM, and getting up at 5:15 AM. Such is life — or at least a musician’s life.

Having made all that effort it’s a little bit irritating to find that the airport is half empty, and that we could have come a half an hour later and got an extra 30 minutes of valuable sleep — it’s November and serious low season for flying, so the usual early morning chaos is notable by its absence. We check in — I’m the only one checking in any luggage because my bass is too big to go in the cabin, and therefore has to go in the hold. Fortunately I have a custom-built case that can pretty much withstand everything except US Homeland Security..............

A quick coffee before we board the plane, (a quick tip if you’re passing through Dublin Airport — Butler’s has the best coffee not only at the airport, but possibly in Dublin too), we meet up with Ronan from IMC (who have hooked up the gig for us), who will be riding shotgun with us, and we’re off.

50 minutes later we’re in London, where we meet up with Joe, who is that most unusual of Irish Jazz musicians in that he doesn’t live in Dublin, and so has flown to London from Shannon in the west of Ireland.

We’re picked up by the festival driver and head into London, then check into the hotel. For once we actually have time to have a small bite of lunch before going to the sound check. We are immediately reminded that though Dublin may be expensive, it can’t hold a candle to London — I buy a cappuccino at the hotel and it cost me the equivalent of four euro — you would be hard-pressed to pay that at the Four Seasons in Dublin, but even in a bog-standard London hotel like this one they can demand this astronomical figure without a blush apparently.

On to the South Bank Centre where we'll be playing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall opposite Tomasz Stanko. It's good to have Ronan with us to organise the logistics of the trip - no matter how many times I do this, I always find the logistical chore of being a bandleader, (calling cabs, dealing with the hotel, telling everyone where to be at what time etc.) to be a drag, and I find it difficult to switch that tour manager side of my brain off when it comes to performance time, and concentrate solely on the music. But for once I don't have to do it and so I wallow in the luxury of being the band leader yet not having to deal with all that logistical shite.

The weather's really crap - we apparently are arriving in the middle of the 'worst storm for 30 years', but it doesn't seem to have dampened the enthusiasm of the London Jazz Festival audiences - no less than three of the major shows are sold out tonight, including the one we're playing.We get our passes and enter the bowels of the QEH, find the dressing room and calculate that since Stanko is only just finishing his soundcheck and they have to reset the stage for us, we have enough time for a coffee - the trick with soundchecks is to be prepared for interminable bouts of hanging around, especially if you're soundchecking 2nd, (or even worse - 3rd!), either have a book with you or be good at estimating how much quality time you can squeeze in before you're really needed to soundcheck. The experienced soundchecker will arrive at the appointed time and then immediately find out what stage the sound crew/other band are at in their soundcheck and make their plans accordingly. So, over to the Royal Festival Hall's café which seems to have all its tables taken up by people taking advantage of the free WiFi rather than actually buying any food......... A quick exorbitantly priced coffee later, it's back to the QEH to find that they've somehow mislaid the bass amp and there'll be a delay while they find out what's happened to it.

The QEH is an impressive looking space with raked seating and a large stage - we find that the audience will be sitting behind us as well as the in the more usual frontal position. It's been a while since I played 'in the round' but it shows the pulling power of Stanko, that despite the fact that Sonny Rollins is playing at the same time a few hundred yards away, he can sell out the QEH to such an extent that they have to open the seats behind the stage. Apart from the missing bass amp, it's a quick enough set up and the sound guys are very good - it doesn't take long to get a decent sound once all the equipment is in place, and that's another thing to be grateful for. A quick soundcheck with an efficient sound crew is a pearl beyond price, it helps so much. The alternative - an interminable sound check with nothing working, punctuated by howling feedback - can be such a downer before you play, cheating you of valuable eating or rest time. Actually good soundmen/women who take care of business quickly and efficiently are rare - it always baffles me why so many sound people are so crap at their job - especially given they're usually dealing with the same equipment every day. Yet time and again they seem to forget that if you press THAT button, you get THIS deafening noise............................................

The gig will start at 7.30. so we decide to eat afterwards, and hang around in the Green Room, snacking on cheese and fruit - more waiting! Eventually it's showtime, and I'm asked to have a chat with Jez Nelson, the BBC's jazz guy who will be introducing the concert - basically what this means is that I have to tell him who the hell we are! A festival worker asks me how long the first piece will be so they can tell latecomers how long to expect to wait before they can take their seats. When I say 10 minutes at least, she seems surprised and says 'oh, that seems a very long time' - really? When was the last time you went to a jazz gig and the first piece was shorter than 10 minutes?

(The QEH from the stage)

(Sean plays tandem drums)

The Gig

So on we go eventually and it all goes very well. We play a truncated version of the set we played in Limerick and Wexford. We only have 40 minutes to do our stuff, and in a situation like this you really have to stick to the schedule - if you bogart the gig everyone gets pissed off - the radio people (the BBC were recording this), the organisers, the headliners. I've seen situations where bands get an opportunity to play a big gig as an opener for a famous act and think that by playing really long people will see just how great they are - WRONG! The audience are really there to see the main act, and in an ideal situation you can add to their enjoyment and do yourself some good by providing an unexpected extra musical treat for them, but unless you ARE actually the main act, you should never lose sight of the fact that you're not the main reason the audience is there.

The sound was good, for me at least, on the stage - though Michael said afterwards that he couldn't hear some things well at all - it's often the case with these big stages, you can have a very different aural experience to the guy standing only a couple of feet away from you. But for me, I enjoyed the sound, though it was different to hear the music played with the thicker, richer texture of the grand piano, rather than the Fender Rhodes we'd been using on the other gigs. I really like the Rhodes, I like the transparent texture it gives to the music and its percussive nature, but it was nice to hear the music with the big sound of the grand piano on this occasion. The band sounded really good too - the previous concerts having honed our set into something that could be shown to maximum effect in the short time we had and in the big space we were in.

But of course there are certain things you can't legislate for, in this case Joe breaking a string in the second piece! He had to go off and get a new string, while I tried to fill in time on the mic - not very successfully! Eventually we just started the next piece without Joe, though he did manage to join us half way through. The audience were terrific - I wasn't sure how we'd be received because we were definitely an unknown quantity. As always with a Stanko concert there were a huge number of Poles in the hall, and there we were - an unknown band of Irish guys taking up space and time which could have been filled by their hero and compatriot - it could have got ugly! But it didn't, indeed it went even better than I'd hoped and we were warmly received on entering the stage and even more warmly applauded at the end of the last piece.

So everyone was happy - the promoters were happy, the audience were happy, the band were happy, even the man from the BBC music blog was happy!

So that was that - there remained only one last piece of road duty to fulfill - and we did it - we had a great meal in a Persian restaurant. It may be true, as Napoleon said, that an army marches on its stomach, but it's even more true of a band.............

Something attempted, something done................

