The Jazz Composers Collective on Creating and Performing

Jazz Composers Collective: Clip #5

FRANK J. OTERI: So we can’t define jazz, so we’re going to try to define something even more elusive than defining jazz. What is a jazz composer?

BEN ALLISON: That’s the second hardest question. Oh, man. All right, Ron, go ahead, baby.

RON HORTON: No, no, no, Frank Kimbrough, please.

FRANK KIMBROUGH: A smart jazz composer is someone who surrounds himself with people who are great interpreters of what they see or what they hear or what they’re told. My M.O. has been to write as little as possible, to surround yourself with people who you trust, and everything will be all right, hopefully. As a composer, I don’t really have a desire to write a lot of notes or to write music that is virtuosic at all. I would prefer to write something very simple and then have the players find a place for their virtuosity within that and I think usually they do.

BEN ALLISON: To me, that’s like the Miles Davis Kind of Blue school. I mean, talk about a lineage, there’s an example, one of the many things I got out of that series is they were talking about that record date, which is one of the most listened to jazz albums of all time, and that was his philosophy going into that session. So, now you hear Frank’s music, it’s completely different than Miles Davis, but there’s like a direct lineage from then ’til now in certain ways, in a philosophical way. Even though the end result is totally different, and I don’t know if he even thought about that, but it just sprang into my mind right now, you know, musicians hit upon truths in successive generations.

TED NASH: Jazz composition is different than any other kind of composition, because jazz composition is really about setting up an environment for yourself to express yourself. It’s having an ability to create a world for yourself in which you can perform and improvise. He’s not writing music for my band, he’s not writing music for Ron Horton’s band, he’s writing music for his own band. A composer who’s a songwriter is writing songs for someone else to sing, for a movie. A classical composer is probably similar, or similar in a sense, but he’s generally not going to perform, or she’s not going to perform their own compositions. I think a jazz composer is really concerned with his own performance of the music.

FRANK J. OTERI: So is it possible to be a jazz composer and not be a player?

TED NASH: Absolutely.

FRANK KIMBROUGH: I work with Maria Schneider. She plays the piano but she doesn’t perform. But she uses that as serious expression of herself, and…

MICHAEL BLAKE: Utilizing those people, too.

FRANK KIMBROUGH: She carefully picks her players; that is her instrument.

MICHAEL BLAKE: And that talent. That’s like going back to the late ’20′s when Louis Armstrong used Earl Hines. Having that piano player took his music to another level. Like Ellington having those brass players using the mutes to bring his music alive and John Coltrane using Elvin Jones

BEN ALLISON: Frank and I used to work with a dancer named Brenda Boppolino, if I could bring her into the mix. She said one thing that always stuck in my mind. She said personal style is creating an attempt to make up for one’s weaknesses. That kind of struck me as strange, and I thought about it for a little while, and I think that it rang true to me personally because, as I’m coming up, struggling with learning bass and trying to figure out how to play I realized there were certain things that I could do well and certain things I couldn’t. Certain tunes that I felt like I could play well and get to my thing on, and then other situations where I just felt like a fish out of water. So I started composing, really, in an attempt to create frameworks for me to do my thing, for me to sound good. You know, I’d write a tune that would highlight something that I did really well, you know, and would not ask me to do things that I don’t do well. And then, when I realized a certain success with that, it felt good, I wanted to extend it to my friends, to write things…

TED NASH: For our weaknesses.

BEN ALLISON: Yes. To highlight Ted’s incredible weaknesses on the sax… No. [laughs] The reverse. To highlight the things that they do that are special. You know, to really draw attention, create frameworks in which they can get to their thing. That serves two purposes as a leader. Number one, I think it inspires the guys in your band to really want to play, ’cause they sound great doing it, you know, and there’s nothing more fun than doing what you’re good at. And secondly, it gives the band an individual character, because there’s so much music out there, and what separates one thing from another? Everything’s already been done before. There’s nothing new under the sun, as they say. What’s new is individual musicians, how they stir up the pot, their particular mixture of ingredients, you know, and the subtleties of how they put things together that makes it unique, and separates it out. And one of the ways is to really highlight the individuality of the musicians in your band, and that’s something right out of the lineage. That’s vintage Duke Ellington, the master of that kind of thing.

FRANK J. OTERI: And you each play different instruments. Do you compose on your instruments? You mentioned that you used to compose on piano but now you get ideas on the bass in sessions?

