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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Jazz Composition 3 - The Soloist Conundrum continued

Since the last time I wrote on the subject, there’ve been some very interesting developments from my point of view — two in particular. One was the response I got from the great Jim McNeely whom I mentioned in the last post about this subject, and the other was my involvement in writing some film music which I also mentioned in earlier posts.

In relation to Jim’s response to my last blog on the problems of integrating soloists with extended compositional forms in jazz, he made some very good points — as one would expect from someone with his experience. If you’re interested at all in this subject, I would recommend that you read his response in full — you can see it here

But I want to extract one paragraph in particular from this response, as I think it’s particularly germane to the subject, and of particular interest to me as a composer. When talking about having shorter solos in jazz compositions, Jim says this:

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

I think Jim puts his finger on the crux of the problem here for the writer of extended or more involved compositions in jazz in the early 21st century. As the music evolved, the solos became longer and longer and the soloist became the most important member of the band — at least for the time during which they were soloing. In earlier incarnations of jazz composition, certainly up as far as the bebop era and probably somewhat beyond that, the nature of the recording technology demanded that the pieces in themselves, and by extension the solos, be shorter and more to the point. The time constraints of recordings in the pre-LP era demanded that everything be done and dusted within three minutes or so. This would include all of the compositional material as well as the statements of the soloists. In such an environment the soloists were forced to really concentrate their minds so as to make the most effective contribution to the piece that they could in the time allowed. The composer also had to take this into account and to give the soloist the most effective slot that he or she could in order to make the most cohesive piece possible under the circumstances.

I don’t think it’s necessarily true to say that the soloists of earlier eras played shorter solos simply because of time constraints on recordings. If one listens to live recordings from the 40s of the bebop pioneers, recordings done by enthusiasts using technology that may have been primitive but didn’t have the time constraints of studio recordings — you can hear that’s even in the live situation the soloists were not necessarily attracted to extended solos, but limited their contributions to what would be considered quite short solos by the standards that pertained after the mid-1950s, and certainly after the early 1960s in the post-Coltrane era. So it would seem that the long solo was not just a question of chronological limitation, but also one of aesthetic taste as far as the musicians of that era were concerned.

The problems I mentioned in my earlier post of finding a way to logically integrate solos into increasingly complex compositions, in such a way that they don’t sound like they have been put in there simply for the sake of allowing the soloists to play, was not something that the earlier composers had to contend with, since the soloists of that era were not as verbose as their descendents were to become. Like Jim, I’m not using this comparison between the soloing habits of the two different eras as any statement to beat anybody with — I myself am a product of the era of the longer solo and nobody admires Coltrane, the great progenitor of long solos, more than I do. I’m just making the observation that the difficulties of accommodating long solos into long and sometimes complex compositions is one that is made particularly difficult by the length of the solos of the typical contemporary jazz musician.

I mentioned earlier that there were two developments in my thinking on the problems of integrating long solos into complex compositional forms — one was Jim’s response, and the other was my recent involvement with writing film music

In my recent composition of 11 pieces written to accompany 11 short sections of a silent film, I was forced to write the music so that it would fit the time frame exactly, of the different sections of the film. In such a situation I was forced to give the soloists very specific instructions on the length of their solos. Since the film couldn’t be stretched to accommodate any spur of the moment inspiration on the part of the soloists, it was necessary to be dictatorial about the length of the solos. The results were very interesting for me. On the one hand the compositions really felt like compositions — pieces written to accompany specific visual images, with a lot of written material that wouldn’t vary from performance to performance. On the other hand, since I was able to write for musicians whom I knew very well, I was able to incorporate improvised solos that both enhanced the compositions, yet gave each composition a specific identity depending on who the soloist was and how they approached the piece. Without these solos the pieces would not have been as effective, and the improvisations were an integral part of the overall pieces. So although the written material formed the bulk of the compositions, it would also be true to say that these were undeniably jazz compositions since the solos formed such an integral part of each piece. Indeed to have left out the solos would have changed and impoverished the pieces irrevocably.

