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

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Jazz Composition 2 - The Soloist Conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 25, 2009

Where's the One!!??

This is another slightly older essay, but I think the issues raised in it are still very valid.

Where’s the 1!?

I think it's true to say that one of the biggest changes in jazz improvisation over the past 20 years has been the adoption by jazz musicians of what might be called extended rhythmic techniques – odd metre playing, the use of metric modulation, etc. The growth in what's called 'World Music' has undoubtedly had a big influence on this new development, with players taking advantage of the easy access the internet has delivered to the curious musician, allowing them to check out Balkan Music, Indian music, Arabic music etc. and to take on board the wide range of rhythmic styles, grooves, and approaches that these musics provide. The result if this is a plethora of new rhythmic styles and techniques. Jazz musicians, especially younger ones, have enthusiastically adopted this new vocabulary, particularly in the area of original composition, and a huge variety of pieces have been written involving odd metres, metric modulation and the like. In such an environment one would imagine that this new information must surely enrich the music and bring a new element to it. But while I think this is true to some extent, I also believe there is a serious problem with how this new rhythmic information is approached by soloists in particular.

In recent years, as a bassist, I've been in many situations where new music has been brought to the group by composers, involving various rhythmic devices such as those mentioned earlier. In many cases, especially where the music is brought in by horn players, we – the rhythm section – are presented with new and difficult rhythmic problems which we're expected to solve almost immediately, and without any assistance from the composer on possible ways to approach this new information. We can be presented with new difficult rhythmic music and not only do we have to play it correctly, we have to make it groove and come alive as well.

Now you might argue that this is the job of a rhythm section and if you can't stand the heat then stay out of the kitchen. But in a more conventional situation when new music is brought in there is usually a rhythmic precedent for the music – i.e. swing feel, or funk, or Brazilian, or loose straight 8's or something, and all usually in a metre of ¾ or 4/4. These are known quantities, the members of the rhythm section can apply their originality and creativity to something that has rhythmic precedent, and something which they've had a chance to develop over several years. In this new rhythmic landscape, this is not always the case.

As a bassist or drummer these days, you can be presented with a piece in 15/8 and asked to play with a Brazilian feel, or be given something with constantly changing metres and asked to do it with a reggae groove. I once saw an instruction on a piece of music that said – 'think Iranian Surf Music'!! This new rhythmic environment is very challenging for bassists and drummers in particular, and challenge is something that I believe should always be involved in an evolving music such as jazz. And of course as someone whose been heavily involved in the exploration of rhythmic possibilities for over 15 years, I'm very enthusiastic about this new rhythmic language. However the problem here as I see it is that this new rhythmic music being presented to the rhythm section by the non-rhythm section composers is often written by people who can't play it themselves, and who depend entirely on the rhythm section to make the composition musical. This not only puts an unfair stress on the rhythm section and an inordinate amount of responsibility on the bass and drums, but the musical results suffer also, since the soloists often have an inordinate dependence on the rhythm section in order to keep in the right place in the metre and form.

A typical scenario in one of these situations is that a melody instrument player brings in a new piece in an unusual meter, probably with some subdivisions specified within the meter. The horn players have the melody written out, and the rhythm section has little instruction on how to create a groove. Everyone goes to work – the horn players on playing the melody correctly, the rhythm section on trying to play both the metre correctly and finding a way to make the rhythm breathe and live. Once everyone has got the melody statement to a point where it's considered satisfactory, they move on to the solos – and this is where the real problems start in my opinion.

So often the solo form will be over one or two chords, and the soloists will just play their usual 4/4 or 3/4 stuff over the top of the rhythm with no regard for the fact that the piece is not in 4/4 or 3/4, The rhythm section are valiantly labouring to keep the metre and the form, AND make the rhythm sound good for the whole piece, while the soloists responsibility to respect the metre seems to begin and end with the melody.

There are two results arising from this. Firstly you have a situation where the horn players and the rhythm section are not playing together and there's almost no interaction. Since the soloists don't know where the '1' is and are depending on the rhythm section to provide it, they float over the top of the rhythm section playing in a world of their own, incapable of responding to information provided by the rhythm section. And since the soloists are playing almost random rhythms over this new metre, the rhythm section in turn are denied information to feed off from the soloists.