BEN ALLISON: Yeah, that’s right. I don’t know. Sometimes it’s on the bass, sometimes it’s… At this point in my life a lot of it’s done on the subway, you know, not at an instrument, really, ’cause a lot of my stuff starts more with a timbre or textural idea or a groove, or a certain sound of two instruments together. I’ll think, "Oh, what about plucked piano and plunger trumpet playing inside a piano. That could be creepy. That could be a good sound." That’s where the tune will start. I’ll think about that for a couple of months and then I’ll sit down and the tune will kind of come pouring out in about a half an hour once I have that idea in mind.

FRANK J. OTERI: So, in that sense, it’s not very different from, say, Elliott Carter writing a string quartet?

BEN ALLISON: I don’t know. I don’t know how he writes string quartets.

FRANK J. OTERI: I mean, just sort of conceptualizing what the players are going to do rather than physically doing it and then working it out with other people.

TED NASH: The more that you can hear in advance, the more that you’re going to be able to write. A lot of people limit themselves by trying to write on an instrument. I know so many horn players that try to use a piano to write, and it’s a funny thing, because immediately you’re limited, because you don’t have the technique to play a lot of it, you know? So I used to use the piano all the time as a tool to write, and the compositions that I would write on the piano are limited. When I started using the saxophone to write, I found that I would write much more melodic things, because I would hear more melodic phrases. Then, when I started to write not using any instrument, just try to grab a pencil and a piece of paper, suddenly it went to another place, and it was very exciting to see that development. I always encourage people to try to write not using any instrument, because you develop your ear towards that goal.

FRANK KIMBROUGH: That’s the way I compose as well… away from the piano.

TED NASH: Without the piano. I’m surprised to hear that…

BEN ALLISON: Yeah, me, too.

TED NASH: …because the way you interpret it on piano it sounds so pianistic.

FRANK KIMBROUGH: I usually write it away. There have been a few tunes where I was just musing, you know, and sort of stumbled across something, but, by and large, that’s the way.

MICHAEL BLAKE: I’ve written almost everything I’ve ever written on piano. Almost everything. Or on my little piece of crap Yamaha RY-20 sequencer. It’s really useful, actually, because a lot of my stuff, like Ben’s, has got some textures, and I want to have something repeating while I’m trying to think of a very simple melody that might just tie it all together.

RON HORTON: Well, I can’t add anything to that but I will acknowledge that those three types of composing are all crucial. I’ve spent time where I’ve composed at the trumpet and like Ted said, I found that it lent more to being melodic. I’m also a terrible piano player, and limited in certain ways, but someone whom I play with and admire as a composer, Andrew Hill, was one of the first people to really get on me to get a sequencer for that very reason. And he turned me on to a very easy sequencing program. He said, "Go get it. It’s not expensive. Get it out of the box and you’ll be working that day." And that has been help also. But for me the hardest is composing away from either of those. But I acknowledge also what Ted and Frank say, that the more that you can tap on sort of your inner ear, or the inner workings of what you’re hearing, and then put that down on paper somehow, that’s really, really what’s inside you, and you’re limited in, I suppose, certain technical aspects, but it’s a more direct ‘your mind to the paper’ kind of experience. And the rest is trying to find out how to best put it down on paper for the musicians to express it and basically bring it to life, and I think that’s another experience that we all have. The way we compose, whether on our instruments or whether we write it while we’re on the subway, or whether we sequence it and it comes out on a computer disc, or whatever, the real coming to life is when we bring it to a rehearsal, and whether it’s one other musician, two other musicians, or 10 other musicians, that’s the real moment when you find out whether what you wrote is crap, and you’re so embarrassed that you even put it out in front of your friends, let alone a bunch of strangers…

BEN ALLISON: [laughs] Not that we ever feel that way.

RON HORTON: Or the opposite… What you thought was crap, and "Oh, well, geez, I don’t know, guys, do you mind running this over in two minutes before we split and I just want to see how it comes out?" And miracles happen, something that you thought was going to just go right into the wastepaper basket becomes something of great importance to you.

BEN ALLISON: Oh. I think that that brings up to me one of the defining characteristics of jazz composition and that is collaboration. Because jazz, by its very nature, is collaborative, unless you’re playing a solo concert. You’re always composing on the spot, so to speak, so much of what defines a jazz composer is how they interact with the guys in the band, and what the other guys in the band do… I mean, you know, we write sketches, bring them in, guys flesh it out, make it cooler than it actually is, you know. So that’s a really important thing.