Saturday, November 21, 2009


I got my first Acoustic Bass Guitar in 1983. From the beginning of buying my first bass – an Ibanez electric which cost me £49 – I was listening pretty much exclusively to jazz which of course was pretty much exclusively played on upright bass. And I’d have loved to have played an upright bass – virtually everyone I was listening to was an upright player – but I couldn’t afford a good one. I got an opportunity to play an upright bass when a friend of mine loaned me one, but it wasn’t a good instrument, was physically difficult to play, and I hated the feel and sound of it. So going on the basis that I’d rather have a decent electric sound than a crap acoustic one, I persevered with the electric and just tried to make it as acoustic sounding as possible – flatwound strings, fretless, using the left hand (the plucking hand – I’m left handed) close to the end of the fretboard in order to get a softer sound, using the side rather than the tip of my finger to get a fatter sound etc. All my efforts were directed towards making the electric instrument sound more acoustic.

Then a student of mine arrived at the house one day with an Acoustic Bass Guitar – must have been one of the first ones manufactured around that time – an EKO, an Italian factory built instrument – not a very good one but it was a revelation to me. It had the acoustic property I’d been looking for, but had the physical characteristics of the bass guitar – I’d seen the future, and it worked! I had a bit of work done on it to customise it for me, and from then on I gave up the electric bass and focussed exclusively on the ABG.

And have been doing so ever since. I’ve been exclusively playing ABG for the past 26 years with a few returns to the electric bass for gigs of Brazilian music, or occasional other situations where the electric is more suitable. But in general it’s been the ABG all the way since then, and I really love it. I love the fact that it blends well with other acoustic instruments, I love the way it can sound so good in the traditional role of the bass in jazz. I love the way you can manipulate the sound with your fingers rather than through electronics, and I even love the fact that you have to fight a bit harder to get the sound from the instrument than you do on an electric – there’s something about that little bit of extra work you have to do that is more satisfying than the instant touch response of the electric, on the ABG I feel more connected to the resultant sound than I do on the electric. I got a custom-built instrument in 1993, with a deeper body and longer scale neck, and a double cutaway, and I’m still using this instrument – as the wood has matured and settled the sound has got better and better.

One thing that’s always surprised me about the ABG is how few jazz players have taken to it. There are many electric players playing jazz these days but the instrument is problematic when playing with acoustic instruments, and especially in a more traditional jazz setting. The electric’s sonority is very prominent and it tends to stick its nose out of the ensemble too much and rudely draw attention to itself. The upright bass lends itself better to blending into the ensemble while proving the essential bottom to the music in an unobtrusive way. The ABG has this quality too and although it has a smaller sound than the upright, it has a similar sonority and tonal character. So it's ideal for acoustic jazz, and is an ideal vehicle for bass guitar players in that idiom, but it has never taken off for some reason. Apart from myself, the only other person I’m aware of playing the ABG exclusively is Jerome Harris – and even he plays regular guitar from time to time. The great Steve Swallow, who of course pioneered the electric bass in jazz, has also recently taken to playing an ABG of his own design , but that seems to be pretty much it for ABG players in jazz – I’m sure there are more I’m not aware of, but there’s no doubt that it’s still a rarity in jazz. Which is a pity because it’s a great instrument, with lots of potential for expressive and diverse playing.

Over the years I’ve made several solo recordings of the ABG, though I’ve never released any of them, (strangely enough the jazz record companies have not been beating a path to my door or squabbling among themselves for the privilege of releasing an album of solo ABG improvisations..........). I love making these recordings as I can utilise the natural sound of the instrument without pickups (essential for playing with a band, since the ABG’s sound is not loud enough to compete with drums or piano for example), and feature its full sonority. I recently recorded a few pieces and put them up on Youtube – I wanted to capture various aspects of the instrument in an improvised setting. So I recorded some different types of pieces – such as Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ in 7, (below), a piece featuring walking bass, an exploration of the sonic possibilities of the instrument, a piece based on traditional bebop bass soloing techniques, a classic ballad standard, and Ornette’s classic ’Round Trip’

I met the legendary Muhal Richard Abrams over twenty years ago and he did a double-take on seeing the instrument and immediately said ‘Wow man, with that you’ve got the portability and facility of the electric cats, but the sound of the acoustic cats’ - exactly! So why don’t more people see that as quickly as Muhal did............?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

When drums stop - big trouble!

Most jazz musicians probably know this joke -- the one about the guy on Safari, who when travelling through the jungle hears some incredible drumming coming from a distance. The following conversation ensues with his local guide:

Guy: Wow! That's amazing -- let's see if we find it!
Guide: No! We must go now -- when drums stop, big trouble!
Guy: But the drumming sounds amazing, I really want to check it out
Guide: No -- we must go, when drums stop, big trouble!
Guy: But this is the kind of thing I came here to experience! I really want to hear it!
Guide: No! We must go before drums stop!
Guy: But why? What happens when the drums stop?
Guide: Bass solo!!

Like all good jokes, there's an element of truth to it -- there are indeed people who fear and dread bass solos! This post is prompted by a little throwaway remark by the excellent Patrick Jarenwattananon from NPR, who in reviewing a concert by the bassist Linda Oh said: "Oh did a rare thing: play a non-boring bass solo". He later clarified this in response to a comment I left on his blog, explaining that it was meant in a light-hearted way. Even so, I find that to be an interesting remark because as a bassist, I of course have had to think about the whole soloing issue, and there's also no doubt that bass solos elicit a wide range of responses from listeners (and musicians), ranging from groans to (sometimes undeservedly) huge accolades.

The bass' primary function is of course that of accompaniment, and we spend more than 90% of our time in that role. If you don't enjoy the accompaniment role above all else, then you definitely shouldn't be a bassist. Having said that, there is a long and proud history of bassists who have expanded the role of the instrument and taken it into the realms of the soloist - starting with Jimmy Blanton and then onwards into the bebop era -- Ray Brown (left), Oscar Pettiford, Mingus etc -- and then into the 1950s with people like Paul Chambers and George Duvivier. And then around 1960 comes the quantum leap forward in technique and speed pioneered by Scott LaFaro with Evans. This represented a seismic shift in how the bass was treated both technically and functionally. But it is also the point in which jazz bass playing takes two different directions -- one which continued the tradition of bassists such as Blanton and Ray Brown, and another which followed the pioneering work of LaFaro (pictured below).

These are very different ways of playing the instrument -- one, (the LaFaro stream), uses quite a low action and features the player using the complete range of the instrument from very low to very high. The other uses quite high action and the player tends to concentrate his playing in the more traditional lower register of the bass. The low action of the LaFaro-ites allowed for a greater rapidity of movement, but it did affect the sound too - a softer less prominent sound than that of the high-action bassists who in pre-amplifier days were used to driving large bands and forceful soloists forward, and for whom sound projection was very important.

