Ever Up and Onward

Billy Strayhorn's motto, "Ever Up and Onward" seemed an apt title for the ruminations of a composer/arranger, jazz pianist, music educator, husband, father and Christian.
  1. Interview With Composer, Alan Chan
    I first met Alan Chan in June 2011, when we were both international finalists at the ArtEZ Jazz Composition Competition in the Netherlands.  He won.  I lost.  And that is all I have to say about that.

    It has been fun to reconnect with him this year in the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop in New York City.  I appreciate that Alan and the other workshop participants were willing to complete my survey of questions about their compositional practices.  Their responses have been insightful and I hope this blogging series will serve as a resource and source of inspiration for many students of (jazz) composition.

    Alan Chan’s music often takes inspiration from his life experiences as a resident in America, East Asia and Europe. His "genre-shaking" works can be heard in an array of venues serving Classical (Taiwan National Concert Hall), experimental (the Stone, NYC) and jazz (Vitello’s in Los Angeles). His works have been performed by Brussels Jazz Orchestra, Taipei Percussion, Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra and La Jolla Symphony, among others. Alan Chan Jazz Orchestra’s EP “Rancho Calaveras” is currently available from Amazon, CD Baby and iTunes.

    Do you write music daily? What is your routine? Do you write in the morning, afternoon or at night? When are your most productive hours of composing? Can you write in small units of time or do you need to set aside larger blocks of multiple hours? How many hours per week do you devote to composing and arranging music?

    I am a seasonal writer – due to my occupation as a freelancing musician, I find myself composing mostly when I am working on composing projects for my band, the BMI Workshop or when I receive a commission. When a project comes, I would normally write in the course of from 10 days to three weeks, with a more robust daily routine. Afternoons, night times and late night hours works best for me. I usually don’t stay up until dawn as I usually feel guilty for not going to bed!

    Describe your compositional process. From where do your initial ideas come?  What happens next? What’s “step two?” (and three...)

    There are always ideas that pop up in my head constantly. What matters the most is if the idea stays in my head and how to choose an idea or ideas to write about. A lot of times I like to draw connections.

    Do you compose at the piano or away from it?


    Do you use MIDI playback on Finale/Sibelius? How else do you utilize technology in the act of composing?

    Not so much. I use Finale solely for notation.

    What do you wish Finale/Sibelius would improve about their music notation programs?

    I am pretty happy with that, as long as it doesn’t crash!

    Is transcription/analysis and score study something you do regularly? If so, can you site examples? Do you find nuggets of ideas this way?

    I find doing transcriptions myself is the best way to understand the music, rather than reading from a borrowed score.

    What concepts have you explored in your recent work?

    I have explored different stylistic and emotion expressions of the big band. And recently, I am looking into writing new pieces for big band and solo instruments.

    On average, how long does it take you to write a piece?

    It varies ---- especially when considering the amount of time to conceive a piece. The writing usually takes shorter, however. I’d say from 10 days to 3 weeks.

    Typically, how many big band charts do you write per year?  How does this compare with music you write for other instrumentations?

    It varies, because I also spend a lot of time revising my music.

    Do you still practice and perform on an instrument professionally? How do you balance writing and playing?

    I play the piano professionally, although usually for gigs of a more classical nature.

    When you think about it, writing big band music makes no sense. It takes hours to write and prepare the music. It’s exorbitantly expensive to assemble a band for performances, let alone recording. The audience for it is miniscule. Very few performance venues have the space or money for a big band. Big band CDs sell poorly. So…. Why are you interested in writing big band music? Why do you do it?

    The musical potential of big band music is great – it is the kind of music where you can explore color, harmony, texture and orchestration that is only comparable to orchestral and wind ensemble music.

    Do you have a job outside of being a composer? How do you support your composing and band leading “habit”?

    I work as an administrator for several music organizations, copy music for other composers, and do piano gigs and other music-related odd jobs that are not appropriate to discuss here :-p

    Define success from your vantage point.

    ...to have a happy and healthy life.

    Why did you enroll in the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop?

    It's a place to create and experiment, to meet and exchange with other like-minded people.

    Do you have a degree in composition? What training have you had in composition? What have you done to supplement your training?

    Classical composition degrees from UMiami, UMKC and USC (Southern California)

    What do you enjoy doing outside of music? What non-musical things/topics capture your interest/imagination?

    In alphabetical order: Cooking, drinking, food, film, friends, hiking, swimming, traveling, wondering and ZZZ… (sleeping)

    Music has the power to….

    capture memories.

    I compose music with the goal of....

    creating a better world…


  2. Interview With Quinsin Nachoff, Jazz Composer and Saxophonist
    Quinsin Nachoff is a Brooklyn-based saxophonist, clarinetist and composer. He has toured internationally as both a sideman and leader in Europe, Asia, Canada and Australia.  In 2011 he premiered a commission for Peter Knight’s 5+2 brass ensemble at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, Australia and was artist-in-residence at the Queensland Conservatorium, Brisbane, Australia. As a leader he has recordings featuring John Taylor, Ernst Reijseger, Mark Helias and Jim Black. As a sideman he has worked with, among others, Kenny Werner, Howard Johnson, Dave Binney, Kenny Wheeler and Don Thompson.

    He has had recent commissions from: violinist Nathalie Bonin for a Violin Concerto that was demoed in January of 2014; the Greg Runions big band and the Toronto Jazz Orchestra for big band works; and clarinetist Peter Stoll for a piece for clarinet and string quartet. He is the winner of a 2007 Chalmers Fellowship, the 2004 KM Hunter Award and was a semi-finalist in the 2002 Thelonious Monk Jazz Saxophone Competition. He won a Canadian JUNO award as a member of Hilario Duran’s big band in 2008.

    Originally from Toronto, Canada, he holds both a Bachelor of Music degree and a Master of Music degree from the University of Toronto where he studied with Mike Murley, Alex Dean, Kirk MacDonald, Sasha Rapoport and Frank Falco. He has also studied privately with Jim McNeely, Mike Holober, Donny McCaslin, Rich Perry and Joe Lovano. He has taught at the University of Toronto, Humber College and coached at the Banff Centre the Arts.

    Do you write music daily? What is your routine? Do you write in the morning, afternoon or at night? When are your most productive hours of composing? Can you write in small units of time or do you need to set aside larger blocks of multiple hours? How many hours per week do you devote to composing and arranging music?

    It depends on what projects are on the go at any given time. I’m trying to balance being a performer (on saxophone and clarinet) and a composer, so a different focus is needed at different times throughout any given month. If I have a commission, deadline or set goal then I’ll be composing every day, anywhere from two to six or more hours, and doing maintenance practice, one to two hours, later in the day. If I have a concert, tour or recording then I’ll be focused on my practice routine and spend time later in the day looking at scores or listening to music.

    In general I prefer to do creative work early in the day for a solid block of time and for several days in a row to allow things to evolve. I find it really hard to do the initial creative work in small blocks of time, but sometimes that’s what my schedule will dictate. A couple of times I’ve had to finish compositions while on tour and that’s been particularly challenging.