In any normal 4/4 situation in jazz of the last 50 years the interaction between rhythm section and soloist has been crucial to the development of the music as a truly collective art form. Think of any of Miles' rhythms sections, or Coltrane's classic quartet, or Bill Evans's trios – all depended on this interchange between soloist and rhythm section. But with this new situation this kind of interchange is all but eliminated. The rhythm section play together, the soloists floating on top and approximating the metre. Very often, when in this situation, I've felt like I was playing on an Aebersold Playalong recording! There being so little interaction between soloist and rhythm section we might as well have been playing in different rooms. It's almost like a throwback to the bad old fusion days of the 70s, where jazz soloists trotted out lick after lick over a pounding rock rhythm section with neither soloist or rhythm section having the slightest effect on, or interest in, what the others were playing.

The second result of this problem is that the music is BORING!! After a while it all sounds the same. Presumably the idea of playing in 7,11,15, 23 or whatever, is to introduce variety and newness into the music. But due to the constraints placed on the music by the protagonists' lack of competence in these new metres we get the opposite result. You nearly always get the same thing –

1) Complex melody

2) A series of solos over one or two basic chords with soloists floating over the top of the metre and with no interaction between rhythm section and soloists

3) Complex melody

It's dull, dull, dull! In my opinion it's pointless bringing in a piece of music that you essentially can't play. You'd be much better off sticking with 4/4 or 3/4 and playing some creative music with your colleagues than bringing in some token tune in one of these new metres where your ability to respect the measure length is restricted to the playing of the melody. Would any competent horn player, or anyone for that matter, bring in a piece based on changes they found impossible to negotiate? I don't think so. So why do it with rhythm? I would go as far as to say that bringing in a piece of music in which you completely depend on the rhythm section to make you sound competent, let alone creative, is actually dishonest. You're depending on the hard work of others in learning how to deal with this new rhythmic language to absolve you from having to do the same. No good and lasting music is ever produced in such circumstances.

I would suggest that if we're to truly explore the wealth of new musical landscapes made available to us by this new rhythmic information then we have to do the hard work necessary to be comfortable in these metres and rhythmic forms. If you like the idea of doing a tune in 15/8 then you should learn to play in 15/8 – not play your stock 4/4 stuff with ragged corrections every few bars as the rhythm section play the REAL downbeat! You should be able to play phrases that respect this metre, and the real proof of that is to use changes in the music you write in these metres and new rhythms. Get a drum machine, or sequencer, programme the rhythm in question into it, and play along with it over and over until you know where '1' is – every time. Then apply changes to the metre and use the voice leading you've learned over years of practice in that discipline.

Treat rhythm with the same respect you treated harmony and melody and make the same demands on yourself in your use of it. Don't write dull tunes with one or two chords as cover for the fact that you can't voice-lead in the new metre – learn how to voice-lead in that metre – but at home and in the practice room – not on the gig using the crutch of the rhythm section and at the expense of the music and audience. Don't bring any tunes to the rehearsal room where you demand of others something you can't do yourself. Don't try and skip the 'hard yards' - do the work, find the '1' and then rather than paying lip service to this new rhythmic vocabulary, perhaps we can hear some good, creative and new music. No more faking please!!

PS. As an example of how beautiful complex rhythms and great chords can sound when played by people who really know what they're doing have a listen to Kenny Werner's trio piece 'In Tune on the great CD 'Press Enter' (Sunnyside).

As another example of changes in odd metres with respect for voice leading you can also listen to some standards played in odd metres here This was recorded as long ago as 1993 by myself, Mike Nielsen on guitar and Conor Guilfoyle on drums. There are three pieces here - 'Night and Day played in an 11/4 swing feel, 'Love for Sale' played in an 11/8 Afro-Cuban feel and 'Summertime' played in 21/14. Notice the absence of one-chord solo forms!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Peer Group

There’s something about playing with your contemporaries that feels different to any other playing situation……… Recently the Guilfoyle/Nielsen trio – with Mike Nielsen on guitar, and my brother Conor on drums, has got back together for the first time in five years - as a trio at least, though we’ve played together as part of a rhythm section with Dave Liebman a couple of years back. But though it’s been five years since we played as a trio, we have a LONG history together. We first played as a rhythm section in 1985, as part of a group called ‘Four in One’ (with firstly Richie Buckley on saxophone, then Mike McMullen) and that group played together till about 1989. During this period we started to play as a trio for the first time, doing some gigs at the Focus Theatre – a venue which in retrospect I realise was, for Irish jazz musicians of my generation, like Minton’s was for the bebop guys in the ‘40s! Over the next fifteen years we played together on innumerable occasions, either as a trio or as a rhythm section.

