Jazz Comp 101

Considering composers in jazz is like staring at a beautiful androgyne. You’re not exactly sure what one is, but part of the allure and fascination is the sheer ambiguity. What exactly are composers in jazz, music writers or musicians? Aren’t all jazz musicians composers already? How much does composition mean in jazz when it’s an improvised art form? These have been important and unanswered questions for decades, and I hope they’ll remain that way. It’s an important area for discussion and constructive argument, and as long as jazz remains a recognizable art form, it will never be settled.

I don’t have the answer, but I have some responses. One is that composers absolutely belong in jazz. That may seem obvious, but as much as jazz is spontaneously created in performance, it’s most often based on a song, and composers are writing those songs, even if they’re just twelve-bar blues (and if you doubt composition is part of that form, listen again to the surprising harmonic motion at the end of “Freddie Freeloader“). Also, the nature of larger ensembles means that composition becomes a means for group coordination, so on the big band side composers have been creating music for decades, and either employing arrangers or doing the arrangements themselves. Not every big band song has improvisation in it, but those such works by the likes of Ellington and Kenton are absolutely jazz.

Ellington also is at the foundation of one of two types of jazz composers (this is just for arguments sake, although there’s a lot of truth in the argument); the ensemble composer as opposed to the song composer, and although that includes the composers of popular songs that become jazz standards, let’s keep this idea in house and fill that foundation with Thelonious Monk. The rough divide is that Ellington, even in his three minute masterpieces, was writing for a larger possibility of form, structure, technical means of polyphony like counterpoint and harmonic rhythm, and orchestral color, a great deal of which could ably take the place of ordinary melody and harmony. Monk, on the other hand, was working firmly within song structures, writing great masterpieces in song form, pieces meant to be played and then to serve as vehicles for improvisation, then returned to for the close. In jazz, the song composer hands off a lot of the creative responsibility to the improvisers, but the best songs in jazz, like Monk’s or Hoagy Charmichael’s or Jobim’s, have such brilliance to them that the improviser generally sticks to the material the composer provides, and the elements that make the song what it is are identifiable during the solos.

It’s a useful, bifurcated guide. On top of Ellington come Gil Evans, George Russell, Bill Holman, Oliver Nelson and, today, Darcy James Argue. On top of Monk, there are his worthy constituents Charlie Parker (Be-Bop reused song forms), Horace Silver, Herbie Nichols, Wayne Shorter, Mingus (I think Mingus is essentially a song form composer, though he made creative use of hybrid structures. His most successful through composed works, like “Self Portrait In Three Colors,” are in song form, while most of his pieces are firmly in the category of vehicles for improvisation, and the best kind, like “Fables of Faubus,” are full of rewarding, multi-faceted information for the musicians to play with) and Steve Lacy. The line of how the music gets from there to here is an interesting one; like objects made with different material, they accumulate different features as they roll down the paths of history. Again, it’s a rough divide; large scale ensembles and forms have accumulated technical facets of classical and modern compositional technique, while song forms have picked up stylistic elements from funk, rock and hip-hop.

You can hear these paths evocatively contrasted on new CDs from John Hollenbeck‘s Claudia Quintet and the band Ideal Bread. Hollenbeck leads small and large ensembles, but his approach to making music is consistent, he’s a jazz composer, working with the possibilities of form, structure and notation. His Large Ensemble CD Eternal Interlude was one of the highlights of 2009 and earned a Grammy nomination, the new recording Royal Toast, featuring Gary Versace playing piano and accordion, has been widely praised already. It stands out from the crowd of jazz small ensemble recordings and achieves a good amount, but I’m not convinced that it’s a complete success. It’s ambitious, but also has some compositional problems. Ideal Bread have produced the second volume of their CDs dedicated to the music of Steve Lacy. As a tribute it’s wonderful, and seemingly modest. Choosing Lacy, though, is pretty ambitious, and what the band does is let his work speak for itself.

Royal Toast is dense with music, sixteen tracks lasting over an hour and showing both Hollenbeck’s focus and the range of detail it encompasses. The CD also has the interesting structure of improvised interludes separating the relatively thoroughly composed pieces, which also highlights some of the internal contradictions, which mainly boil down to opportunities seized while others are declined. There is nothing bad on the recording, but there are hints of what could have been if Hollenbeck had made different choices. A prime example is “Keramag,” maybe the most populist track on the CD. It’s a bit of complex, sectional funk, the sections themselves showing different influences of contemporary jazz and composition. The longish intro/A section is tightly syncopated but feels fussy, like an exercise in counting rather than grooving. It flows into a second section that, while organic to the piece, feels totally different and is totally successful; a combination of a shifting ostinato under an accompanying harmonic outline, a terrific little bit of contemporary jazz via Stravinsky and Steve Reich. The tension is between different ideas of composing for the contemporary small ensemble, and the counter-intuitive result is that the first jazz flavored section doesn’t work as well as the section with more non-jazz ideas in it.

