The Orchestra of Jazz Composers

Jazz has a fraught relationship with the word ‘composer’ and the world of notated music that is generally understood to be the Western classical tradition. It’s something like two brothers, one appreciably younger, with a different personality and spirit of independance, no small amount of confidence, but who still finds the older one worth admiring, even imitating and, in his frequent indifference, powerfully intimidating. It’s a modern phenomenon in that jazz is a modern music, only around a hundred years old, growing up in a world with extra-musical issues that can’t help but have an effect on the music-makers.

There are cultural elements that have worked insidiously to exacerbate this: the growth of academically minted professional credentials, as virulent and undesirable as clap in a submarine, the preference, as recording technology and mass media grew, for physical relics over oral history, and the cultural status of jazz through its first few generations, a mongrel American music played by Africa-Americans and Jews and immigrants, an art music that began as a dance (and drug) music, a home-grown tradition so young that it defies the very notion of tradition while simultaneously and jealously protecting and preserving it’s own basic dogmas.

Jazz and classical music are different styles with different criteria. They’ve met and commingled for about as long as jazz itself has been around, since Stravsinky picked up some ragtime sheet music and Bix Beiderbecke recorded “In a Mist,” and as human art forms, they share a common bond in the exploration and expression of intellectual and emotional experience. How they get there is complementary but so, so different.

Stravinsky Ragtime Page 1

Classical music began as something some guys were just playing, somewhere, but through the influence of intellectual and liturgical traditions, the patronage of the artistocracy and the rise of the middle class with a desire to be cultured, it became the composer’s music. Gloriously so. Since the development of notational language, classical music has been driven by men and women working out abstract thoughts in their heads and finding new ways to convey those in musical instructions. The body of music is frequently called a literature, because it is a vast collection, on paper, that tells the story of the accumulation of possibilities, of how to express the word of God, of how to structure multiple voices in simultaneous conversation, of how to describe a journey through non-existent lands and the return to home, of how to tell the world the unnameable things one feels and, in the 20th century, how to properly rebuild civilization after two cataclysmic wars.

Jazz also began as musicians playing something, somewhere, probably for dancers. And since it began as the gramaphone and radio were replacing the piano as the way the middle-class experienced music, it quickly became recorded music. Where composers learned by studying the scores of other composers, jazz musicians learned by listening to the records of other musicians — aural/oral history as opposed to documents on paper. Jazz forms have almost always been simple, vehicles for the musicians to explore as a means of personal and group expression, rather than intellectual handiwork to be reinterpreted by someone else. Jazz was, and still largely is, song-based, and the composers were the songwriters who came up with the material and the musicians who added to it and made something new out of it when they played.

So, what’s the beef? It’s in how jazz looks at the role of the composer. There is no shame in writing songs rather than sonatas, and a good song, with a good tune, is in many ways harder to write. Identifying the songwriter — the composer — is innocent enough, but as jazz moved from a popular music to an art music after Be Bop, and especially after free music, the idea of the composer often became something of a weird, assertive cult. On records that were free, or fussy, and in concerts, it became a thing to speak of ‘compositions’ as an icon. It was always an odd experience, at the end of an Art Ensemble of Chicago concert, when Joseph Jarman would announce the band and the instruments they played, including ‘compositions’ in a performance that might have had only one stretch of music identifiable as previously being organized.

At other points along the spectrum, there has been fussy and poorly-written fuax-Baroque counterpoint from the Modern Jazz Quartet to Return to Forever, the stringing together of aesthetically related tunes into arbitrary ‘suites,’ and the bad Schumann of Brad Mehldau’s Elegiac Cycle and the vapid art songs of Fred Hersch’s Leaves of Grass. The right word here is ‘pretentious,’ and I mean it because in these examples I see jazz musicians working very hard to put over the pretense that they are something they are not, which is classical composers. They are not, they are jazz composers. There’s no shame in that. In fact, jazz has had important composers in the past, musicians making jazz and doing what composer’s do, which is organize musical material. And the current jazz scene has burgeoning examples of musicians rapidly expanding the possibilities in the music through compositional means. That they are doing nothing at all like Bach or Beethoven or Stravinsky did is good for jazz, good for all music.