As we played together two distinct strands of our work developed – our role as a trio with an intense interest in developing new rhythmic techniques, and our role as a rhythm section accompanying visiting musicians. In this latter role we played with many great musicians – Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano, Sonny Fortune, Kenny Wheeler, Richie Beirach, Kenny Werner, Larry Coryell, Conrad Herwig, Julian Arguelles, Pat LaBarbara, Steve Coleman and Simon Nabatov, and we recorded with Liebman (twice) and LaBarbara. Apart from this work with international musicians we also played with many Irish musicians in many different groupings and formats.

At the same time as we were operating as a rhythm section, we had an independent life as a trio. At the end of the ‘80s we developed an intense interest in the creative possibilities of rhythm, and luckily enough we were underemployed enough to have the time to work on these possibilities! At that time none of us was as busy as we later became, and subsequently were able to put the time at our disposal into what amounted to about two years of intense rehearsal. About three mornings a week we would go to the music school where we worked, lock ourselves into the padded cell that was the drum teaching room, and play for hours. Over this period we developed our rhythmic techniques and interest in such things as metric modulation and playing in odd metres.

We had a particular interest in playing standards in odd metres, something that was very rare at that time, though it’s still not common today. And through working on these things we developed a reputation internationally as being the ‘weird rhythm guys’, which did us no harm at all! We ended up being the first Irish musicians to be invited to teach at Berklee College of Music for example and also taught in Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Austria and India among other places. As a result of this period of work and interest in rhythm I wrote my rhythm book which featured the trio in the accompanying CD, and is now over ten years old (if you’re interested in reading more about the development of this book I posted a blog about it here).

In 1992 we managed to get a residency in The Oak - a pub in Temple Bar. A residency is a really hard thing to get these days, but it was a little easier then, and this particular one, which (incredibly) we managed to hold on to for about a year, was really helpful to us in being able to develop this odd metre standard concept, since we could try out the material every Friday night. This prepared us for going into the studio to record – which we did in Paul Ashe Browne’s studio in Annamoe in Wicklow in March 1993 – the peaceful rural setting making a suitable contrast to the rhythmic mayhem that was going on in the studio!

This recording of rearranged, (both harmonically and rhythmically), standards, which we fondly christened ‘Fucked-Up Classics Volume One’, was for all of us a landmark recording since we felt it represented a document of the work in this area that we’d done up to this point, and which we also felt was a good representation of that - the residency in the Oak having helped hone the music to a very high level. But, with the recording made, we couldn’t get it out. Few companies were interested in releasing an album of odd metre standards by relative unknowns and none of us was in a financial position to pay for the manufacture and release of the recording ourselves. So it languished in the studio for several years and then – disaster – the studio changed address and the DAT original master disappeared in the move...........

So all that remained of ‘Fucked Up Classics’ were some cassette copies that we had in our possession and it’s never been released. But last year Conor suggested that we should transfer the music to CD, and though it wouldn’t be of commercial level sound quality, get the music out there at least. So this we did through Conor’s website where you can download the music for free What we found interesting is that though the record companies wouldn’t give us the time of day when we originally sent the recording out to them, usually saying that the music was ‘too esoteric’, the CD has been downloaded over 600 times in the few short months since it’s been up there. And we feel good about that – it’s nice to get some kind positive reaction, even many years later, to something you put so much work into.

After this period we started to write original material and do freer music than previously and so the odd metre standard era (even though we usually included a couple in every performance) passed on for us. And even the trio passed on, in that, in the typical way of these things, we all developed our own careers and interests, became busier individually and began developing new projects independently of the trio. Although we would get together occasionally as a trio, and more often as a rhythm section, the days of the three times a week rehearsals and residency gigs were gone. And it was only as recently as last March, when Mike and I met for the first time in over a year at a Lionel Loueke concert, that we started talking again about taking the trio out of the mothballs and back on the road so to speak. We realised with shock that it had actually been five years since we’d played a gig as a trio, and decided then and there that something should be done about that!

