Wednesday, October 27, 2010

questions from richard savery , Australian saxophonist

Recently in my own composing I’ve started to feel that allowing the soloist/improviser freedom reduces the freedom of the composer and imposes it's own limitations.
Do you have any advice or thoughts on this?

That's an interesting question which I think about often . Sometimes I write separate solo sections to the "head" of the tune so that complexity in the written music does not get in the way of the soloist .
These days when I write the soloing section I like it to be easily memorizable .
I prefer soloing over 4/4 and 4 bar phrases so usually my solo sections adhere to that .
When improvising I prefer the musicians to be able to add complexity if they wish rather than it being forced on them .
I like to look at the music from the point of reference for a non-musician . I wonder if non-musicians can tell the difference between " 4/4 and 4 bar phrases being adeptly disguised " and a tune with sections written in different time signatures .. I also wonder how aware the casual listener is of the harmonic complexity of the solo section . Most of my beginning students are surprised to find that "so what" only has 2 chords ... they may have listened to it countless times already without noticing that aspect .

Complexity in the written music is fine with me as long as it is not too hard to learn . Often I perform music with no rehearsal due to time/financial constraints ..

There are exceptions of course like "giant steps" or my tune " fried chicken modulation " where complexity is inherent in the concept of the tune and can't be simplified . In those instances the soloist needs to be well prepared . Even "Giant Steps" is structurally simple in that it only has 3 key centers , and four lots of 4 bar phrases which can be memorized fairly easily .
Tunes written within the confines of traditional structures like "blues" or "rhythm changes" can make the task of "keeping the form during the solo " easier for the band . It can be nice to reference the "cliches of american jazz harmony" like a " 2-5-1" in the solo changes which allows the soloist to use techniques he/she may have already devised for dealing with those structures .
In the recording studio sometimes it is fun to have something more challenging and " composed " to work on as the ability to have a few goes at it can take the pressure off .

I sometimes think that it can be too easy to force a soloist in one direction. To this point do you think this is a good/bad thing?
In some ways a good tune is "fun to play" . Perhaps in some ways it has the "imprint of the composer" on it but still allows room for the improviser to do their own thing .

It seems from the a big band composers perspective that improvisation is merely a structural tool within the music. I also know (perhaps as a result?) that many horn players hate having solos - particulary over swing charts - in a big band context because they find it very hard to come across well in such a ‘artificial environment’. Thoughts?

One of the problems of the big band is everyone is separated by larger distances than usual in a small group and maybe be shuffling through lots of paper ... Having very clearly written charts with easy to an easy to navigate " road-map" can make a huge difference . Sometimes that's more important the the music itself . Also having too many cued sections can make life more difficult . Some of the most successful pieces of big band writing have very little soloing at all . Duke Ellington's "Koko" comes to mind as a personal favorite . Personally I like to "solo" over horns playing soft backgrounds that I have written myself. As a pianist in a big band I enjoy playing through someone else's written backgrounds if the chords are pretty . In that situation I want to reiterate the point that its fun as long as I have the liberty of " getting a bit lost" and know that the chart is going to continue even if I can't hear the bass player underneath the horns and lose the downbeat ... What is a nightmare is powering through overly rhythmic backgrounds played too loud and when the band gets lost in doing so ...

Further to that question Darcy James Argue creates highly organised sections for the band members to solo over. In Zeno (not sure if you’ve heard it) it almost comes across as if the whole shape of the solo is already defined - not that I’m against that, I’m really into Darcy’s music.. What do you think of that as an improviser/composer

Thanks for hipping me to that track it's pretty cool . I have checked out Darcy's music before . I met him through Aussie bassist Matt Clohesy who is playing on that Cd . I thought the section before the trombone solo ( 2.10-2.30 ) was particularly interesting and pretty writing . As far as being difficult for the soloist I expect the trombone solo section wasn't too difficult from the point of view of "negotiating the music " . It was pretty easy to follow the beginning being in 6/4 and repeating between 2 chords and then another 2 ( all centered around Ab minor ) . I felt like the soloist had plenty of room to stretch at that point . After some time things got more complicated as the solo finished up , but he had already had plenty of room to move around and " blow " . Sometimes if EVERYTHING is written out then complexity is easier to negotiate . What can be hard is if the drummer or bass player is improvising within a complicated structure and the soloist needs to figure out what they are doing as well as play and get over the backgrounds .
In the end you have to ask yourself whether you liked the results . I am certainly no connoisseur of big band music but I enjoyed hearing that piece . There is something great about humans attempting to play challenging music at this point in history . Thumbs up to them for having the energy to put all of that together ... It's hard to get a trio together in New York these days let alone a big-band with innovative music so hats off to all of them . I wish you had told me in advance that the song was freely downloadable from all about jazz before I gave .99 to the itunes barons .

“Composing, I could reach conceptions that I could never reach in a limited, defined, performing time. I couldn’t reach an equal conceptual excellence in improvisation as in composing. The inadequacy may have been in myself.
Gavin Bryars
Do you have any thoughts about that quote?

Tell him to keep trying not to give up improvising so quickly . I have been at it for 25 years now .. still trying to get it together . Improvising is a useful musical tool perhaps similar to studying Palestrina or Bach . John Lennon learnt to sing and play a bucket load of old rock n roll tunes before he wrote " I am the Walrus " . In the end it's the quality of the music that matters , not the disciplines used to getting there . Once you get into areas of rhythm that are specific to jazz , blues and funk music (eg accents , "groove" , placement , rhythms that "go-against" the pulse etc ) it gets pretty hard to notate and sometimes improvisation allows you to achieve things easily that are very difficult to notate . It's also hard to get very specific about sound/timbre with notated music . Some of Miles Davis' most famous solos are made great by the specific placement of one-note rhythmically with a very specific "sound" .
The advent of recorded music makes recording an improvised event live as long as a piece of written music . That changes the impact of improvised music .... It doesn't however make composed music "less valid " just as inventing a car doesn't make walking useless . If Gavin Bryars doesn't know how to drive a car I would tell him to keep trying and give it a shot as it can really get you to interesting places which could be hard to reach otherwise .

Best regards

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