So by the mid-60s there were two distinct strains of bass playing extant in jazz, both of which featured very strong soloists. Since electric bass was still relatively unknown in jazz, most of the bassists at this time were playing acoustic bass. The advent of an amplification in the early 70s made the physical challenge of playing the instrument more manageable, and many bassists gratefully accepted the help of electronics in making their life physically easier. But some of the sounds of those early amplified basses were pretty awful. A case in point would be Ron Carter's classic playing on Joe Henderson's "Tetragon". His walking bass line on "Invitation", is one of the greatest in recorded history in my opinion, but also features a pretty horrible bass sound. Thanks to the pickup, Carter went from having one of the most rich and full bass sounds in jazz to having one of the most metallic. But this loss of natural sound didn't deter the bassists of that time, they took to the pickups in droves.

Fast forward to the 1980s and something interesting happens -- a new jazz orthodoxy appears from the south and decrees bass amplification to be an abomination. An insistence on a return to pre-amplification days becomes de rigueur with the Marsalis clan in particular, and bassists working in their orbit were required to raise their action again and just use a microphone stuck in front of the bass for amplification. Reintroducing such physical difficulties in playing the instrument immediately caused problems for soloists whose speed and fluency took a step backwards. In the new orthodoxy LaFaro's tradition became anathema and devotees of the style were denounced and ridiculed. Stanley Crouch even went as far as to say that LaFaro played the bass in the way it would be played if jazz had been created in Europe! On top of this the Marsalis clan also put the following notice on the cover of their albums 'This recording was made without usage of the dreaded bass direct'.

The sheer arrogance of this stance is breathtaking - a saxophonist, a trombone player, a trumpet player and a failed drummer-turned journalist telling bassists how THEY should play their instruments! I wonder how Wynton, Delfeayo or Branford would feel if a bassist told them how they should play their horns? Also incorporated into this philosophy of how a bass should sound was a philosophy of what a bass should do - little soloing, or ideally not solo at all. The result of this intervention into the natural evolution of the bass was a production line of bassists who were like dray horses - chugging away, Suppliers of Quarter Notes by Royal Appointment to the self-styled horn playing aristocracy of jazz - or as a bassist friend of mine puts it - 'beboppers labourers'. All the earlier work and research and invention of all those bassists over the years dismissed at the stroke of a revisionist pen, so to speak. The whole neo-classical movement of the 80s set the cause of bass soloing back by about 10 years. Of all the Wynton bass acolytes, Bob Hurst (above left) was the only one who really found a way to combine the demands of the Marsalis crew for the bass to be a one-trick pony yet also develop as a really strong soloist. Unfortunately he ran away to join the Tonight Show circus before he could really make an impact.

But eventually the wholesale dismissal of great bassists because they didn't conform to a narrow ideal of what bassists should do receded, and a new generation of players appeared in the 90s who took freely from both traditions of bass playing and took the instrument into new realms of possibility as far as soloing was concerned.

But despite this, there is still a divided view on bass solos - one being that they are boring and dull, the other that they are always worthy of applause. Both views are equally unwarranted - bass solos can be wonderful interesting creative constructs, and they can be dull and boring - like any instrument, it depends on the soloist as to which qualities of dullness or invention they exhibit. The branding of bass solos as being automatically boring is grossly unfair to the many great soloists who have appeared on the instrument since the music's inception, and grossly unfair to the many great soloists who are performing now.

But equally unjust is the wild applause that sometimes greets dull pedestrian soloing on the bass - this is especially true of double bass. Again it's a bit like the 'talking dog syndrome'' which I referred to in an earlier post - it's not so much what the dog says that's amazing, it's the fact that the dog can talk at all. Some audiences see a bassist playing this huge instrument and are amazed at the fact that the bassist can coax anything out of it apart from a dull thud, and so they greet anything other than a dull thud with thunderous applause. There's a very funny piece called 'bass players offences and fines' which did the rounds a few years ago and included a fine of $25 for 'excessive sweating' - this is very observant since a sweating bassist thudding out basic arpeggios in lieu of a solo is often enough to elicit huge applause from many audiences.

This simple arpeggiation of the changes to a tune often comes under the heading of a 'bass solo' but really this kind of thing just amounts to a speeded up bass line rather than a solo proper, in my opinion. A very good indicator of whether a bass solo stands up to any kind of critical scrutiny - at least over changes - can be determined by imagining the solo played on another instrument - or being sung. If the solo were sung or played on a saxophone, would it still sound good? If not, then the likelihood is that the solo is probably not very good. A good bass solo should have the same qualities of phrasing, logic and construction as a solo on any other pitched instrument. Of course there are exceptions - particularly in the area of more open playing, where the qualities of the bass are used to their fullest extent, and the solo would just not be as effective on another instrument - Dave Holland's Emerald Tears recording would be a classic case in point. But in general I think the 'how would it sound on another instrument?' question is a good litmus test of the qualities inherent in a given bass solo.

There are so many examples of truly great bassists playing truly great solos - many of them up on Youtube - which act as an illustration of how misguided the idea of all bass solos being boring is. From the fully developed post LaFaro virtuosity of Eddie Gomez with Bill Evans, to the post Paul Chambers virtuosity of Peter Washington with Tommy Flanagan. From the effortless swinging suppleness of George Mraz - again with Flanagan - to the complete command of both open arco playing and lyrical soloing over changes of the great Anders Jormin (pictured above left). From the effortless lyricism of Steve Swallow's electric bass in duo with Carla Bley, to the rhythmic power of Dave Holland and his solo rendition of Coltrane's 'Mr. PC'. And two contemporary American masters - the extraordinarily accomplished all rounder Drew Gress, and Scott Colley, whose ability to shape a phrase is the equal of any horn player.

All of these players make a great case for the tradition of bass soloing, and show that it needn't be dull or boring, that the instrument can speak in as powerfully expressive a way as a solo vehicle as any other, and that when the drums do eventually stop, we have something to look forward to rather than fear..............

Monday, October 5, 2009


I’ve just finished writing some politically motivated music or possibly socially motivated music, or possibly politically and socially motivated music. Either way, what’s interesting here is that I’m writing music that is about something rather than music that is purely in the abstract. I found this kind of programmatic writing to be quite difficult to do up to recent years, then the past five years or so I’ve used it more and more and come to enjoy it.

This new music entitled “Fiasco! (Terms and Conditions Still Apply)”, is music inspired, (if “inspired” is the right word for this), by Ireland’s economic collapse. A couple of years ago I wrote a piece called “Terms and Conditions Apply”, that was about the Ireland of 2007. At that point we were riding high on the hog, and the proud possessors of the “Celtic Tiger” (maybe one too many animal analogies there.............), we were the economic miracle country, the one that all other small nations looked at as a shining example of how to do things right. Of course it was all built on sand, sand that was liberally supplied by our government and their cronies in the banks and the property speculation business. Though our country was really proud of this new-found wealth (the Irish were the ultimate nouveau riche), I always felt slightly uncomfortable with the situation, especially given the extraordinary excesses of borrowing and profligate spending by people in even the most humble economic circumstances.