    Describe your compositional process. From where do your initial ideas come?  What happens next? What’s “step two?” (and three...)

    I always try to come up with a unifying idea for a piece first. This can be anything from a very specific musical element, form idea, mathematical idea, orchestration/colour idea, feeling or gesture, a musical query (what would it sound like if Carl Stalling wrote music in an improvised jazz setting?), etc.

    Once I have this initial binding force I’ll start sketching the overall shape and form of the piece and then start filling in some milestones, orchestration and density ideas. If there’s going to be a soloist I’ll think about which instrument and, if the situation allows, who might be playing it – imagining their language and sound in this landscape I’m creating.

    I find once I have this general shape the details and the journey start to fill themselves in, usually with many hours of hard work and editing.

    Do you compose at the piano or away from it?

    I usually do some composing at the piano, some composing sitting somewhere quietly and some composing right into the computer (usually to help check contrapuntal ideas or thick harmonic ideas that I can’t play quickly on piano.)

    Do you use MIDI playback on Finale/Sibelius? How else do you utilize technology in the act of composing?

    I use MIDI playback to check voicings and form, but I try to imagine the actual instruments playing the parts for a better sense of colour and balance.

    Sometimes I’ll use the computer to generate materials that I might work with in a piece - generating random elements or series that would take a long time to calculate by hand.

    What do you wish Finale/Sibelius would improve about their music notation programs?

    I’ve used Finale since the ‘90s and am really happy with the improvements. It finally feels like Finale 2014 is reasonably usable. I wish the default spacing of items were cleaner, especially when extracting to parts. It still takes a lot of individual movement and placement to get things to not look like it’s been spaced by a computer.

    Is transcription/analysis and score study something you do regularly? If so, can you site examples? Do you find nuggets of ideas this way?

    I did do a lot of transcribing of jazz solos at a certain point, but not that much any more. I started by lifting Louis Armstrong solos from his Hot Five and Hot Seven and worked my way up, in a loose chronological fashion, to more modern players to understand the jazz lineage. I also focused not just on saxophone players (there were many), but pianists (Tommy Flanagan, Monk, Bud Powell, etc.), trumpet players (Clifford Brown, Kenny Wheeler, etc.) and singers (Frank Sinatra, Billy Holliday, Sarah Vaughn, etc.) By playing along with each of these I learned a lot about phrasing, articulation, sound, time feel and language.

    I have spent time studying the scores of: string quartets in particular (Bartok, Mozart, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Ravel, Debussy); some orchestral and chamber works (Korsakov, Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, Xenakis, Ives, Messiaen, etc.); and recently Violin Concertos (Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartok, Weill, Ligeti, Berg, etc.) I’ve been checking out some Brian Ferneyhough and Thomas Ades scores lately. I’ve also been going through Bob Brookmeyer, Maria Schneider and Gil Evans scores to try to learn more about the specifics of big band composing.

    I find looking at scores is just another way to learn and improve the craft in addition to listening and daily practice. Having analyzed scores and transcribed solos certainly informs the language and approaches that I can draw on to improvise and compose.

    How important is musical innovation to you?

    The music I find most interesting, irrespective of genre, is unique, personal and creative. Sometimes it happens to be innovative.

    What concepts have you explored in your recent work?

    One of my big goals this year is to simplify my big band music to something that can be read in a 20-minute reading session. I tend to gravitate towards complex structures and ideas and I’ve been trying to pare things down to something more readable but that is still a language that is interesting and honest for me.

    Some of my big band pieces this year explored: three superimposed rhythms; a simple triadic sus4-3 resolution stacked and manipulated, often through common-tone modulation; and a tone row derived from a blues scale and its missing chromatic notes with stylistic hints of Mingus, Monk and Muddy Waters. I demoed a Violin Concerto commission in January and some of the concepts in that work included: a loose tango using the Fibonacci-series to rhythmically expand the clave; long tone rows used less sequentially and more cyclically; and layering of different influences such as a ballad movement overlapping Berg, Strayhorn, Messiaen, Gil Evans and Stravinsky influences.

    On average, how long does it take you to write a piece?

    It really depends on the instrumentation and the flow, but I generally find that on a really good day I usually write about 30 seconds of music. I’m a slow, but obstinate, writer. I sometimes compose whole sections that end up on the cutting room floor, or spend hours obsessing over a voicing, progression, process or orchestration. Sometimes these will get repurposed, but sometimes its just part of the process to get to an end result.

    Typically, how many big band charts do you write per year? How does this compare with music you write for other instrumentations?

    Before joining the BMI workshop I had not written a lot of big band music, but had been commissioned by two big bands to write pieces. This inspired me to want to learn how to write more effectively. This year I’ve been challenging myself to write a new piece for each BMI reading, so five over the year.

    Over the past few years I’ve been completing a Violin Concerto commission that we just demoed in January (three movements approximately 35 mins of music. I used some of the same players who do the BMI readings.) I have a small group record in the can for alto and tenor sax, keyboard instruments and drumset (with Dave Binney, Matt Mitchell and Kenny Wollesen.) I wrote music for a commission for brass quintet, drums and saxophone that I premiered in Australia and a shorter classical commission for clarinet and string quartet premiered in Canada.

    Do you still practice and perform on an instrument professionally? How do you balance writing and playing?

    Yes, I practice and perform on saxophone and clarinet in equal measure to my composing. Keeping them in balance is a constant struggle, but I wouldn’t be happy giving either up. On the good days the two feed into each other: it feels like I’m playing with the ear of a composer and writing with the insight of a performer. It will feel like the languages and processes intersect. On the not so good days I’ll feel out of synch with the instruments and not in a clear headspace to compose.

    When you think about it, writing big band music makes no sense. It takes hours to write and prepare the music. It’s exorbitantly expensive to assemble a band for performances, let alone recording. The audience for it is miniscule. Very few performance venues have the space or money for a big band. Big band CDs sell poorly. So…. Why are you interested in writing big band music? Why do you do it?

    The big band is a standard instrumentation with a rich history of unique artists composing for it. I have played and continue to play in many big bands. I’d like to develop a voice writing for it.

    Do you have a job outside of being a composer? How do you support your composing and band leading “habit”?

    I teach part-time, perform and record to try to make it work.

    Define success from your vantage point.

    Being able to compose and perform music with the most creative and skilled musicians and composers I can.

    What are your career goals?

    As a composer some projects on the docket involve new music for my group with string quartet, sax, bass and drums; an orchestral work; foray into a vocal work; more concertos (for piano, for French horn); and more big band works.

    As a performer I’d like to continue to have the opportunity to work with the exciting composers and performers that make up the NYC scene.

    Why did you enroll in the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop?