Over the past few years, this movement has centered around Pi Recordings and the music made by Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Muhal Richard Abrams, Tyshawn Sorey, Amir ElSaffar and especially Steve Lehman and Henry Threadgill. Seth Rosner and Yulun Wang founded the label to put out music they were attracted to, and as Rosner explained to me, they were attracted to artists like Iyer and Threadgill and Lehman, who had either first or second generation connections to the AACM (directly for Threadgill, via Roscoe Mitchell for Iyer) and Anthony Braxton, one of Lehman’s graduate school teachers at Wesleyan (along with the great avant-garde conceptualist Alvin Lucier). Casting aside the dual formal baggage of the blues and specific and inappropriate classical structures, these musicians are finding ways to make jazz that expands on the possibilites of the style in ways that are deeply idiomatic, joining the handful of true peers who found ways to get beyond song form and still make music with improvisation, swing and fire: Ellington, Monk, Mingus, George Russell, Steve Lacy, Darcy James Argue.

Some of the most notable of these discs are on Pi, like Iyer’s thematic In What Language?, Sorey’s abstract That/Not (distributed by Pi), Lehman’s extraordinary combination of complex, electronic-based rhythms with spectral harmony on Travail, Transformation and Flow. More recent releases include Abram’s physically mellow and emotionally and intellectually deep set of duets on SoundDance, and Sorey’s consolidation of his more exploratory ideas into a forward driving and still highly surprising and creative style on Oblique-I, an intriguing disc that reveals very subtle and sophisticated compositional thinking. Sorey is creating a kind of jazz Minimalism, using repeated polyphonic lines to build structures that make both room and safety for dissonant harmonies, coherent improvisation and real grooves. This is the kind of thing jazz can do, as art, that classical composition is weak at, and it’s the kind of thing that jazz can, and should be doing, to break out of its own musical ghetto, where strange and perhaps insecure notions of tradition force a general conservatism on the music.
Lehman is not the first jazz musician to pursue a doctorate in composition, that was probably Mel Powell, but he is one of the most important. He’s far too modest to admit this, but his series of discs on Pi have staked out territory in jazz that no one else has set foot in. Before Travail, Transformation and Flow, there was the unprecedented rhythmic complexity of On Meaning and the deliberately fragmented but somehow expansive Demian as Posthuman. It’s easy to explore the technical aspects of what he’s doing, like adapting the types of rhythms and changes in meter that for a while seemed possible only in computer software, through the talents of Sorey, to the framework of Hard Bop, or using microtonality as a means to build harmonic structures. The importance of these advances is hard to overstate: as much as swinging rhythms and improvisation appear to explore freedom, only using those rhythms and only working within song form structure is an existential dead-end, one that requires sheer virtuosity to break out of. That’s fine for individual talent, but deadly for the music as a whole.

If he had only tried and failed at these ideas, he would have a lasting legacy, but his music and records succeed brilliantly because they are, fundamentally and aesthetically, jazz, and jazz of the most physically and emotionally exciting kind. He’s a monster player, full of fire, extraordinary technique, and an intense sound and attack. His improvising is coherent, driving and incredibly quick thinking, and his bands follow suit. His music is so much more rhythmically complex than most jazz, so much more harmonically sophisticated and interesting, and so deeply satisfying. His latest, Dialectic Flourescent, with Matt Brewer on bass and Damion Reid on drums, is closer to a blowing session, but with a synthesis of his experiments of pushing the meter and pulse around off center and back again, and with microtonality integrated in his playing in a way that goes beyond mere bending of notes and adds onto the harmonic depth. It’s a real showcase of what a great jazz player Lehman is, and the judicious use of other musician’s tunes, Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice,” Jackie McLean’s aggressive “Mr. E,” Duke Pearson’s hip “Jeanine,” and an amazingly intense “Pure Imagination” that itself harkens back to Coltrane’s most soul-abbrading playing on his Atlantic records. No jazz record this year could exceed it for sheer impact, and Lehman’s three night residency at the Jazz Gallery this week promises to be one of the outstanding gigs of the year, and is urgently recommended (Times and tickets here).

Lehman’s not the only musician to do creative compositional work within what is currently the predominant style of Neo-Hard Bop. I’ve been enjoying the depth and surprises in Tomas Fujiwara’s new CD with his band The Hook Up, The Air is Different. One of the strengths is the band, with Trevor Dunn and Mary Halvorson excelling at both supporting the ensemble and bringing in a very outsider-ish sense of taste — they move the music forward by teasing at it irreverently. Fujiwara has a compositional sense that shares something of John Zorn’s magpie approach, but without the cultural didacticism. The TV-Spy-Show riff of “Double Lake, Defined,” is the foundation for the tune, not a means to prove how hip the drummer is. Superficially conventional, all the tracks are loaded with unexpected swerves that end up being not only completely logical but completely satisfying. A very cool record, both for what it proves about how jazz can be played and for how fine the thinking and playing are.