For someone of my generation, coming from a background in which the country had traditionally lived hand to mouth, it was hard to believe that things had really changed so fast, and that the mad spending was something that was a) good and b) sustainable. “It’ll all end in tears”, as my mother used to say, and indeed it has — we’ve gone from being the most nouveau riche of countries to the most lachrymose. There is much weeping and gnashing of teeth going on, but it’s too late — we’re screwed. Screwed by inept and corrupt politicians, and completely immoral, (though when were bankers and property speculators ever moral?) members of the banking profession and construction industry.

My own doubts about the boom were reflected in the 2007 piece “Terms and Conditions Apply”, which was quite an angry piece in the main, and used both audio and visuals, (a first for me with both of these), to make its point — the point being that crazy spending, corrupt politicians, and incompetence in the management of basic services was a combination that was not a good thing for any country to be mixing together. This message was not a popular one in 2007, and though I was proud of the piece itself, and I thought the music came off rather well, the piece didn’t really take off commercially — it had two performances and that was it. If only I’d waited two more years, I could have been riding as high on the hog as any government supported banker of the boom years!

Now I’ve written this companion piece called “Fiasco!”, which will be performed by Métier in Cabinteely House on Thursday the 15th. In writing this new piece I’ve taken a different approach than the previous one, in that I have eschewed the use of audio and visual elements, and I’m relying on the music alone to get the message across regarding what I feel about what’s going on currently. This has been an interesting exercise — when you use audio and visual aids to the music it’s much easier to be explicit to an audience concerning what you’re trying to say. With instrumental music the outcome, in terms of what you’re saying and what the audience is hearing, is not as clear cut. It’s definitely riskier.

But on the other hand you can combine musical elements in all kinds of ways to represent different emotions and thoughts. No doubt the audience will interpret these in different ways, and sometimes in very different ways to the ones that I had intended, but I’m hopeful that the general message of the pieces will be fairly obvious to the audience. And of course the beauty of jazz composition in a situation like this is that you can enrol the help of the players in making the statements that you wish to make, if the players are good enough and sympathetic enough, (and the guys in Métier are both of these things and more), then I think the composer is in a position to make a very strong statement using just pitch harmony and rhythm, and without recourse to speech and sight.

And I’m glad to be able to make this statement - it might not be much in the grand scheme of things, but when we hear a government announce that they haven’t the money to inoculate the girls of the country against cervical cancer, and at the same time revelations about the disgusting use of public money by the Speaker of the House, (such as hiring a limo to take him between different terminals at Heathrow!), for his own personal purposes come into the public domain, AND he doesn’t resign, (we don’t do responsibility and accountability in Ireland), then I feel I have to say something, however small its effect may be.

So, if you’re interested in a bit of agitprop jazz, want to protest against the government (or at least support a protest), or just want to hear some hopefully interesting new music, come down to Cabinteely House on Thursday 15th – the revolution starts there!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Composer's Mind

It’s always interesting for a composer to listen to the work and study the work of another composer. It’s particularly interesting in the case of a jazz composer like myself who, like most jazz composers, is also a performer — so I get to not only listen to and study the work of other composers, I also get to play their music. At the moment I’m working on music by the great German trombonist Nils Wogram, who has written a new set of music for my group Métier. I’ve always been an admirer of Nil’s writing — to my mind he’s a real composer, someone whose every piece contains interesting wrinkles, new ways of looking at old things, and just out and out new things. The five pieces he’s written for us are no exception — they’re challenging and demand a fair bit of work on the part of the players, but it’s worth it — tough but fair!

Of course Nils is also a phenomenal virtuoso on his instrument, and I’ve brought him here to Ireland on several previous occasions to play my music, something which he has always done incredibly well and along with his great playing ability, he has always brought his own composer’s mind to bear on the interpretation of my pieces. This is the first time the boot is on the other foot, and I get to see what I can do to interpret his work. The music he’s written is full of surprises, and contains so much different stuff, yet all with the unmistakable stamp of his personality.

We’ll be performing the music with him next Thursday, 1 October, in Cabinteely House — a really beautiful setting for acoustic music. If you’re around, and are interested in hearing some really great original compositions, please come down and check it out.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Jim McNeely on Composition (Interview)

(Picture:Aestheticize Media)

Jim McNeely is one of the truly great contemporary American jazz composers. Following on from a comment he made to a post I’d written about integrating solos into extended form compositions, he allowed me to interview him about the act of composition in contemporary jazz. What follows is a transcript of that conversation, and it covers a huge area and many aspects of the art and craft of writing for improvising musicians.

It is a very large post, and I did consider dividing it into two parts, but in the end I left it as one post, because to divide it in two would have interrupted the flow of the conversation. I have added headings relating to the different aspects of composition we were discussing which should help with navigation. I think it makes for fascinating and essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary jazz writing.

RG: The first thing want to I ask you about is: regarding your beginnings as a composer, was there a time where you started as a composer? Was it an evolutionary thing, did you study composition, was it something you were very conscious you wanted to do, or was it something that you kind of found yourself drifting into?

JM: Well somehow I got it in my head one day, I was about 14 or so, that I could write a song — and I did. I had read somewhere that you could make a bass line based on different notes of the chromatic scale, and you could write them out and use that as the basis for a melody — I don’t know where I read this.............

RG: I don’t think it was in the local newspaper somehow!

JM: (Laughs) Yeah, right — in the “Weekly Shopper”! And I can’t even remember how it was, but I had this idea I could do it, and that led me to getting into arranging. I had the old Russ Garcia arranging book, in fact as a high school kid that’s where I learned most of my jazz theory — from that book. It taught basic voicings and keeping the root out of the voicings etc. — all the basic tools. So I started out arranging for the big band — I was lucky that the high school I was in had a very good big band, with a director who was very open to me bringing in music.

So I started arranging, and then I started writing original things for the band too. They were kind of tunes — they had tunes in them but they went to other places. At the time I was, (this was around ‘65 or ‘66), into Coltrane who’d just recorded “Ascension”, I was into Archie Shepp, and some pretty raucous music, and Ornette, as well as Count Basie — I guess I saw a marriage of the two! Then in college I became a composition major. First I auditioned and got in as a Music Ed. Major, but after a while I thought “this isn’t for me”, and I changed to a composition major. Again all I had written was jazz stuff, and it was really just trial and error — which is the basic process that for me has continued to today. I would write something and the stuff that sounded good I would say ‘well I’ll keep that’, and with the stuff that sounded bad I would say “well, I’ve got to find another way of doing what I thought I was doing”

And I learnt that listening with brutal honesty to what you’ve written is the key to the whole thing — not copping an attitude. I sometimes see this with students, where they say “well, that’s what I’m hearing man”, and I realise they’re not hearing anything! (Laughs) It’s like when Ronald Reagan said “I don’t recall”, there is no way to prove what is going on in someone’s head — it’s kind of a copout. Though maybe sometimes it’s not.