    Shortly after moving back to NYC I subbed in to several of the BMI readings. I have also subbed into, or now work regularly with, the big bands of many of the composers who have come through the workshop. I really like the atmosphere and the focus on original music. I studied some years ago with Jim and see the workshop as a great opportunity to work with him and Mike. I also see it as a chance to meet, work with and learn from other dedicated composers.

    Do you have a degree in composition? What training have you had in composition? What have you done to supplement your training?

    I have an undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto in Jazz Performance. I also did my Master’s degree at the University of Toronto while on faculty – where I was able to study Baroque counterpoint as part of the degree along with classical clarinet. My parents were musicians and did electronic music in the ’70s (they had one of the first MOOG synthesizers) so I was exposed to a lot of contemporary classical music as a kid. (You mean everyone else didn’t grow up listening to Stockhausen, Schoenberg, Xenakis, Cage and Bartok?)

    I’ve supplemented my training with lessons, studying of books, recordings, scores and the opportunity to perform with some great composer/musicians.

    What do you enjoy doing outside of music? What non-musical things/topics capture your interest/imagination?

    I like reading fiction. I’ve recently read Michael Ondaatje (Cat’s Table), Haruki Murakami (IQ84) and Gao Xingjian (Soul Mountain). I’m also a big Salman Rushdie fan, although nothing recently. In non-fiction I like reading or studying philosophy and mathematics. The last couple of years I tried out some of the free online courses being offered: finished a Pre-Calculus course and was working on a Calculus course.

    I like cooking. I used to have a roommate who was a professional chef and composer who liked describing certain chords as crunchy broccoli.

    Music has the power to….


    I compose music with the goal of....

    …continually learning and expressing.


  3. Interview With Tom Erickson, Jazz Composer
    Tom Erickson, jazz composer
    Saxophonist/composer/arranger Tom Erickson attended the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music (BM Saxophone Performance, 2004). While at DU, Tom was winner of the Lamont Composition Contest (2002,’03 and ’04), the Lamont Chamber Competition (2002), and was also a member of Lamont’s Downbeat Award winning collegiate ensembles, the Lamont Jazz Orchestra and Lamont Symphony Orchestra. After DU, Tom received his Masters in Jazz Arranging from William Paterson University (2010), where he was awarded the Music Scholar Graduate Award for outstanding musical and academic achievement. Tom studied with Art Bouton, Eric Gunnison, Dave Hanson, Rich DeRosa and Jim McNeely.

    Tom’s compositions and arrangements have been performed by the HGM Jazzorkestar Zagreb, HGM Jazzorkestar Zagreb Faculty All-Star Band (Johannesburg, South Africa), Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge, Flying Dragon Orchestra, 9th & Lincoln Orchestra, Yellowstone Big Band, William Paterson University Jazz Orchestra featuring Randy Brecker, North Texas Lab Bands, Lamont Jazz Orchestra,Northwest College Big Band, and Lamont School of Music Faculty Saxophone Quartet.

    Do you write music daily? What is your routine? Do you write in the morning, afternoon or at night? When are your most productive hours of composing? Can you write in small units of time or do you need to set aside larger blocks of multiple hours? How many hours per week do you devote to composing and arranging music?

    I write whenever I have time, which varies greatly from day to day. I definitely generate the most music when I am relaxed and don’t have anything to do in the near future. If I only have 2 hours to work, I often sit down and stare into space for 90 minutes before I the process starts to happen. However, if I don’t have anything to do the next day and I can stay up late writing, sometimes I look at the clock and I have been going for 6 or 7 hours straight without realizing it. I’m also really great at procrastinating, which seems to be ok since I get motivated by a rapidly approaching deadline and can usually get the writing done just in time.

    Describe your compositional process. From where do your initial ideas come? What happens next? What’s “step two?” (and three…)

    Most often I establish the form or concept for a piece first. I literally draw a sketch outlining the shape and drama of the music and then after I figure out the big picture I connect the dots.

    I used to think more about the smaller pieces of the puzzle. I would find cool voicings, bass lines and grooves and create music out of little fragments. Now I think mostly about controlling the emotion of the piece. I think about the surface sound (is the music loud or soft, tense or resolute, hectic or calm, dense or thin etc). I locate the major points of tension and release within the music and try to, to the best of my ability, portray that drama in an honest way.

    I really enjoy this process because I constantly challenge myself to create something I haven’t done before. And I usually always create “negative” rules for the same reason. This means that if the last couple of charts I wrote have any features in common, i.e. ostinato bass lines or parallel voicings etc, I will purposely not use those aspects in my new piece.

    Do you compose at the piano or away from it? Do you use MIDI playback on Finale/Sibelius? How else do you utilize technology in the act of composing?

    I always compose at the piano and most definitely use Sibelius playback as a resource. As a saxophonist, the MIDI playback helps me hear my music in real time rather than struggling to play it myself with my remedial piano skills. I know some old school guys frown upon this technology, but I don’t see it that way. You should write however it's most comfortable and most efficient.

    Is transcription/analysis and score study something you do regularly? you site examples? Do you find nuggets of ideas this way?

    I rarely study scores. Not that I don’t enjoy it, I just don’t do it often. I guess I would rather experience music without any distractions. I listen to everything I can get my hands on. Nothing is off limits and I listen very intently and deeply. Although I’m not always consciously trying to analyze or decipher what I am hearing while I’m listening, I listen with purpose and consider it a serious part of my study (in addition to listening purely for enjoyment of course). I’m generally listening for how the music makes me feel, the emotion, or the vibe, not necessarily what voicing was used leading into the bridge. The little details are obviously very important, but I am more interested in the overall flow.

    How important is musical innovation to you?

    As Charlie Parker said of innovation-there’s nothing new under the sun. Most likely, anything I come up with has already been done before so I don’t worry too much about being innovative just for the sake of being original. I do however constantly push myself to expand my boundaries. Even though something has been done before, when I discover it for the first time there is a certain energy and excitement to breaking new ground and I think that makes it’s way into the music. This is one reason that music can sound fresh and relevant, even if it’s not anything new for others.

    On average, how long does it take you to write a piece?

    I usually try to finish a piece within a couple weeks of starting it. This isn’t always possible but it seems to be an optimal way for me to work. I’m constantly jotting down ideas and concepts while I’m riding on the train or watching a movie etc. There is an entire folder of sketches/concepts for pieces in my computer that I haven’t found the time to finish writing. Whenever I need an idea for a new piece I have a look at all the sketches and usually one will grab my attention and I will get to work.

    Typically, how many big band charts do you write per year? How does this compare with music you write for other instrumentations?

    I mostly write for big band --- primarily for my own band to perform and commissions for other ensembles. I usually finish between 5-10 charts per year. This year one of my goals is to get involved in more projects outside of jazz such as film, TV, dance etc.

    Do you still practice and perform on an instrument professionally? How do you balance writing and playing?

    At this point I’m much more of a composer than a player. I love both, but feel that writing is my strong suit. If I have to choose between writing and practicing, writing usually wins.