So, I unintentionally had an opportunity to do an experiment in the area of writing quite involved pieces with shorter solos - and I must say I really like the results. Although the soloists were circumscribed in what they could do in way they would not normally be in most of their working situations, it seems to me that the enforced paucity of their contributions pointed up even more what great players they were, and made their solos even more enjoyable. This possibly comes under the heading of “a little of what you fancy does you good”, or possibly even “absence makes the heart grow fonder”! Having said that I enjoyed these shorter solos, I should point out that these “shorter solos” did not consist of little 8 bar segments, but usually at least a whole chorus of the form and sometimes longer, depending on the situation. But they were undoubtedly shorter solos than usually would be the case with these players playing the music they usually play, and indeed the music I usually write. And will doubtlessly write again — but in this instance I was definitely shown an alternative to the problematic model where the length of the composition was matched by the length of the solos.

The musicians themselves didn’t seem to chafe much under the enforced tyranny of the composer - or at least if they did they didn’t tell me! I can imagine a scenario where if we were playing this music or similar music night after night that the musicians may feel a little bit underused and possibly frustrated at the lack of ability to fully spread their wings as soloists. But since a) this concert was a one-off, (as are so many these days!), and since b) I don’t plan to create a situation in which every piece of music I write will follow this shorter solos dictum, I don’t think this new-found circumscription of the soloists will create too many problems within the band.

I should also mention that in this film music project the pieces themselves were not incredibly long — nothing over four minutes in fact. This helps to balance the overall composition in the sense that though the solos were short, the compositions were also shorter than they would normally be in this genre. This circumscription of the composition allowed the solos to have more meaning within the overall piece, rather than giving the sensation that the piece was to all intents and purposes a classical piece, with improvised decoration.

But this film music experiment has definitely whetted my appetite for more of the same — not necessarily more film music, but more music in this vein in which the soloists will be given specified lengths for their improvisations. I’m now mentally planning writing a suite of music for small group that will be written in the same vein — solos more integrated into the overall fabric of the composition rather than the soloists being given free reign to decide the length of their solos. I’ve been listening again to the late great George Russell’s masterpiece ’Jazz Workshop’ which I mentioned in the previous post relating to this topic, and, as I said in that post, I see this recording as being a model for what can be done in the integration of improvised solos into involved composition.

In a sense I think of this way of writing actually makes the use of solos even more interesting — at least from the composer’s point of view. In the sense that rather than incorporating a solo because one feels that a particular player needs to be given a chance to demonstrate their skills, the composer can find many different ways of using a solo statement to complement a particular written passage or piece. And to use solos in this way forces one to think of more varied and creative ways of using the solos. Instead of mostly using open ended solos with cued backgrounds, the composer can utilize the solo statements in many different and more varied ways — as decoration to a melody, as something to introduce a piece, as something to end the piece, as something that arises out of the ensemble, submerges back into it only to rise, phoenix-like, later on etc. etc.. There are so many variables to this and so many different ways to use the improviser within the written context — it’s something that will really stretch the imagination of the composer and hopefully increase the enjoyment of the listener, some of whom are undoubtedly jaded by the lack of an editorial instinct in some players!

So, short yet involved compositions and shorter yet relevant solos — Brave New World!

P. S. I will be interviewing Jim McNeely about composition for this blog soon — should be fascinating.


  1. Great blog Ronan! I have been reading all your stuff that I can find over the internet since I discovered your Rhythm Essays and book! I just wanted to encorage you to continue blogging, I do not see many comments yet but I´m pretty sure lots of people are reading anonymously as I was. I´m a sax player and composer and the stuff you wrote about is always very interesting. Looking forward to reading that McNeely interview!

  2. Thanks Leonardo, I'm glad you've been enjoying the blog and I appreciate you taking the time to write!