And so we have – we’re playing a trio gig in the legendary JJ Smyth’s on Sunday June 7th, AND we decided to revive ‘Fucked Up Classics’ and give it its first outing in over 15 years.

And so we started rehearsing, and it’s been really great to play again! As I remarked at the beginning of this post, there’s something about playing with contemporaries that is unique. When you play with musicians of your own age and background, there’s a shared experience there, an unspoken understanding of certain concepts and philosophies that you just don’t get working with younger musicians or musicians from different backgrounds. This understanding is based on years of listening to the same music, or working on the same material – it’s almost like a form of musical cultural identity, a shared recognition of certain basic truths that are held by everybody in the group. Before you play a note there are certain things that you just KNOW, that require no discussion or preamble. It makes for a particular type of playing experience that can’t be reproduced in any other context – it’s the understanding within a peer group that has a history of shared experiences.

And when in the case of this trio you add the, literally, years of playing together, travelling together, playing with all of these great musicians together and how those experiences shaped us and affected us, and when you also add the collective passion for rhythm that kept us in the drum room for years and allowed us to work towards a shared concept of how to play collectively – it intensifies this aforementioned sense of unspoken understanding. In the rehearsals, despite the fact that we haven’t played for five years as a trio, there has been almost no discussion of musical concepts – we just know what we want to do without talking about it. In fact we’ve spent more time laughing about past incidences and experiences and talking about this musician that we played with, or that gig we did than we have talking about the music itself. Because there’s no need to talk about the music – all we need to do with that is play it. And play it we will, with perhaps even more enthusiasm than before (if that’s possible!), since we’re so happy to be back playing again. And also playing with more maturity, since the things we’ve been doing and learning and working on individually can now be fed into the collective playing of the trio. We believe that we play this music better now than we did then, and I think we’re all looking forward to this gig as a chance to both revisit old musical haunts and discover some new ones at the same time.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The 8th Note Hegemony

Recently I watched a clip on Youtube of the great contemporary jazz guitarist Adam Rogers playing ‘Have you met Miss Jones’. He was playing it as part of a masterclass and demonstrating how he uses superimposition of scales as an improvisational device. It is of course, as one would expect of Rogers, brilliantly played and executed, with a flawless technique, and real clarity of sound. However, I couldn’t help noticing something that I’ve noticed in the playing of a lot of contemporary jazz musicians – particularly those playing in the realm of the swing idiom these days – a preponderance of 8th notes and very little rhythmic variety.

It seems that the the evolution of the harmonic language of jazz has gone hand in hand with the simplification of the rhythmic language of its soloists. So much jazz soloing in recent years seems to be based on 8th notes, and 8th notes that are played in a series rather than broken up in any kind of interesting way or with any variety. Take the Rogers solo as an example – now I know I may be a little unfair to choose this as an example of his playing, because he was giving a masterclass and was demonstrating harmonic movement. No doubt he’d play a little differently if he’d been with a rhythm section. But the solo is over four minutes long and I think it’s fair to assume that the way he’s playing here is one he’s comfortable with and used to doing. And just because one is demonstrating harmonic stuff doesn’t mean that one can’t use rhythm in a creative way as well.

So, back to the solo – as I listened to it I was struck by how 8th note-driven the whole solo was and how based on divisions of two it was. Even where there were no 8th notes in couples, nearly everything else was based on divisions of two – quarter notes, half notes etc. And then I noticed that the person who had filmed the solo had also transcribed it and had given a link to the transcription, and reading this transcription (assuming it’s accurate – it seems to be, though I haven’t checked note for note), bore out the suspicion I had regarding the rhythmic uniformity of the solo. In the whole eight choruses - eight pages of transcription, over four minutes of playing – Rogers only uses a subdivision of anything other than two, four times – and this is a subdivision of three – i.e. triplets. In other words, triplets are only used four times in the whole solo. All of this sophisticated harmonic language is supported by a pretty basic rhythmic language. Technically it’s brilliant, harmonically it’s brilliant, rhythmically it’s dull.