But for me it was just trial and error, and when I got into composition I studied more of classical theory and 12 tone techniques, and I also studied counterpoint and fugue, which I thought were really important. And I started writing chamber music that was ‘in the cracks’ between jazz and chamber music.

RG: And this was cool for you to do in college? It wasn’t an explicitly classical programme — or an explicitly jazz one?

JM: Yeah, that was at the University of Illinois in the early 70s. In fact at that time the U of I was a real hotbed of contemporary chamber music — they had a big festival every two years. And I played in a lot of those — I played clarinet and bass clarinet in those days and some piano, and I got to play some music that effectively erased the word “weird” from my vocabulary. In fact when I got to New York years later I’d often be sitting with a friend listening to some music, and he’d say “man this stuff is weird”, and I’d think, “man, I played that kind of stuff 8 years ago!”

So, a lot of what I did was chamber music oriented, in fact if I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t pursue a little more of the traditional classical orchestration studies, and writing orchestral pieces. When I think of it - you know, they say ‘youth is wasted on the young - and there I had access to all these great piano teachers, and a symphony orchestra, and I never took advantage of it. It was stupid, I was just trying to write big band charts!

But anyway, some of this stuff I was writing was somewhere in the middle between some of the more improvised chamber music that was going on, and jazz. And in a way I’ve tried to keep that alive in certain things I’ve written since then. So, what I did in college was I studied certain aspects of composition and I also learned some things about planning out a piece before you start thinking about notes.

Starting from Scratch

RG: OK, this leads on to another question, so I’ll take the opportunity to interrupt you there. I was going to ask you about starting from scratch. Sometimes one is commissioned to write a piece that involves some given piece of information — it might be a programmatic thing for example. But a lot of the time - and especially for someone like you who is very well known for writing for big bands - you're often just asked to write some music for a big band, and you’re faced with the situation where you have the band, and you have to write some music, but you have to start from Ground Zero so to speak. So what do you do in that situation — what are the kinds of things you think about before you think about the notes?

JM: I think about real basic things. I see it the way a painter might define the size of a canvas before they start to paint, or the way an architect knows he’s got a certain space to deal with. So — it sounds kind of stupid when you talk about it — but one of the first things I always think about is how long the piece is going to be. And if it’s for a specific group I think about their capabilities, or I think about their sound, because that’s the instrument I’m going to use to express the piece. There will also be other considerations — besides thinking of them (the players and the band), I also think of me. As in, “what do I want to write now? I’ve done this and this and this, and now it’s time to do something else”, for example. So I’ll perhaps use this opportunity to do something I haven’t done before, do something I haven’t tried, or maybe rework some idea I was working on in a previous piece. That’s what I call the Big Level stuff - the conceptual thing. Sometimes I'll think of just a one-word description of the piece such as “energy”, or “red”, or “spicy”, or “sedate” -- something like that. Sometimes I’ll think of how I want the listener to feel at the end of the piece, or the players to feel at the end of the piece. Whether I want them to feel exhausted or exhilarated

RG: Or maybe both (Laughs)

JM: Yeah, right! But often I find that once you let the cat out of the bag you can’t control the response - sometimes the response is different than you think it’s going to be, sometimes that happens. But I also often think of an overall energy, or of an overall harmonic sound. I think that the fact that harmony, that intervals can be reduced to low ratios — there’s a reason why things like fifths are soothing, while minor ninths are not — so I’ll think about the overall harmonic language or the overall density of the piece. How loud it’s going to get, how big it’s going to get - or do I really keep the reins on and really restrain it so it’s kind of like a Bonsai plant - you keep trimming it and keeping it very small. I have a tendency to have everything sprawling and huge, so sometimes I have to make a real conscious decision that a certain piece is going to be a small one.

RG: Right. And when you are thinking of these considerations, would you jot those down as you think about them? You’re not near a piano, you’re not near anything, so do you write it down — or can you remember all that stuff?

JM: I try to jot it down on paper because once you’ve written it down you’ve got something that you can look at and hold in your hand, and erase and change. I find at the initial stage I do a lot of this kind of stuff - I’ll be sitting here in my office and I’ll sit back in the chair and stare at the ceiling. And then my wife will come in to use the fax machine and she’ll say “I thought you were working!?” (Laughs) And it does look like I’m doing absolutely nothing but I am in fact mulling things over.

But I do like to write down little ideas, even if it’s just the conceptual ideas — just to get them on paper. It’s like a marriage license, it’s more of a commitment that way (laughs). I used to have a student who would come in week after week, and he hardly wrote anything, and he’d say “well I might do this, or I might do that, or I might do this”. And eventually I had to say to him, “look, I don’t want to see what you might do, or what you could do — I want to see what you’re doing”. It’s a more active process that way. And that’s why I write things down — because that’s what I’m doing, it’s not just in the realms of possibility anymore, I’m actually committing to it.

And sometimes I just draw a shape on a piece of paper, a very simple shape that shows how I want the piece to build. I also think about if it's a particular ensemble I’m writing for, or if I know the soloist — to me that’s very important — I think about who might solo on the piece.

Those are all things that are, maybe not relatively easy to decide, but you can think about them without getting into the nuts and bolts of the musical part. So then at some point I’ll start working with the musical part. Sometimes it’s just a small idea, I sit down at the piano and see what comes out of the hands and then start working with it and developing it. And sometimes not even that, sometimes it’s just a couple of intervals — a little cell for example — more often than not it’s some little fragment of melody, with something else underneath it. Or sometimes it’s just an idea for a vamp that comes up — and again I write these things down and start to work with them. For example if it’s a four-bar vamp, I’ll see if I can extended into a 64 bar unit, just using transpositions. Sometimes I’ll take the bass line and retrograde it — extend it a lot of different ways.

RG: So a very common compositional practice for you then is expansion of small amounts of material?

JM: Yeah, taking an idea that comes and - not to judge it – one of the worst things we can do is to find a musical idea and judge it as good or bad – it’s neither, it’s just there. And it’s there for you to work with, so I’ll try working with it and expand it and try to both manipulate the idea itself into different forms and then using developed strains – different variants of the idea as units in the strain. And sometimes I’ll say “OK, enough of that, let me find something that’s really different from that”, and I’ll just try and develop a contrasting idea.

So before I really get to writing the piece, I’m working on developing the small stuff, and I find that a lot of what I develop I end up throwing away. You don’t throw everything into the piece, but there’s a process involved of developing a lot of material, and then finding, in that material, what really speaks to you and what you really want to use. So I find the process of throwing stuff away is really important too. You create a lot just so you can end up with a little.

Intros, Interludes and Endings

RG: Let me ask about a couple of things that I notice are very strong in your music, or are things you very clearly think about – intros, interludes and endings - how you think about those. As a preparation for this interview I was listening to ‘Up From the Skies’, ‘Lickety Split’, and ‘Group Therapy’, and one of the things that struck me was how specific those three elements are in your music. They never sound generic, they always sound to me like you’re very conscious of them. Are they things you pay particular attention to?