    When you think about it, writing big band music makes no sense. It takes hours to write and prepare the music. It’s exorbitantly expensive to assemble a band for performances, let alone recording. The audience for it is miniscule. Very few performance venues have the space or money for a big band. Big band CDs sell poorly. So.... Why are you interested in writing big band music? Why do you do it?

    I write for my band because I absolutely love it. It’s my creative outlet. Especially in New York, working with such talented, highly creative musicians is really inspiring to me and I can’t imagine not doing it, however crazy and illogical it may be.

    Do you have a job outside of being a composer? How do you support your composing and band leading “habit”?

    I work at Manning Custom Woodwinds to pay the bills and support my habit.

    Define success from your vantage point.

    Success is doing what you love and not being afraid to fail.

    What are your career goals?

    To write and perform in as many different situations as I possibly can. Hopefully all over the world and with many different musicians.

    Why did you enroll in the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop?

    I had studied with Jim McNeely previously. He and several of my peers had mentioned the workshop and recommending that I apply.

    Do you have a degree in composition? What training have you had in composition? What have you done to supplement your training?

    B.M. in saxophone performance from the University of Denver.
    M.M. in Jazz Arranging from William Paterson University.

    To supplement that education, I go see live music all the time and ask lots of questions to those who are doing similar things as me. I am constantly surrounded by musicians and composers talking about music. Perhaps too much sometimes, but this is what I love to do.

    What do you enjoy doing outside of music? What non-musical things/topics capture your interest/imagination?

    I’m an avid soccer fan. Go Liverpool! I am also a (casual) foodie and have been learning more about mixology recently.

    Music has the power to...
    ...physically change people. I am always amazed what a huge impact it can have.

    I compose music with the goal of...
    ...creating sounds that are enjoyable for the musicians who perform them as well as the audience. I hope my music can put a smile on someones face and give them a positive experience, as it has so often for me. 

  4. Interview With Anna Webber, Jazz Composer
    Anna Webber is an integral part of a new wave of the Brooklyn avant-garde jazz scene. A saxophonist and flutist who avoids the expected, she has furthermore established herself as a forward-thinking composer with her album Percussive Mechanics, which has been featured in the New York Times and on NPR. Her recently recorded trio album with John Hollenbeck and Matt Mitchell will be released in August 2014 on Skirl Records. Webber has toured throughout the USA, Canada, and Europe. She was nominated for the BMI’s Charlie Parker Award/Manny Alban Commission in 2013 and is the winner of the 2010 Prix François-Marcaurelle at the Montreal OFF Jazz Festival. She holds Masters degrees from Manhattan School of Music and the Jazz Institute Berlin, and a Bachelor’s degree from McGill University. Her teachers have included John Hollenbeck, Mark Turner, Jason Moran, and George Garzone. Webber is originally from Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada.

    Anna Webber, saxophonist

    Do you write music daily? What is your routine? Do you write in the morning, afternoon or at night? When are your most productive hours of composing? Can you write in small units of time or do you need to set aside larger blocks of multiple hours? How many hours per week do you devote to composing and arranging music?

    I don’t write music daily. I find it pretty difficult to find balance between practicing and composing – when I am practicing I don’t want to compose and when I am composing I don’t want to practice. As I swing between those 2 things on a monthly or weekly basis, I can’t really say how many hours per week I devote to composition as it is really not consistent. These days, I seem to write only when I have a deadline, and luckily I’ve had a lot of those! I’ve also recently done a couple of composition residencies; those have been very productive. When I am composing, I generally do it all day, and then think about it obsessively all night... If I don’t have all day, I usually need at least 1 or 2 hours to get in the creative headspace.

    Describe your compositional process. From where do your initial ideas come?  What happens next? What’s “step two?” (and three...)

    I keep a notebook of ‘cells’ – these can be melodic, rhythmic or harmonic, or something a little more abstract like a form I would like to try, or an atmosphere or space I would like to create. Or they can be ideas of how to develop pitch material – for instance a theoretical idea. My cells can also be non-musical. When I’m starting to write, I look through my notebook to see if anything piques my interest. If nothing does, I will write a choral, improvise on one of my instruments, improvise on manuscript paper, or transcribe some music I’ve been listening to until I find something to start with.

    Step 2 is coming up with as much material from whatever cell I have decided to use. I try to compose every piece of music from the development of this initial cell, without adding any unrelated material. I have a whole list of ‘go-to’ things that I do for development, but I also try to be creative and try things that I haven’t tried before. The hope is that as I’m developing the material, certain ideas will emerge that need to be in the piece. I try to keep the piece as fluid as possible for as long as I can. I let the music tell me what it needs to be. Even if I originally conceived of something as a bassline or melody, I don’t hold myself to that. I let it be whatever it wants to be.

    Do you compose at the piano or away from it?

    I am a terrible piano player. The piano does not help me create; if I relied on the piano I think I would write the same 2 or 3 ideas over and over again. If there is a piano around, I am very happy to use it to be able to stumble through some ideas, but generally I compose away from it – or try to see it as just one of the tools that is at my disposal. Other tools are my instruments, my voice, technology, etc. Using different tools all the time helps keep my process fresh.

    Do you use MIDI playback on Finale/Sibelius? How else do you utilize technology in the act of composing?

    Yeah, absolutely. I use Finale. And I use the worst sounds I can, so that I am always pleasantly surprised when a real band plays my music.

    I try not to use Finale for as long as I can within my compositional process, and I am usually pretty good about stepping away from the computer when things are becoming too boxy and digital. As far as technology goes, I also occasionally use sequencers (for my purposes usually Garage Band is enough) or my iPhone recorder. Overall though, I’m not very hi-tech.

    What do you wish Finale/Sibelius would improve about their music notation programs?

    I think everything is essentially possible on Finale, but it is also very hard to figure out how to do everything, and sometimes a problem that should have a simple solution has an extremely complicated one. I am a total Finale dork and could talk about Finale for hours. I’ll spare you here.

    Is transcription/analysis and score study something you do regularly? If so, can you cite examples? Do you find nuggets of ideas this way?
    I’ve done a lot of solo transcription, but not so much score transcription. I used to do a lot of analysis, and still do it occasionally. I like looking at classical scores – recently Ligeti’s 2nd String Quartet gave me some nice ideas, and I transcribed Messiaen’s Louange a L’Eternité de Jésus. I just got a score for some of Cage’s percussion works – I’m looking forward to checking that out more in depth. I also definitely also steal from as many people as I can – composers as well as improvisors, painters, poets, novelists...everything I can get my hands on goes into my notebook.

    How important is musical innovation to you?

    I don’t know about innovation, but I get bored very easily when I hear music that sounds lazy or derivative. I try to constantly challenge myself and push myself to do things I haven’t yet done. This is not innovation in a broad sense, because I don’t know how much it is pushing music as a whole forward, but it is innovation on a personal level, and I think that is the best I can do.

    What concepts have you explored in your recent work?

