Jazz Composition Trends – from CMA Magazine article

This article appeared in the nov./dec. issue of Chamber Music America Magazine

It’s a bit rambling, but I think it touches on some interesting points A.B. Spellman asked the question. Reviewing Ben Ratliff’s The Jazz Ear in the July/August issue of this magazine, he wrote: “Never before has this music had this many practitioners with so much technique, theory, and history, yet this is the longest that jazz has been without a defining genius or a radical new movement. I have been wondering if this is a composer’s era.”

I believe the answer is “yes”: this is, indeed, a composer’s era in jazz. We are arguably in the midst of radical changes, driven not by one defining genius but by many forward-thinking individuals all working at once. What I find interesting these days is not so much how people are soloing- it’s the new materials they’re being fed. It used to be that jazz was predicated on improvisational interpretations of “standards” (often Broadway tunes), or brief “head charts” that offered a vehicle to solo off of. Now, however, almost all players write their own music, much of it of an increasingly complex nature.

Twelve years ago, when I released a composition-driven octet CD called Range of Motion, I felt that I was in rather sparse company. Long-form, multi-sectional pieces with world music influences, odd meters and unusual instrumentation were somewhat rare then—now they are not. The language of jazz has changed as much in the past 15 years as it did between Charlie Parker and Coltrane. These changes may be less easy to quantify than the changes Coltrane brought, but they are nonetheless real.

Call it the Great Assimilation: classical music and jazz are really beginning to blend now. Meters jump around like fruit flies. Indian, African, Jewish, and Balkan music are no longer used as window dressing—they’ve become a core compositional principle for some, as have Cuban and Central and South American music. The many guitarists now playing jazz have brought every conceivable subspecies of American roots music into the mix. John Zorn has pointed out that we may disagree on what to call this music. Maybe some of it isn’t “jazz.” I am not compelled to argue about who or what belongs in the genealogical tree. One thing’s for sure: the music I am talking about has far more connection to Mingus than Mozart.

There is a dichotomy at the heart of jazz composition: how can the soul and spontaneity of improvisation live within the framework of substantative notation? Conversely, how can notation enliven the presence of the soloist? The key is in finding ways to make the blend seamless, so that the two impulses are made stronger by their union, not weaker. The presence of the unknown in a piece of music is irresistible to a jazz player. Personally, I find it hard to live without mystery, where the music is different each time, but I am even more enthralled if I also hear a bedrock of writing that anchors the solos and keeps surprising me.

There have been important people throughout the history of jazz who have grappled with these issues: Ellington, Mingus, Gunther Schuller, Bob Brookmeyer, Gil Evans, George Russel, Jimmy Guiffre, Henry Threadgill to name just a few. In recent years, though, the numbers of composers following the “meta-jazz” path has begun to grow exponentially. There is a certain all-inclusive view that can be intoxicating when handled well.

I personally am indebted to Ran Blake of the 3rd Stream department at New England Conservatory. In our private lessons, circa 1978, he would encourage me to look past jazz standards for both writing and improvising; Greek folk songs, Marvin Gaye, Charles Ives and film music were all grist for the mill. My Free Country project was a direct descendant of his world-view, where the fundamentals of jazz are enriched by association with other traditions. This aesthetic is practically commonplace now for young musicians. In the space of one piece, or even one solo, you might find free-form blowing, luscious tonality, rock and roll, Indian raga, or electronics. I call this progress- and I see a direct line from the forbears mentioned above to where we are today.

Jazz, of course, is no longer the strict province of Americans (although most of its best practitioners are still American). As it has become a music that is played all over the world, other nationalities are stamping jazz with their own imprimatur. There is a lot of interesting jazz composition coming from Europe now. Americans with a variety of ancestral roots also are stirring the pot, infusing their writing with their bloodlines. This year’s list of CMA New Works grantees includes individuals of Persian, Indian, Pakistani, Chinese and Cuban descent, all foraging for a new voice. In fact the very existence of the New Works Jazz Composition program helps illustrate my point—it fills a growing need, and a few years ago it did not exist.

Of course this multiplicity (or to use the word du jour, eclecticism) is also taking place in the classical world. Maybe there is a commonality between the “post-classical” adherents, as Kyle Gann recently described them (Reich, Lang, Adams, etc.) and a burgeoning “post-jazz” world.

Modern jazz composition has its pitfalls: in its more elaborate forms it consciously lives in two worlds, the spontaneous and intuitive, and the pre-ordained and immoveable. I maintain that bridging these worlds is amongst the greatest and most interesting challenges any composer can undertake. It is difficult to master one tradition, almost impossible to master two, and as far as I know the world has never known anyone who mastered three. I have found it incredibly hard to find the time and energy to equally serve the gods of improvising and writing, and my attempts to build a focused, personal sound have led me to stretch myself pretty thin. I felt it was necessary to study Western harmony, counterpoint, various formal 20th century compositional techniques, all kinds of improvisation, American vernacular like rock, blues, and country, and to some degree African and Indian music. As a result it took me a quite a while to find my own sound. I always emphasize to students how the myriad choices in today’s musical world creates an altogether modern enigma. Too many choices can make writing music harder, not easier! You have to dig deep for the hidden treasures in any tradition with great patience, or your music can end up sounding superficial. A key to success is choosing ONE medium as your foundation. I am at heart a jazz musician, even when composing music with no improvisation. This insight serves to ground all my endeavors.

The time will come when a non-improvising string quartet or chamber orchestra will regularly share bills with a jazz group. Conservatory trained players will more commonly learn to improvise with authority, seamlessly moving between jazz and classical; jazz players in turn will increasingly share ideas with classical composers. The borders between black, brown and white will continue to be more porous. Other cultures will find increasingly fluid ways to enter and enrich the jazz tradition. As this happens it is possible that mainstream jazz, the kind that emulates the sound of the 50’s, will go the way of Vivaldi—deeply appreciated and studied, but less and less relevant to contemporary practice.

As jazz grows it may become less club-centered and more a concert music, and will need corresponding institutions to support it. Will it continue to lose some of its all-important “street sound”, and therein its African-American historicity? Perhaps so… all the “technique, theory, and history” that is accumulating in schools all over the world are, of course, meaningless without soul and roots. But traditions always change with time and we must have faith that the music will maintain its vitality. My hope is that as jazz composers proliferate, their groundbreaking work will enjoy the same level of attention, support, and prestige as their brethren in the classical world.

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