JM: Yeah I do. One of the things I think about is the silence between the tracks of a CD – I think about “what’s the first sound we’re going to hear to break the silence, and what’s the last sound we’ll hear before the silence returns?”. John Cage said there’s no such thing as true silence – and he’s probably right – but at least as far as the blank stuff on the CD goes, the silence is the default stage. And one way to look at it is that my music is a disturbance of the silence, so what’s the first thing I’m going to use to break the silence and what’s the last thing I’m going to use before the silence comes back?

To me those are really important considerations, and I think about intros, interludes and endings as being the framework of the piece. Especially if there’s a song in the middle of it - those things are the elements that frame the song.

One recording I was involved in years ago, that really had an influence on me, was the second album that Bob Brookmeyer wrote for Mel Lewis’ band – it was called ‘Make Me Smile”. To me it’s a great example of Big Band writing in which there is a tune, but the tune is just one element of the whole piece. The piece was much bigger than the tune to the extent that you couldn’t call the piece an arrangement of the tune, even though there’s a tune there. He would takes elements of the tune and develop them into other solo forms, or interlude sections etc. And so, the tune becomes a source for the materials of the piece, and ultimately the piece is the piece – it’s not so much about the tune, the tune is there but the piece is larger than that. So, I think that had a big influence on me, in terms of how things like interludes and endings are drawn from the tune most of the time.

But you can never say never, and sometimes those elements are drawn completely out of the blue. One way that I think about that is, as a composer, sometimes two musical ideas work together because I say they do. Sometimes there’s a connection - as is the way with some of Monk's tunes where the first phrase of the bridge is the same as the last phrase of the A section - but there are also times when I’ll just write something completely contrasting and I’ll say they belong together just because I say so. It’s my little God complex! You’re creating this little universe and if you want it to be a Bb, you make it a Bb - no one can say anything about it. So, yes, intros, interludes, and endings are very important to me.


RG: What about orchestration? Well, there’s a question — what about orchestration?........ how much time do you have!? (laughs)

JM: Orchestration, it’s a great thing, I’m all for it! (Laughs), you can put me down in the “Yes” column!

RG: I guess my question is, if you’re dealing with a big band, unlike a classical composer, who, in writing several pieces of music for an orchestra, can say “I want three clarinets and two French Horns in the first piece, but only one clarinet and a harp in the second piece” - whereas when you’re writing for a big band, instrumentally you’re presented with what you’re presented with so to speak. Everyone in the band has to get to play. So when you’re writing a suite of music, or a collection of pieces for a particular band, do you think about the orchestration in terms of saying to yourself “I’ve used particularly dense orchestration in that piece, and now I’m going to thin it out in the next one”, or does it just depend on the piece itself?

JM: Kind of a combination of those. You’re right - the few times I’ve written for a symphony orchestra they’ll ask me ‘how many brass do you want, how many woodwind you want?’ etc. with a big band, we’ve got four trumpets, and that’s it, and we’ve got a particular kind of doubling in the woodwinds. And as an aside there, one of my concerns is always how good are the doublers? So for example in the Vanguard band there are two guys are really good flute players and there’s another guy that isn’t such a good flute player, so you can only use the doubling to a limited extent.

But I think of orchestration in terms of the overall palette that I have to work with. Yes I think of varying densities - the two extremes I think of are something very bold with saxophones and trumpets, versus something pastel which is more mutes and woodwinds, and the morphing of one version of the band into the other is sometimes part of the shape of the piece, the plotline of the piece. Sometimes when writing I’ll have a very specific idea about the orchestration, and hearing particular instruments playing something — other times I don’t, I just write it as a piano sketch — I feel that I have the experience to be able to find a way to orchestrate that for the forces that are available to me.

Sometimes when I have spare time, (which isn’t that often), for example when I’m in Europe working with a radio band I might have a weekend off, so I’ll just go into the studio and just write for four or five hours - just write something and have fun with it. I enjoy doing that because I’m not up against a deadline and I don’t have a specific group in mind, so I can just write in the abstract. And so usually I’ll find a way to use that stuff I write somewhere further down the line, but after adapting it for the orchestration or forces that I have to work with in that particular band.

Writing in the Abstract

RG: So, apropos of the question of writing in the abstract - as you’re so renowned as a writer for jazz orchestra, and I could be wrong in this, but I would imagine that you spend the vast bulk of your time writing for jazz orchestras of various kinds.........

JM: Yes

RG: Well is there a part of you that says to yourself “I wouldn’t mind trying something different for a while - I would like to write in the abstract, I would like to write simply because I want to write, not because I have to write”. Of course (laughs) there are loads of composers all over the world who would love to have this problem — having to write because they’ve been commissioned to write! But at the same time do you feel that you would like to take time out just to write, for your own purposes?

JM: Yes, every once in awhile I do get the chance to do just that, and I would like to do that more. I tend to get tied up with deadlines and writing gigs, and I have to say that’s a mixed blessing. It’s great to get paid for what you do, but at the same time you’re writing for existing ensembles, and in just about every group I write for their might be one or two players where I've said to myself, well if this was my band I’d have someone else in those chairs, you know. But in my situation you’re always having to write for the personnel that’s chosen for you by the leader or the producer or whomever. So though I’m usually writing music for a specific project or band, the few times I’ve written music without having to think about any of that kind of stuff, I’ve really enjoyed it. So it’s probably time, after all this time writing for specific groups, to explore that more.

Getting Stuck..........

RG: A kind of related question — I had a situation myself about two years ago where I was writing a huge amount of music in a relatively short space of time - I had a whole lot of stuff that I had to write. And I found that it reached a point where I was absolutely plagiarising myself — or I would think “oh that’s good”, but then I’d say “oh shit no, I just did that in the last piece!” Since you’re such a busy composer and write so much music, and a lot of the time you’re writing for similar kinds of ensembles, do you A) have a similar problem to mine where you simply come up against a wall with it, and B) if so, how do you resolve the situation?

JM: Well, full disclosure here, I do plagiarise myself from time to time. And sometimes I give it this rather noble spin as in “well there was this concept I was working on last year in a piece, and it was okay but I’d like to rework it and really get it right this time, so I’ll use this piece as an opportunity to do that”. There are other times where I'm just flat out and up against the wall and I’ll just say “well I’ll recycle that thing I did in that other piece”. So there are times when the intention is more noble than others! (laughs).

You know, I’ve realised that for me some of the more interesting music that I’ve written for bands with which I’ve have long-term relationships have come really early in the process when I don’t know them very well. And I you’ll sit here in my room and I think “well, I don’t know if these guys can handle this, but screw it I’m just going to write this music and see what comes out”. And then as I get to know them better and get to know their limitations and their strengths, I write more carefully for the particular players and in one way though I think the music is much more integrated with them, there’s a kind of rough edge in some of the early music I’ve written for some of these groups that I kind of lose the sense of later on.