The following track, “Paterna Terra,” is worth the price of admission alone. Arguably the finest jazz composer of the last forty years was Joe Zawinul, and beyond some glossy takes on the Weather Report style, there’s been hardly any real understanding or exploration of his musical ideas. Hollenbeck’s own response to Weather Report has the same non-specific but clear international flavor, the same muscular power and the same synthesis of rock solid structure and pliant, almost free possibility in the playing. Driving, intense drumming, atmospheric detail and a hard-core center of a seemingly simple but harmonically and rhythmically complex line that doubles as both the melody and the bass, it’s a winning concept. There’s some improvisational detail from Versace and sax player Chris Speed, but mainly the band just elides into the material, repeats to effect, and then jams, with the containing structure acting as an unheard, invisible but completely present anchor, tight and free at once. That’s been the ultimate balance of jazz since Ornette Coleman, something very difficult to achieve, and this track is one of the shining examples of this aesthetic.

The rest of the CD intermittently hits this high point. If the playing is great, the composing too often undermines it. Notating lines and structures is not inherently antithetical to jazz, but Hollenbeck’s lines can be too fussy on Royal Toast, and the structures not fussy enough; there’s a lot of playing of notes on tracks like “Armitage Shanks” and “Sphinx,” rather than playing music, and tracks like “Zurn” have great, musical lines, but seem to be missing that extra idea, a melody here or a feature of form there, that would make them work as pieces of music, and so, despite a lot of attractive qualities, they’re left to float in a space that is not quite jazz and not quite contemporary music, and the ambiguity is uncomfortable. This is a feature of a lot of contemporary music, jazz or rock or classical, that tries to bridge the gaps between different idioms but doesn’t balance those idioms well enough to make a clear point. Hollenbeck does make it work, though, on the opening “Crane Merit,” where the idea is just a sense of loveliness in the music, without troubling with labels, and succeeds through the disciplined simplicity of it. The title cut is also a nice mix of contemporary jazz and some fascinating ideas about classical and electronic pulses and rhythms. And along with Zawinul, Hollenbeck has picked up some ideas from another important, underrated jazz composer, Roy Nathanson. The CDs penultimate track “American Standard” has a rugged, seemingly clumsy but propulsive bass line that is a staple of Nathanson’s technique. The closing “For Frederick Frank” is another exercise in loveliness, atmospheric and flowing, and ends Royal Toast on a high note. Hollenbeck is fighting a good and worthwhile fight in his music in general, but I would have to qualify this release as a draw; worth the effort in the making and listening, but unsettled and inconclusive.

Ideal Bread’s Transmit fights a good fight too, and wins it with wit, guile and confidence. I will admit upfront that I am a partisan for Lacy’s career, which represents a fundamentally vital but also secret strain in jazz, the idea that free playing is but one step removed from the original roots of the music. Lacy himself went straight from Dixieland playing to Cecil Taylor, and never worked his way through most of Swing and all of Be-Bop and Hard-Bop. The attraction is two-fold; one is that of a counter-culture within jazz’s own counter-culture, and the other is the success of the music. Lacy also spent a short, formative period with Monk, and although Monk was associated with Be-Bop, his own music comes directly out of Ragtime and Stride. Lacy’s compositional method adhered to Monk’s techniques of pithy, repeated phrases and an internal rhythmic and structural logic as solid as reinforced concrete. But where Monk emphasized the vertical harmonies of song form, Lacy’s tunes are much leaner and open harmonically. Each man, though, used a simple directness that is so little heard, and hard to achieve, that it seems baffling. Maybe the best example is in the tune “Flakes,” the second track on the disc, which has the abstractly onomatopoeic sound of snow falling gently and quietly on skaters on a frozen pond. The brilliant refinement of the tune is a result of Lacy’s other great compositional process, melding the European, poetry based art-song with jazz. He had excellent taste in and understanding of poetry, and when he found texts he admired he set them with unnerving directness and clarity. This is actually extremely difficult to achieve as a musician, where the process of becoming an artist involves accumulating knowledge and understanding and ability. The ultimate goal is actually to forget all you have learned and make music, and it is exceedingly hard and rarely achieved. Lacy did it, and Ideal Bread understands it.

The ensemble playing is terrific. Josh Sinton on baritone sax, Kirk Knuffke on trumpet, Reuben Radding on bass and Tomas Fujiwara on drums make great, small ensemble jazz. They listen to each other and react with quickness and intelligence, the lead players explore whatever territory the music takes them too without they or the band ever losing their way. Even better, though, and more important, is their choice of material. Again, Lacy was an important composer, and the band puts that on display by playing some of his finest tunes. Along with “Flakes” there is the opening, ominous “As Usual,” the free, bluesy Dixieland of “The Dumps,” the arid “Longing” and “Cliches,” Lacy’s single greatest composition. Those familiar with the music will hear the words from the originals in their heads while listening to these musicians play the lines with clarity and complete comprehension. A great deal of credit goes to Sinton who has transcribed a lot of Lacy’s music. That’s no small task considering both the quantity and the numerous slight variations extant. Lacy worked almost entirely from his own body of work, and recorded the same tunes multiple times and in multiple settings. Listening to the various recordings means hearing slight but important differences in accents, phrasing and syncopation, and Sinton has made exceptionally well-judged decisions in just how to put that note there so the result is both true to the repertoire and involving, clear and strong to play and hear. Lacy may still be a bit of a speciality, but Ideal Bread is incorporating that legacy into the overall edifice of jazz, and Transmit is an important new part of the construction. It’s also a intelligent, funky, smart and fun modern jazz recording. In it’s simple way, it’s grandly ambitious and equally successful. It may not be your first priority in jazz, but seek it out for it’s concentrated excellence and pleasure.



I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.