There are also some recent attempts to write music that gets beyond standard jazz that don’t quite succeed, through a combination of flawed ambition and technique. Bassist Eivind Opsvik’s news Overseas IV and Joel Harrison’s Search don’t quite bring it all together, and what I hear is compositional measures that are too wide when they would work better with more focus and depth. Both these CDs mean to make large-scale compositional statements but instead end up like jazz concept albums, with great moments undercut by ideas that are overstated and underdone. Opsvik’s portentous opening track, with Jacob Sacks running through a very ordinary set of chords on the harpsichord, trades the understanding of Baroque structure for its sound. The track elides into “White Armour,” which furthers the problem: the leader seems to think that being a composer means making music that has longer duration than regular tunes, but Monk and Webern would disagree. As do I. Being a composer means creating and organizing materials in a way that makes sense, and there’s very little here that makes sense because there’s very little that does anything other than go on, and on. The talented band, including Brandon Seabrook and Tony Malaby, get very little chance to contribute anything. Harrison’s release is more successful, but it’s not fully realized. Some of the composing is fine and gets beyond standard jazz, while some of it just uses a small string section to add orchestral weight to ideas that the basic band could play well without making any larger statement. Harrison has a lighter touch then Opsvik, and appreciates that he’s still making jazz: the band gets to groove and flex it’s considerable muscles. Too much is made of this as a ‘composed’ record: there is solid writing but nothing that coherently transcends the form, like the way Dave Douglas’ compositional statements always end up being an undernourished skeleton for improvisation, just another fancy tune. Search does the same kinds of things Tom Harrell has been doing for a while, and those are good things that it does well, but it colors very much within the lines.
Then there is Henry Threadgill, who has a new record on Pi, Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp. Threadgill doesn’t particularly consider what he is doing as jazz anymore, and he’s right, but it’s also useful to think of it as jazz, both because that’s the tradition he’s made his way out of, and because he and his musicians have so much idiomatic jazz in their individual playing. As a musician and a composer, his whole career has been testament to the motto, Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future, with one foot on the aesthetic land of cakewalks, Scott Joplin and King Oliver, the other seeking a way to structure polyphonic improvisation. It took decades of hard work, exploration, quietly radical decisions to get beyond “major and minor key harmony,” as he told me. He discovered his current technique through studying the music of Varese, who himself sought to break away from the standard structures of classical music but still work within the tradition of being a composer. Not that Threadgill sounds like Varese! The new disc is familiar in style to his music from the second half of Up Popped The Two Lips, the second release ever on Pi. It’s also different than previous ones, including the two volumes of This Brings Us Too, in part because he’s added the additional voice of Christopher Hoffman on cello, give him the ideal configuration of two sets of three voices, and the band is more confident and skilled in his method, which is both radically simple, like all great breakthroughs, and radically different than the way most musicians learn to think about music.

Henry is a composer, a composer’s composer, and he’s created an entirely new way to organize materials of music, creating tool kits rather than just tunes, means for his group Zooid to work within a common frame of harmony, rhythm and time while still allowing multi-faceted freedom to improvise, to accompany, to take time out from the movement of the piece to explore some interesting discovery and still find one’s way back together in key places. It’s fair to call this contemporary chamber music and also, because of the conceptual connection to traditional polyphonic jazz, to call it jazz. It also fulfills the jazz aesthetic of being music for your feet, heart and mind simultaneously. It also is a close companion to the music of Earle Brown, a jazzman turned avant-garde composer and one of the important figures of 20th century music, who, like Threadgill, created brilliant and unusual structures for organizing music that, as he said, would be both identifiable and sound different each time they are played. The record is excellent, more mysterious than the previous two but also so much more assured and coherent. A major event just by being, it’s one of the best of the year and will most likely be shunted aside by jazz’s musical and critical establishment. Lehman’s is more accessible, but it’s a lonely place where he and Threadgill stand, but the music is great and the body of music is so much the better for their contributions.

UPDATED to fix Damion Reid’s name and specify label information for That/Not


Author: gtra1n

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.