For example that arrangement I did of “Sing Sing Sing”, for Dave Liebman and The Carnegie Hall band came about mainly because I was way behind the deadline. The copyist called me and said “I have to have the score tomorrow”, and the FedEx guy was standing in the room waiting to take it, so I quickly said, ”Okay, so Liebman plays and the band answers, and then copy these last 12 bars” and then I wrote a final chord and sent it off. I originally had a whole written scheme planned for that section, but I had to abandon it and yet it came out pretty successfully. The players in the Carnegie Band tended to be players older than me, guys like Frank Wess and Slide Hampton, and I didn’t even know whether this would go over with them. But it ended up being great — because I didn’t know any better!(laughs). And the same kind of thing happened with the Danish radio band, and the same with the Vanguard Orchestra. I feel that some of the earlier stuff I wrote for them, while the craft may not be as strong, there’s something different about the spirit because it kind of forced them into a zone that was surprising to them, or was a little out of their box — because I didn’t know what their box was.

I forget how I got off onto that tangent!

RG: We were talking about getting stuck.

JM: Right, in that situation sometimes I’ll just put on some music that is not jazz, or I’ll read about Bela Bartok or Stravinsky, about what those guys were doing, what they were thinking about, how they organised their material. Or I’ll just put on some African music of something, and then I’ll say ”well to hell with it, I’m just going to try this in the piece and we’ll see if it works out”.

If I feel like I’m stuck, first of all, in one way, being stuck is a good thing, because that motivates you to explore things that you maybe haven’t done before or that you haven’t been thinking about. It’s funny, when I’m not stuck in a piece then I have a tendency to get stuck later on, because I’m coasting. When you do get stuck, it’s like being stuck in a car, your first instinct is to say ‘what do I do to get out of this mud here’, so the same thing happens musically. So I’ll try maybe putting on some recordings I haven’t heard in a long time, trying to look at music especially not from the jazz perspective, but from some other kind of perspective.

Classical Writing

RG: So you mentioned Bartok and Stravinsky there, can I ask you - have you written for classical ensembles?

JM: Yes I have — I’ve written a string quartet and have written a saxophone quartet. And I wrote a piece two years ago for the Frankfurt Radio Symphony with their big band. Again it’s kind of a mash up, some of it sounds like jazz, some of it really doesn’t. It was a five movement piece, quite a big piece, but because the big band was there I’d say that music also had that aspect to it as well as the orchestral writing. But as I said earlier, years ago I was writing for a kind of hybrid chamber orchestra as well.

RG: So the string quartet and the saxophone quartet, were they recent works or written years ago?

JM: It was about 15 years ago, in fact this is kind of a demonstration of what you’re talking about. It was in my early days with the BMI workshop, and we had a string quartet come in to demonstrate some stuff, and I thought “you know, it’s time I wrote a string quartet”. So I did, and finally I had most of it written, and Manny (Albam) had written some string music as well, so we said let’s have a reading session and we hired a string quartet to come in just to play our stuff. Ultimately the piece was performed a couple of times, never recorded, but was performed. The saxophone quartet was commissioned by a commissioning body for the American Saxophone Quartet, who are all guys associated with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. They’ve performed it and it was also performed by the New York saxophone Quartet. But I haven’t done a lot of that kind of writing because it always seems like I’ve a got a full plate with all the big band music.

RG: So is that something that you would like to do more of, or would like to explore further?

JM: Oh yes definitely, it’s a matter of finding the time to write it and then finding people to play it. One of the hard parts about it is that when I write big band music it’s very easy for me to get it played because I’ve got so many relationships with so many bands. I think the thing that would be a little more daunting about writing chamber music for example would be getting people to play it. But I’d certainly be interested in doing that because ultimately jazz is limited — well anything is limited — and with my jazz writing as I said before, I’ll try and bring in other influences, but still essentially be writing for a jazz group.

Next year, for the Frankfurt radio band, I’m going to be writing a project for Rabih Abou Khalil

RG: Oh yeah, the Lebanese Oud player?

JM: Right, I’ve been talking with him, and to mix his music with a big band is going to be kind of a challenge. I was talking to the band’s producer about different projects and I said I would like at least one of them to be something really outside my comfort zone, and damn if he didn’t find something!

RG: Right (laughs) - how’s your knowledge of the Maqam system!?

JM: Right! (laughs) All those wonderful greasy intervals this guy plays on the Oud, to get the big band to do that (though maybe the trombonists could fudge it), is going to be a challenge, And I’m looking forward to that, because it’ll look like a big band but probably won’t sound like one. Actually in college I took a seminar in Persian classical music.

RG: that’s a whole different thing isn’t it, the Dastgah and all of that?

JM: Yes, the Dastgah

RG: That’s great stuff too – but really dark - I find it so severe it makes Arabic classical music sound like calypso! (laughs).

What do you listen for?

OK, a completely different question - when you’re listening to another composer’s music in the jazz idiom — could be big band or small group or whatever - let’s say outside the situation where the tune is just a vehicle for blowing, what is it that you’re listening for?

JM: Well you know, I guess on one level I just listen for the storyline. When I write myself, I have this whole parallel existence going on where I think of myself as a playwright, and I think about developing characters and explore whether there is tension between them etc. — stuff happens to the characters. And when I listen to music that’s not mine, I still like to listen to it that way.

Tom Macintosh, the composer arranger and trombonist - he was part of the early Thad and Mel band - some years ago I was judging a composition competition with him and he said to me, “when I listen to music the only question I should be asking is - what’s going to happen next? And If I’m not asking that the only other question I ask is - when is it going to stop?”. And I find that the music that I like to listen to has that quality of pulling me along and getting me to say “what’s going to happen next to this piece, or to this character?”. You know there’s a principle from creative writing that says that people have to want to care about what happens to the characters - whether Bob and Mary are going to stay in there for the whole play or for the whole novel. And obviously although in music it’s a more abstract thing, I still feel that way when I’m listening to music - I want to care about what’s happening to this melody here, I want to care about what this soloist is about to do to the structure that’s been set up. Or at the end I want to hear - if the character comes back - I want to hear him transformed by everything that happened in the ensuing 10 minutes or so.

That’s why so much of today’s pop music has so little interest for me, because it’s so predictable. Whereas — and this is where I get to sound like the cranky old guy - back in the 60s you would hear things on Top 40 radio that would tend to be a little more interesting - at least once in a while. When I was getting ready to record “Up From The Skies” I downloaded all these Hendrix tracks — I had lost all my old LPs — and I was amazed at the variety of this guy’s work. And this was a guy you’d hear on the radio — he wasn’t as popular as the Monkees, but still, he was very popular and yet you had the sense of real musical artist at work. So when I hear something at the beginning of the piece that surprises me and engages me and pulls me along and makes me wonder what’s going to happen next, well that’s the stuff I listen for.

