Tuesday, January 27, 2009


The photos here were snapped at last night's rehearsal of the Portland Jazz Composers' Ensemble. I contributed a new tune, "Et Tu, Tutu?", which will programmed in the group's February 17 show, to be held in tandem with the Portland Jazz Festival.

It's always fascinating for me to write something for a group other than the IJG. One of the assumptions I make about my own musical creativity is that it is highly dependent upon a specific context of players that I already know -- and the better I know them, the better music I can write. I really feel like my music arises from the social context of whatever band I'm in -- not from the isolation of my own head. This is why I've never been able to develop a career as a composer-for-hire (e.g., film scoring, or commercial music).

However, I do appreciate the challenge -- it comes up from time to time -- of stepping outside of the "comfort zone" of the IJG, just to see what happens, and what I can learn from that. So when Andrew Oliver (the co-leader of the PJCE) asked me to be part of the upcoming PCJE concert, of course I said yes. (It helped that the PCJE includes three now-veterans of the IJG, all great players and great people: Mary-Sue Tobin (alto / soprano sax), Mieke Bruggeman (bari sax), and Kevin Van Geem (drums).)

The PCJE has a slightly different configuration from the IJG -- more brass-heavy, for one thing, and with a greater focus on acoustic bass and a full rhythm section. So I was initially tempted to contribute a slightly revised version of "Sneaky Whispers," an older, more recognizably "jazzy" tune of mine that originally appeared on the Industrialjazzwerke album.

But ultimately I decided to offer up something new, something closer to where my head is at now. Thus "Et Tu, Tutu?" has all the hallmarks of the IJG circa 2009: simple melodies expressed through dense, layered arrangements; a strong groove; an electric bass part; a few tempo shifts; chanted words; a goofy title; some physical comedy. We'll see how it turns out, but in the meantime, I'm just honored that the players (heavy hitters all) were willing to give it an airing.

The other composers for this show are: Dan Duval, Ken Ollis, Kyle Williams, Sam Howard, and the aforementioned Andrew Oliver. Do yourself a favor and check their music out -- their tunes were all smokin'.


D0nnaTr0y said...

Writing with particular players in mind is definitely the way to go when trying to develop a sound for your group. I aspire to one day be like Duke and not even put Trumpet 1 on the part but my trumpet player's name.

But it is always a wake up call when you have to write for strangers. I find I have to be much clearer in my text directions since I can't be there verbally explaining it.

Sounds like a cool project. Be sure to post some videos if you get some. :)

Andrew Durkin... said...

I aspire to one day be like Duke and not even put Trumpet 1 on the part but my trumpet player's name.

Yeah! I actually did that for a little while. But since the personnel lineup for my group is never exactly consistent for more than a few gigs in a row, and since sometimes the reeds switch horns depending on who is available, it became confusing trying to make sure that the right player got the right book.

Of course, once big bands become lucrative again, allowing us to put our groups on the road for months at a time (and thereby ensuring greater personnel consistency), this will be less of an issue!

But it is always a wake up call when you have to write for strangers. I find I have to be much clearer in my text directions since I can't be there verbally explaining it.

Agreed. And even if you can be there verbally explaining it, with your own people there's a kind of shorthand. They get to know what you like, what your aesthetic is. They learn to anticipate certain things. And you learn about the things they specialize in, and the specific talents they bring to the music. So there's a kind of mind-meld, and the tunes fall into place a little quicker.

In my own case, I think that that dynamic tends to produce better music. But I also think it's a good thing, every once in a while, to force myself to be in a situation where I have to explain my aesthetic choices, from scratch, to someone who has never played my music before. If nothing else, it's a way of throwing those choices into relief, and testing my commitment to them. It allows me to ensure I'm not doing things purely out of unthinking habit.

Thanks for your comment!

mrG said...

"Of course, once big bands become lucrative again"

Aye, that's the spirit! Keep the faith, baby. Our day will come.

In the real heyday of the really BIG big bands, ie Mahler, it was impossible to move THAT band, so the norm was to move the music instead, in manuscript, like a liturgy, and so there was a dilligent attention to direction in an attempt to capture the original. Once we had recordings, everything changed, it was now very possible to hear the Berlin-based original in Pittsburgh, so the goal changed to interpreting the manuscript so as to not sound like the original yet still capture the spirit. With the intervening world-wars, we next had the ability to move THAT orchestra en masse to where-ever you like and (starting really with Paganini or maybe Liszt) we began to expect the exceptional personality more than the music as the thing in itself.

McLuhan said, "We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us. and in this story I think we lost something back there that may be essential to the future of the Big Bands; in the 30's and 40's you needed a local band because Duke wasn't going to visit Poughkeepsie any time soon and, just as today, recordings are a pale shadow of the Real Thing. So we had the Territory Bands (anyone have any recordings from any of these?) and local towns and factories adapted their orchestras and brass-bands into big bands and the whole landscape was alive with music.

So in a sense, we brought this upon ourselves, creating a scarecity where previously there had been a joyous abundance, now everyone expects, nay they demand that the Dukes visit their hamlet and blow huge amounts on unsatisfying sound systems in hopes of materializing the master's sound out of a pair of speakers, and we, with our Biz, reinforce this by our brand-name band-corporations, accept no substitutes. I think we cut our nose to spite our face.

I play in many genres, and I find in all of them a corpus of 'standards', of excellently crafted works that transcend the individual; there was a real art in what they did, a skill and gnosis that our current obsession with super-stardom just doesn't grasp.

of course, there is the happy medium: Sun Ra also writes to each player, but not the piece, only the arrangement; any given piece has, band members tell me, a frighteningly large library of arrangements, each indexed by the date, called upon at performance time by the arkestra leader, yet for all this free-form on the spot custom assembly, they are careful to choose timeless and transcendent compositions.

Does any of this make any sense?

Andrew Durkin... said...

It makes so much sense that I regret not having responded to it when I should have! (Actually, I regret that in any case.)