    My most recent work was an album of music for my septet, Percussive Mechanics. In that I dealt with palindromes and inversions and long tone rows. For instance, I wrote 3 pieces on the album using the same 34-tone row. I also was looking into Milton Babbitt’s time-point system, and exploring some complex rhythmic patterns related to the manipulation of different ways of subdividing 15/16. I like linking up the rhythmic content and pitch content of each composition; I think it sounds more coherent, especially as I am not necessarily writing melodies.

    On average, how long does it take you to write a piece?

    An embarrassing amount of time. I am a constant editor/revisor/wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-with-a-better-idea-person. I generally keep editing after the piece is performed or recorded.

    Typically, how many big band charts do you write per year? How does this compare with music you write for other instrumentations?

    I see myself as a composer, but not as a big band composer specifically. I’d only written 2 pieces for big band before I started doing the BMI workshop. Since I started BMI, I’ve written about 3 pieces a year. Aside from that, in the past twelve months I’ve written an album for septet and an album for trio.

    Do you still practice and perform on an instrument professionally? How do you balance writing and playing?

    I am a very active saxophonist and flutist; my main thing is performing. Regarding balance, I’m not really sure how to do that. I hate being out of shape on my instruments, so even when I’m in composition mode, I make myself practice every day.

    Do you have a job outside of being a composer? How do you support your composing and band leading “habit”?

    I teach, do copy work, and play gigs. I live cheaply and save all excess money for my ‘career’. Luckily there is no Anna Webber Large Ensemble yet, so I only have to worry about paying smaller bands!

    What are your career goals?

    To play and write music better than I did yesterday.

    Why did you enroll in the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop?

    Because I wanted to be a better composer for big band, as writing big band music goes straight to my weaknesses as a composer. That being said, I seem to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to make the brass section sound less like a brass section.

    Do you have a degree in composition? What training have you had in composition? What have you done to supplement your training?

    I sort of have a degree in composition. I have two master’s degrees – one from Manhattan School of Music, which was a performance degree, and one from the Jazz Institute Berlin, where, though it was technically a performance degree, essentially all I did was take lessons with John Hollenbeck and write music. So my compositional training consists of lessons with John and reading a lot of books.

    What do you enjoy doing outside of music? What non-musical things/topics capture your interest/imagination?

    I read a lot – mostly novels and leftist political writing - and go to art galleries when I can. I run every day and am a bicycle commuter.

    I compose music with the goal of....

    confronting my weaknesses as both a musician and a human and therefore making myself a better person. Composition shapes my musical identity and I’m pretty sure I would be very unhappy if I didn’t do it.

  5. Interview With Miho Hazama, Jazz Composer
    Miho Hazama is a New York-based jazz composer, originally from Tokyo, Japan.  She began playing piano and electronic organ at age 5 and started studying classical composition at age 13. In 2009, Ms. Hazama graduated from Kunitachi College of Music with a bachelor's degree in Classical Composition. With private instruction in jazz composition from Jim McNeely and piano from Phil Markowitz, Ms. Hazama completed her master's degree at the Manhattan School of Music in Jazz Composition in 2012.  A winner of the 2011 ASCAP Foundation Young Jazz Composer Award, Ms. Hazama participated in the Metropole Orkest Arranger’s Workshop in the Netherlands where her arrangements were conducted by Vince Mendoza and performed by the Metropole Orkest.

    Since 2007, Ms. Hazama has worked with Yosuke Yamashita, Vince Mendoza, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Shiro Sagisu as well as TV-Asahi "Untitled Concert," the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, New Japan Philharmonic, Siena Wind Orchestra, Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra, Yamaha Symphonic Band and the Metropole Orkest. Her arrangements have been performed not only in the US but also in Japan, Poland, England, France and the Netherlands.  Miho Hazama was selected one of three winners of the 24th annual Idemitsu Music Awards. This award is given to promising young talents mainly in the field of classical music.

    Miho is the third composer presented in this blogging series featuring current participants within the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop.

    Do you write music daily? What is your routine? Do you write in the morning, afternoon or at night? When are your most productive hours of composing? Can you write in small units of time or do you need to set aside larger blocks of multiple hours? How many hours per week do you devote to composing and arranging music?

    I think I write music mostly daily. It’s impossible to make a routine when I compose because composing depends on my inspiration, but my most productive time usually starts after 3pm. I am a night owl and I never deal with my music-brain in the morning…

    I can work on arrangements in a large block of time, but I’d say I take a lot of short breaks when I compose so that I can refresh my eyes and ears to re-judge forms and elements of the composition.

    Since I don’t have a routine, I don’t know how many hours I devote for writing…But definitely a lot!

    Describe your compositional process. From where do your initial ideas come?  What happens next? What’s “step two?” (and three...)

    I usually start getting small ideas in my mind first, then play piano to expand the ideas. I might also record them on my phone. Also, I sometimes set more logical concepts before I start composing. Once I organize these ideas/concepts, then I can see which ones might be applicable for certain pieces I’m working on. After that, I mostly stay in front of Sibelius and MIDI keyboard.

    Do you compose at the piano or away from it?

    I really need an acoustic piano before I start writing on Sibelius—otherwise I can’t really do anything.

    Do you use MIDI playback on Finale/Sibelius? How else do you utilize technology in the act of composing?

    I do use MIDI playback a lot, it’s especially helpful to consider form of the music.

    What do you wish Finale/Sibelius would improve about their music notation programs?

    I am happy with Sibelius 6! I wish the chord symbol function would get a little bit better though.

    Is transcription/analysis and score study something you do regularly? If so, can you site examples? Do you find nuggets of ideas this way?

    I used to study classical music scores a lot because of electric-organ competitions that I had participated since I was 8 (to 18). And I think that is the most part of my knowledge as an orchestrator. My favorite pieces are Respighi’s Pines of Rome, Bernstein’s Symphony No.1 and Ravel’s The Gracioso's Aubade.

    I love transcribing and I think that’s how I got most of my jazz language as well! I used to transcribe a lot of Michael Brecker and Herbie Hancock stuff, but I don’t really do that anymore since it sometimes affects my compositions. I check out scores only when I have orchestration questions now days. I’d say I don’t get ideas by studying scores but listening to music.

    How important is musical innovation to you?

    It doesn’t really matter to me. I’ve been trying to find my identity as a composer, and in a way, I might be innovative. But that’s not my focus as a composer…I just want to create that I like, and I am hoping that people would like my compositions as well!

    What concepts have you explored in your recent work?

    Rhythm modulation, Twelve-tones and circle of chord progression, etc.

    On average, how long does it take you to write a piece?

    If I have to include a sketch term, it would be much longer and it really depends on a composition. But after the sketch, I usually write a composition in 15-20 hours in total.

    Typically, how many big band charts do you write per year? How does this compare with music you write for other instrumentations?

    Actually this is my first year to work on many pieces for big band! Writing for horn ensemble is a mystery to me and this is why I applied for BMI jazz composers workshop.