The soloist conundrum

RG: So the point you made about wondering what was going to happen with the soloist and what they were going to do with the piece etc — this brings me back to that stuff we’ve talked about on my blog — that I was writing about and that you responded to — which is this issue, if there is an issue, with more extended form composition and the place of the soloist, with the typical contemporary proclivity for extended solos, within the context of those more extended or more complex compositional structures.

JM: When I read your initial post on your blog it resonated with me because I had just written a project for Richie (Beirach) and Dave (Liebman) – I was writing for two very strong soloists with very strong musical personalities, and shaping the piece for them. And when I’m writing for soloists whom I know well, I feel like I’m really tailoring the piece to them and it probably wouldn’t sound as good in somebody else’s hands. I’ve had a few experiences where I’ve written things for particular soloists and I’ve heard other bands play it with other people, and okay, it’s fine, and I like to think that the music holds up well - but just something about having a different person in the solo chair - his interpretation of the character being a little different to what I had in mind when I first wrote the piece. But sometimes that’s not the case, sometimes the new soloist is spot-on with their interpretation of the piece.

But I think this is a problem that goes back a long way — I mentioned in my response to you the Mozart clarinet Concerto which was written for Anton Stadler, and since then a lot of us have tried to play that piece but it’s just a fact of life that that some people really do it in the right way, and others don’t. Some people bring their own interpretation, and I have to say that there’s been a couple of times with my own pieces that I heard a soloist play something quite different to what the original soloist played, and I thought “you know, I like that, that works!”. If they’re bringing their own thing to the piece and it works, I like that. But of course if they’re bringing their own thing and it misses the point then that’s not so good..................

RG: Yes, it’s funny how that can happen - even in classical music. I remember several years ago writing a violin concerto and in rehearsal the soloist never played the cadenza which linked the first and second movements - at that point he would always say “and then I’ll play the cadenza”, and he’d carry on into the next section he had to rehearse with the orchestra. So the first time I heard the cadenza was in the concert and I have to admit, that what he did with that cadenza made it sound much better than what I had written! (laughs). He just slowed certain things down, added in extra dynamics etc -- really interpreted the piece. And to me this was a classic example of how sometimes you can place your music in the hands of a really great and creative player and they somehow make the music even better than what you wrote in a way.

JM: Yeah, I agree -- well in jazz there are people like Sonny Rollins who took tunes like “I’m An Old Cowhand” and played the hell out of them. But that’s a whole other story, an incredible improviser like him who can take something very simple and can use it as a source or a springboard for something great.

But to return to the other point in your blog, about this being the age of the extended solo - certain people can pull that off and certain people can’t - it depends on the players. I’ve been in situations where everyone wants to open a piece up and play longer solos, because a longer solo is supposed to mean that it’s going to be a better solo -- maybe because they feel better when they’re doing it, they’re not constrained etc. and sometimes I’ll make jokes about it and I’ll tell the soloist “just keep playing until you hear all those horns come in, then you know you’re done” - the big band syndrome!

But solos don’t necessarily have to be long. I’ve written a couple of things for Joe Lovano where he’s the only soloist, one of them was over 40 minutes long for the WDR band some years ago. He was amazing on it, he was always engaging and playing something interesting. But there are a lot of other people who come to mind for whom I just wouldn’t write that kind of thing, because they wouldn’t be able to pull it off.

RG: This is a slightly different thing too isn’t it? In that what you’re talking about there, what you wrote for Joe, is almost like a concerto.

JM: Right

RG: Whereas the problems I was thinking about when I was writing the blog, is a situation where if you’ve got X number of pieces and X number of soloists, you look at the line-up and you say to yourself “I have to give everyone a solo” - if I’m doing the math correctly that means I can have two soloists in this tune but I’m going to need three in that tune etc. and then I decide who goes in there, and who goes in there -- you have to do it, almost as a way of keeping the peace! (Laughs)

JM: (Laughs) Right! In the two albums I’ve written for the Vanguard Orchestra I wanted to make sure that the principal players all got at least a healthy shot, and that does end up as part of the planning for the music. But yes, the long solo thing is slightly different -- for example thinking about say Bartok’s ‘Concerto For Orchestra’, supposing you were to open it up and the clarinet player takes 64 bars of meaningless stuff - you’d never consider doing that. And there are certain things I’ve written that I like to think feel like there is an architecture to the whole form, and it’s just not right to open up the solo. There are other pieces where it’s fine, there are many examples in jazz were it’s fine to do that. But that doesn’t mean that it always has to be that way, and it doesn’t mean that a long solo is, by itself, better than a short solo.

RG: Yes, it seems to me to be something that could use being rethought a little bit, because as it stands now it is definitely in the default position of the longer solo. And I made this point in the response to the comment that you made on the blog, that we tend to think that the reason earlier players played short solos was because of the shorter available recording time that they had due to the limitations of the technology. But now that they’ve discovered some live air shots from that period -- even the bebop period -- you can hear that people just didn’t play 10 minutes solos in those days - Charlie Parker didn’t play 10 minutes solos. So I think it’s a different aesthetic it’s not just about the mechanical limitations of recording technology. And I think maybe something has been lost by always going to the default position of the longer solo.

JM: Yes, I agree.

The Most Important Question.......

RG: A final question Jim - What do you think is the most important question a composer can ask him or herself when they’re writing music?

JM: My first response is that the composer’s job is to ask -- “what if?”. That’s essentially how I’ve always perceived it. Sometimes “what if?” is a very specific musical question, sometimes it’s more of a social question. What if a band got together and played as if they hated each other?

RG: (Laughs) Sometimes that’s not “what if?” at all!

JM: Right - I’ve been in some of those bands! (laughs). Or sometimes it can be something simple like what if it’s a C7 chord and in the melody you hang on a B natural for a long time? One of the things I’ve used several times is - what if a band was playing and all fell down a flight of stairs together -- what would that sound like? Or what if John Riley the drummer had to play a bunch of different things during the course of his day? So to me that is the question that I’m always fundamentally asking myself -- what if this would happen/ what if that would happen? And when working with my students I've always emphasised that the question not to ask is “may I?”, or “is it in the tradition if.........?”, or “is it okay if I do this or that?” As I said before, one way to look at it is as a God complex, but also, if you see yourself as a playwright you’re just constructing a situation, and stuff happens in that situation and you’re in control of that stuff that happens. And in the end maybe the characters are dead, or transformed, or new characters have come along to replace them - what if all that happens? That’s pretty much how I operate.

Though I guess there may be other questions to ask - supposedly Stravinsky said that whenever he was asked to write a piece, he said -- “the two questions I ask are - how long, and how much?”

RG: (Laughs) Those are pretty good questions !

JM: Yes, those are good questions too!

RG: Jim, thanks very much for your time, it’s been really great to talk to you.

JM: A pleasure.