You can check it out for yourself – You can see the performance here

And the transcription here

And I think this is pretty typical of a lot of soloing these days in this idiom. There seems to be little or no importance attached to rhythmic variety, it’s all 8th note, 8th note, 8th note. Why? It seems extraordinary to me that there is still little attention paid to the importance of rhythm in music. Jazz schools are particularly guilty of this and seem to place a huge emphasis on harmonic considerations and almost none on rhythm. Maybe this is because harmony lends itself better to academic forms of teaching than rhythm does – rhythm is a more abstract concept to teach and therefore is avoided. There is an avalanche of harmony books and technique books for jazz, but very very little on rhythm, which maybe explains why teachers are reluctant to tackle it (teachers love textbooks!), and why contemporary players seem to place so little importance on rhythm in their improvising.

And it’s particularly puzzling as to why this might be given there are so many great examples of sophisticated rhythmic invention by great jazz soloists in the history of the music. Armstrong, Parker, Miles, Coltrane, Rollins, Jim Hall, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock etc. etc. A quick look on Youtube revealed two fantastic examples almost immediately – one from forty four years ago, the other from three years ago – both playing in the swing idiom over standard from.

The first example is an extraordinary solo from Sonny Rollins from 1965, playing ‘Oleo’ with NHOP and Alan Dawson. This is Rollins at the height of his powers, and his famous rhythmic virtuosity is clearly to the fore during this whole performance.

The other is taken from a concert from Bill Frisell in 2006 where he plays Konitz’s ‘Subconcious-lee’ which is based on ‘What is This Thing Called Love’ - and again the sheer variety of rhythmic approaches he takes is wonderful.

Both of these solos are not only harmonically sophisticated but also rhythmically interesting. Both use swinging 8th notes, but not to the exclusion of all else. Both marry a complex rhythmic language to a highly developed harmonic language, which makes for a deeper, fuller and above all, more INTERESTING experience for the listener. Let’s please have less of the machine gun 8th notes and more rhythmic intrigue – it’d be better for everybody!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Jazz Composition 1 - Composition or Ditty?

The pianist Richie Beirach once said in a workshop I attended:
“There are two kinds of jazz compositions – compositions and ditties. Most so-called jazz compositions are ditties”.

This statement, typical in its forthrightness from Richie, has stuck with me for a long time, and I’ve thought about it for a long time – was he right? Are most jazz compositions real compositions in the sense of carefully created artistic artefacts in their own right, or are they trite constructs with little or no thought given to them structurally or artistically – in short, ditties?

A lot of jazz compositions, in fact most of them, are really just excuses for blowing. They fulfil the requirement of providing the improviser with the form and chord progression over which to improvise. In the post-bebop idiom, once the melody is finished with, it is rarely if ever referred to again, it has fulfilled its function of giving the players the skeleton which they can fill out with their solos. And as such a lot of these compositions are indeed ‘ditties’ – they are short little pieces with little or no thought given to internal structure, to the relationship of the notes to each other, to motivic development, or especially to timbral and orchestration considerations. They are pragmatic jumping off points provided by improvisers for improvisers.

Does this matter? Well maybe it shouldn’t, because the history of jazz shows that the great leaps forward in the music were generated in the main by improvisers, not by composers. But then again, all of these innovators – Armstrong, Bird, Miles, Coltrane etc. – all wrote very specific kinds of pieces that were tailored to the kind of improvisational landscape they wanted to explore. So it could be argued that composition, providing as it did a forum in which these players, and others could explore and develop their art, is indeed very important in the history of jazz. As an example of how important composition can be seen to be for jazz, try to imagine Coltrane developing the concept of the Classic Quartet if his repertoire had been based on the compositions of Charlie Parker. Or can one imagine Charlie Parker powering the engine of the bebop revolution while using the repertoire of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five? Of course both of these great musicians would and could have made great music from any material, but they clearly felt the need to write new compositions which reflected their musical concerns and identity – Bird with pieces such as ‘Anthropology’ or ‘Yardbird Suite’, Coltrane with ‘Giant Steps’ or ‘Transition’.