    Let’s say last year I wrote 2 pieces for my band (13-piece chamber orchestra), and 5 commissioned compositions for various instrumentations, 7 arrangements for wind symphony orchestras, over 30 arrangements for symphony orchestras and a few arrangements for other instrumentations.

    Do you still practice and perform on an instrument professionally? How do you balance writing and playing?

    It’s shame but I don’t practice piano daily anymore. I found a difficulty to practice repetitive stuff especially when I’m in a composition process, although I love playing piano so I would love to go back playing at some point.

    When you think about it, writing big band music makes no sense. It takes hours to write and prepare the music. It’s exorbitantly expensive to assemble a band for performances, let alone recording. The audience for it is miniscule. Very few performance venues have the space or money for a big band. Big band CDs sell poorly. So…. Why are you interested in writing big band music? Why do you do it?

    (My band is not a big band but a 13-piece band, which is very similar. So I consider this question as a large ensemble leader.)

    ………Because this is how I can show my music aesthetic as an artist!!

    I don’t regard my compositions as a business. (Of course it would be great if it could be a business as well in the future though!)

    Do you have a job outside of being a composer? How do you support your composing and band leading “habit”?

    Yes, I arrange/orchestrate/copy music. I am very happy as long as I work for any music-writing!

    Define success from your vantage point.

    Keep composing something cool and interesting.

    What are your career goals?

    I have a couple of things that I would love to achieve as a composer/arranger, although I’d prefer not declare them. As I said, I’m happy as long as I’m involved in any music-writing!

    Why did you enroll in the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop?

    Since I’m from classical music background, writing for big band (or any horn ensemble) is very challenging to me. I wanted to study with two of my favorite composers, and wanted to have orchestration experiments in the reading sessions.

    Do you have a degree in composition? What training have you had in composition? What have you done to supplement your training?

    I have a Bachelor’s degree in classical composition from Kunitachi College of Music (Tokyo), and a Master’s degree in jazz composition from Manhattan School of Music (NYC).

    What do you enjoy doing outside of music? What non-musical things/topics capture your interest/imagination?

    In my regular life, chatting with friends helps me to get out of being music-aholic since the composition process is quiet and lonely…I try to go out at least once a day to refresh myself.

    For my imagination, I love traveling! I’d say my hobby is skiing, shopping and traveling.

    Music has the power to….

    move people.

    I compose music with the goal of....

    creating something cool/interesting and hopefully speaking something to people.

  6. Interview With Erica Seguine, Jazz Composer
    Erica Seguine is the subject of this second interview in a series featuring current members of the BMI Jazz Composer's Workshop.

    Originally from Albany, NY, Erica Seguine is a composer, arranger, pianist, and teacher currently living and working in the NYC area. There she co-leads a big band, the Erica Seguine/Shannon Baker Jazz Orchestra, which has performed in many venues and festivals in NYC and North New Jersey. The orchestra performs original music that crosses many genres and conveys many different moods, utilizing a wide range of colors. She was the winner of the 2013 BMI Charlie Parker Competition for Jazz Composition/Manny Albam Commission, the 2013 ArtEZ Jazz Composition Contest, the 2009 Zurich Jazz Orchestra Composition Competition, and a recipient of a 2014 and 2011 ASCAP Young Jazz Composers Award. In 2012 She was selected as one of 8 arrangers internationally for the Metropole Orchestra Arrangers Workshop led by Vince Mendoza, where she had the opportunity to arrange Joe Zawinul’s/ Kurt Elling’s “Time to Say Goodbye” for Kurt Elling and the Metropole Orchestra. More information can be found at www.ericaseguine.com

    Do you write music daily? What is your routine? Do you write in the morning, afternoon or at night? When are your most productive hours of composing? Can you write in small units of time or do you need to set aside larger blocks of multiple hours? How many hours per week do you devote to composing and arranging music?

    For the most part I write music daily. The time of day depends of course on my schedule that day. I’ve had productive hours at any point of day, but I’d have to say that some of my best hours have been at night (10pm or later). Maybe it’s the later hours that calm those inner voices a little bit, freeing my mind to write without critiquing too hard. Whether it’s in smaller chunks or larger chunks of time really depends on both my schedule and where I am in a piece (when I’m in flow I can write for 10 hours at a time, with a few short breaks, whereas other times even trying to write an hour can be laborious). I’d say normally I’m spending about 20-30 hours a week on average composing and arranging music.

    Describe your compositional process. From where do your initial ideas come?
    What happens next? What’s “step two?” (and three...)

    This really depends! Sometimes it’s a harmonic idea that initiates everything. Other times it’s melodic. Sometimes it’s trying to write in a certain style (an Irish Reel, Chopin Nocturne, or a Tango). Sometimes it’s an image (whether it’s the water flowing gently from a ravine, or a tire swing endlessly spinning). Sometimes the instrumentation guidelines can influence me to write a piece.

    What I do next is dependent on the initial idea. When I wrote “The Ravine,” I wrote down some words describing what I wanted to convey (such as water gently bubbling), and drew a form diagram before I wrote a single note or harmony. When I wrote “Reel No. 1”, I made sure that not only was the melody written down before anything, but I tweaked the interpretation over and over again, so that the melody really sounded like an authentic reel at a session before I got “adventurous” with it. When I wrote “...And the Tire Swing Keeps Spinning...” I both wrote many words/images describing that particular state and, since I was using a 12-tone row, wrote down all the possibilities (inversion, retrograde, different harmonies that were derived from pitch class sets) that could be found in my row just so I had some options that I could take or leave. I could go all day with other pieces, but that’s just to give some ideas.

    My main goal is to really try to capture whatever that initial idea sparked. Because my initial ideas vary in how they came about, each one needs to be approached differently from the start.

    Do you compose at the piano or away from it?

    All your questions so far make me say “It depends” and I feel so wishy- washy! Working at the piano is great for coming up with harmonic ideas, voice leading, counterpoint, etc. And it’s great for improvising to potentially come up with new pieces. However, I like to work just as much away from it so I can try to get a better sense of “flow.” When I’m at the piano, I’m so honed in with minute details (which voicing will best resolve into this voicing) that it makes it difficult to see the overall picture.

    Sometimes I just like to go out somewhere, whether it’s out by water, in a park, or in a coffee shop, (or even in places I don’t want to be but have to, like doctors offices, car service places, NJ Transit) and just bring a small manuscript notebook with me and jot down ideas, both in musical notation and otherwise. I like to draw form diagrams to see the potential shape of a piece. I like to write words down that can pinpoint what I’m trying to convey, and then write down musical descriptions (both in words and in music notation) to those words. Sometimes even pictures help.

    I like to sing (very badly) lines away from the piano to help get a good melody, counterline, or voice-leading. Occasionally I’ve even pulled out my “old faithful” clarinet from the high school days to help create melodic lines.

    I also like to conceive orchestration AS I’m coming up with material (as opposed to writing down a lead sheet or a basic sketch and then orchestrating it.) In fact, I’ve realized that so many of my pieces are tough to scale down to a more conventional instrumentation (especially if you try to take out even some of the woodwind doubles). It would be impossible to perform a lot of my music without the particular orchestration I use; it’s integral to the piece. Working at a piano can hinder how something will sound like played by many colors.

    Do you use MIDI playback on Finale/Sibelius? How else do you utilize technology in the act of composing?

    I use Sibelius (I have Finale too but never came to like it.) I prefer to write by hand as long as I can until I have to use the computer. Not to sound cliche, but I feel a better connection to what I’m writing when using pencil and paper, and it’s easier to draw correlations between my verbal/visual descriptions and my musical descriptions. It’s not the same to draw squiggly lines, write out 12-tone row possibilities, or write words like “Ice, darkness, barren, empty trees”, or “Runaway train, spirals, dizzyness” (I type this as I flip through my moleskin manuscript book) on a computer!

    Oddly enough I don’t like using large paper (a la 11x17) even though I’ve tried to like it, though I know it works for so many others. When working on huge paper I feel overwhelmed that I have to fill up the paper and then feel compelled to force many ideas that I don’t believe in on paper, and then I feel bad about it. I prefer a small notebook (I can always turn the page for more ideas, which I do often) or 8x11 paper.

    However, that deadline always looms one way or another. Sometimes I have enough time to write out whole works (orchestrated, articulations, dynamics, and all) by hand, and then simply input it into the computer. But for the most part, usually mid-way in the formation of a piece, I have to go to the computer because it’s faster. If I’m given a project with a tight deadline, I sometimes even have to completely forego pencil and paper.

    I mainly use playback to A) Check any errors (I’m notorious for accidental mistakes) and B) Hear the overall flow/timing, though this is still hard to hear because everything is drastically different when performed by live instruments. I cringe every time I need to send out a MIDI file to our big band when we do a new piece so they can hear how everything fits in.

    What do you wish Finale/Sibelius would improve about their music notation programs?

    Well, when I started with Sibelius in 2005, the thing that annoyed me most was that you couldn’t copy and paste dynamics and other things directly onto triplets. Sibelius 7 enters and they STILL can’t do that?! I’ve heard Sibelius 7.5 fixes this. Is that correct or just a rumor?

    Is transcription/analysis and score study something you do regularly? If so, can you site examples? Do you find nuggets of ideas this way?

    I find studying scores very helpful. There have been times in life when I’ve score studied more than others, I admit. I don’t just study jazz scores, though I love looking and analyzing Maria Schneider, Gil Evans, or Jim McNeely scores, amongst others. I’m in love with studying Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe,” or Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 or his Fourth Symphony (I know the 5th is the famous one but there is something so intriguing, dark, and depressing about his 4th!), or Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony, or playing through some Debussy Preludes, Chopin Nocturnes, Bach Fugues, or Satie piano works.

    Just as important as score studying, I think, is listening and trying to find gems that way. More often than score studying, I will hear something I love in a recording, whether it’s an orchestrational idea, a voicing, or harmony, and I will try to figure out what it is.

    I don’t try to force using these techniques I find when writing music. I store them in my mind, and if I’m coming across something, I may hear a snippet of something I’ve studied/heard and realize that it’s perfect for what I’m trying to convey.

    How important is musical innovation to you?

    I think musical innovation shouldn’t be forced. I’m definitely striving to be 100% original and authentic, but once you actually TRY to be innovative, you’re stifling your creativity, at least in my opinion. When I compose I aim to be 100% in the present, whether I actually succeed or not. While I greatly admire all the music of the past, respect the tradition, and study a lot of composers’ techniques and styles, I don’t try to emulate the past. I also don’t try to be the “future” either. It’s easiest and most authentic for me to try to keep both feet in the present at all times, as whatever musical problem I’m working on expects, even demands my mind to be purely focused on it. The initial image or concept I’m trying to convey in a composition is the most important to me, not “trying to be innovative” or “trying to sound like (insert-composer-here)”.

    What concepts have you explored in your recent work?

    Well, not long ago I wrote my first 12-tone piece! I will admit though it is not pure 12-tone or atonal by any means. I created a row, and did do all the math to find out all the possibilities that were open to me. But that’s what they were, possibilities that I partially used and partially deviated from.

    I also more recently got into Irish music. I’ve tried (miserably) to learn and play some session tunes on dulcimer and tin whistle. So there have been a couple of originals/arrangements inspired by that.

    On average, how long does it take you to write a piece?

    OK, this is definitely one of those “it depends” answers. I’ve written original pieces that have taken only a couple of weeks for me to write. However, I’ve also written pieces that kept getting scrapped and revised over and over again, where I’ve needed to take breaks from it and come back. “The Ravine,” in all, took 5 months to reach it’s final form (there were multiple times where I’ve written entire sections and then slashed them later). I started “Snow”, and finished 3 other compositions before I was able to finish it (taking a total of 4 months to finish). I also recently revived a piece I wrote two years ago, and then scrapped. How long a piece takes has been largely dependent on how much material I’ve scrapped.

    If I’m given a tight deadline, or an arrangement to do that’s less creative, I can write pretty quickly and get it out in a few days. Maybe it’s because I don’t have that personal connection that I feel when writing original music for our own band or for some other group that’s open to creativity. When I write original music, or even a very creative arrangement, I’m generally discarding at least 2/3rds of my material when you count everything (this is inclusive of tinkering away at the piano at the early stages, false starts to really finding the “essence” of a piece, as well as countless orchestrated measures shot off into the abyss.) There have been many times where I’ve completed around 60-70 measures, scored out, articulations, dynamics, etc., and I’ve discarded them all.

    Typically, how many big band charts do you write per year? How does this compare with music you write for other instrumentations?

    Some years have been really great composition years. In 2013 I finished 6 big band charts (originals or arrangements), wrote some arrangements for the Metropole Orchestra, and wrote a piece for elementary band, amongst other things. Others have been less productive. In the past I used to write a lot more for varied instrumentations (studio orchestra, vocal ensembles, string quartets, chamber groups, smaller jazz groups, film scores), but since I now co-lead a big band regularly, my writing has focused a lot more on that medium.

    Do you still practice and perform on an instrument professionally? How do you balance writing and playing?

    I do still play piano... let’s say I definitely consider myself more a composer. Between teaching, writing, and running a big band I don’t get a chance to do much playing.

    When you think about it, writing big band music makes no sense. It takes hours to write and prepare the music. It’s exorbitantly expensive to assemble a band for performances, let alone recording. The audience for it is miniscule. Very few performance venues have the space or money for a big band. Big band CDs sell poorly. So.... Why are you interested in writing big band music? Why do you do it?

    Tell me about the time and money and lack of audience! I have the big band because I have a real need to have an outlet for my work. If I don’t I go insane! I like the big band format because of all the colors you can use (especially when you get into doubles and can add voice), but it can also give you power you need in certain key moments. That being said, I really do love writing for strings and wished I had more opportunities to do so. However, ironically enough I’ve found it harder to get a string quartet together at one time than an entire big band!