It could also be argued that by providing these different kinds of improvisational landscapes, jazz has actually come up with a unique kind of composition – one that provides the structural constituents for the personal musical development of improvisers. On the face of it this would seem to dismiss the ‘ditty’ theory by showing how even a short form piece can form an integral and indispensable part of a much larger whole. And since the creation of this piece by the composer was a deliberate act in which he or she used the piece to fulfil this role of creating the right environment for the expression of his or her improvisational concept, it can be seen that in this context these pieces fulfil pretty much any criteria of what constitutes a ‘composition’.

So, case closed then? Is the ditty theory blown out of the water by the creation of highly personalised pieces written by great improvisers to help move their concept forward? Well no, the case is far from closed in my opinion. Because pieces that were written as true compositions, and in their original form were integral parts of an artistic whole, often become ditties in the hands of lazy unthinking musicians who completely miss the point of the original intention and context of the piece. For example the original versions of Wayne Shorter’s classic composition ‘Footprints’ - as played on the ‘Adams Apple’ and ‘Miles Smiles’ albums, is a true composition – a brooding melancholy minor blues with a lovely melody and a very specific atmosphere. It is all of a piece with the way Wayne plays and the subsequent atmosphere of the post-composition improvisations. But the ‘Footprints’ that is trotted out at a thousand jazz clubs around the world and butchered at a thousand more jam sessions is indeed a ditty, in the truest sense of the word – a trite little melody, glossed over quickly in the rush to get to the ‘real action’ - the blowing. The players in this situation are heedless of the original context of this piece and by ignoring this context, and by seeing it as merely an excuse to blow, and refusing to bring a context of their own to the piece, are, at a stroke, relegating a once lovely and unique composition to the realms of ditty-dom. ‘All Blues’ is another example of how a once exquisite composition has been cheapened and degraded by thousands of mindless performances.

So maybe the answer for the jazz musician is to write their own compositions and thereby do the kind of thing Wayne did with ‘Footprints’? Well yes, if that means that you’re going to come up with compositions that serve your overall musical concept in the way that Footprints did for Wayne. However the idea that original composition automatically equals deeper artistic expression is often not true at all. Unfortunately I believe that a lot of jazz musicians have a very poor compositional sense. They become obsessed with the the typical scale running solos of the post-bop era, and the blandness of this 8th note-soaked way of playing is reflected in the equal blandness of much of what passes for composition in jazz. An intro followed by a melody and off we go! No backgrounds, no changes of direction for different soloists, no thought given to the possibility of using different instrumental combinations within the group for different soloists, no examination of textural possibilities, no care over the creation of specific emotional atmospheres – just a parade of solos one after another followed by a brief recapitulation of the theme. In this context, despite the fact that these pieces may be ‘original compositions’ they are unquestionably ditties. And worse – they are often generic ditties – the bebop tune, the Latin tune, the rhythm changes tune, the ballad, the modal tune etc. etc.

It is amazing just how much poor and hackneyed material is accepted in jazz as being OK as far as composition goes. I do believe that in a world where so many musicians are coming out of jazz education programmes where they all learn basically the same information, that there is great scope for helping to ameliorate the danger of everyone sounding the same by making the study of composition mandatory in jazz programmes, as opposed to it being a specialisation or optional extra as it often is in many schools. The care and thought that has to be applied to true composition will and should spill over into the improvisational field of any musician who properly studies it. Any jazz musician who studies composition will quickly see that if you’re going to write a blues or rhythm changes tune you need to find something personal to do with it, not just create another ditty.

To my mind the ultimate example of a great short form, small group composer is Thelonious Monk. No matter what form he composes in, it has his personal stamp is all over it. Want to hear a Bb blues that is completely original? Try ‘Straight No Chaser’ or ‘Misterioso’. How about rhythm changes? Listen to ‘Rhythm-A-Ning’. And for great examples of through-composed pieces, try ‘Crepescule with Nellie’ or the gigantic baroque structure of ‘Brilliant Corners’. Here is someone working within the conventions of bop and post-bop form – AABA, blues, etc. - and who comes up with completely original and personal takes on these hoary old forms. And not only that, in a Monk performance, once the melody is played it is used again and again IN the solos, to inform the improvisations. He is a model for what is possible in the genre.

And he is a model for how a short form piece can avoid all the pitfalls of ditty-dom and exist as a true and uniquely jazz composition.