    Do you have a job outside of being a composer? How do you support your composing and band leading “habit”?

    My main money-making gig is teaching privately. I have my own studio of piano students and I also teach at another studio. In total I teach about 35 students a week. A few are theory or composition students, and I also try to work in theory and composition into the piano lessons. I also do some transcribing and light arranging work for some groups, and accompany for community theatre camps in the summer. I also sometimes get (paid) arranging work as well. Between those jobs I have just enough to get by and run a big band.

    What are your career goals?

    Well... I’d really like our big band to do a recording! But that’s a lot of money (hint to anyone out there...) I’d like to get more places for the band to play and really expand our audience. I enjoy teaching, but I hope that eventually I’m doing much more work composing or teaching composition. I would love to write more arrangements for other musicians (particularly ones I can be creative in) or write scores to films. I would also love to get more opportunities to write for different instrumentations other than big band.

    Why did you enroll in the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop?

    I applied and got into the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop just after I finished graduate school. To me it felt like the perfect transition between school and trying to set off on my own as a composer. In a lot of senses it has been a great transition; some of the players in the BMI-NY Jazz Orchestra now play in our big band, as well as fellow BMI composer Scott Reeves. I’ve met contacts for other opportunities to have my work heard. I’ve made new friends. And Jim and Mike really got me thinking about certain aspects of my compositional process (mainly how to not keep a certain section or piece stagnant and too repetitive, but many other issues as well.)

    Do you have a degree in composition? What training have you had in composition? What have you done to supplement your training?

    I’ve received my BM in Jazz Studies and Contemporary Media - Writing Concentration (a lot of words to essentially mean “Jazz Composition”) at Eastman, where I primarily studied composition with Bill Dobbins for four years. Then I received my MM in Jazz Arranging at William Paterson University, where I studied with both Jim McNeely and Rich DeRosa. It’s interesting, with Bill the main focus was on the small details (voice- leading, not using a certain note in a voicing because it may give something away in the next voicing, rhythmically moving this note over an 8th note because it would sound clearer.) With Rich and Jim, the focus was more on the bigger picture, telling a story, conveying a mood, how to not let a section go on too long or too short. Both sides (the micro and the macro) were important in my studies, and I’m really glad I learned about the smaller details first and then “opened up” to the larger picture.

    I’d say one of my biggest learning experiences has been running our big band. The musicians in our band have told/demonstrated to me what works and what doesn’t. My conducting (I think and I hope) has gotten better by doing regular gigs with the band. Having many gigs has encouraged me to keep writing new material, and the more you write the better you get. By having a regular set of players, the musicians in our band have influenced me to write differently than say a random college jazz ensemble.

    In addition, the Metropole Orchestra Arrangers Workshop was a very enlightening experience. And the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop is invaluable as far as honing in your voice as a composer.

    What do you enjoy doing outside of music? What non-musical things/ topics capture your interest/imagination?

    I really like to read all sorts of books. I also like to see nature when I can. Mountains, forests, bodies of water. For those who know my music, it’s pretty obvious that I love water. I could go by some water source (whether it’s an ocean, stream, or lake) and watch/listen to the waves or trickling water all day if I could.

    Music has the power to....

    move me, even completely change whatever mood I was in.  Listening to Gorecki’s Third Symphony never fails to make me cry, while listening to some Dixieland or Irish session music can put me into a cheerful mood.

    I write music because....

    I can’t not write music. Seriously. I’ve just went through a major episode that made me realize this. Growing up, music was my therapy and maybe my closest friend. It was my way of getting my emotions in physical form, much like writing a diary would have been, and regardless how miserable I would be with growing up, I could always go into my own room where the keyboard was, and create a new song or part of a piece.

    Mentally I’ve been through some hard times, but music has been the source of comfort and what has kept me going all these years. I notice that when I innocently decide to take a mini “break” from composing, things start to fall apart.

    There was a long time, not even too long ago, that I would HATE that I would need to compose and I thought that music was CAUSING my pain. I would think “Oh God! Here’s another chart written... joy! Now I can watch as it doesn’t matter that I wrote another piece because there won’t be an audience for it!” However, my “pain” was related to the external (validation, having an audience, etc.) and not to music itself.

  7. Interview With Scott Ninmer, Jazz Composer
    This is the first in a series of interviews with current members of the BMI Jazz Composer's Workshop. With thoughtful consideration, they have answered questions about their compositional process, motivations and aspirations. I hope it will be insightful for musicians, students and fans of progressive big band music.

    Our first featured composer is Scott Ninmer.  A native of Taylorville, IL, Ninmer has won many prestigious awards for his work, including the “2 Agosto” International Composing Competition, the Detroit Jazz Festival Arranging Competition, the Jazz Education Network Student Composition Showcase, the Downbeat Magazine Student Music Awards, the New York Youth Symphony First Music Composition Competition, the United States Air Force Sammy Nestico Award, and the ASCAP Foundation Young Jazz Composer Awards.  Additional honors include being selected as a participant in the 2013 Metropole Orkest Arrangers Workshop in Hilversum, The Netherlands, and serving as the lead trombonist in the 2010 Disney All-American College Band in Anaheim, CA.
    A graduate of the University of Illinois in jazz performance studying trombone with Jim Pugh, Ninmer recently completed a Master’s degree in jazz composition at the Manhattan School of Music under the tutelage of Jim McNeely.  Ninmer's music can be heard on the University of Illinois Concert Jazz Band's album "Free Play" and the Cal State Long Beach Concert Jazz Orchestra’s album “High and Mighty”.   He also has several compositions and arrangements published through UNC Jazz Press.  For more information, please visit www.scottninmer.com.

    Do you write music daily?  What is your routine?  Do you write in the morning, afternoon or at night?  When are your most productive hours of composing?  Can you write in small units of time or do you need to set aside larger blocks of multiple hours?  How many hours per week do you devote to composing and arranging music?

    I write daily.  I prefer to wake up early and get writing right away.  My brain is most alert in the morning/early afternoon, and since I work four part-time jobs in addition to teaching and other gigs, etc., I want to relax when I get home.  I usually try to write for an hour or two before I start my day. 

    My ideal day of composing is when I have a large block of time where I can write for an hour, take a 20-30 min. break, and then continue alternating in this fashion throughout the day.  As my weekends are mostly kept free of commitments, I get a lot of writing done on these days, despite taking a lot of breaks.

    Describe your compositional process.  From where do your initial ideas come?
    What happens next?  What’s “step two?” (and three...)

    Initial ideas usually come from improvising at the piano.  Once I’ve found something interesting, I usually come up with a melody and some harmonic ideas.  I usually write all of the material that I will use for the piece at the piano, but I really don’t use very much material in each piece.  Once this is done, I usually play through it a dozen or more times to get it into my head.  This might be at the piano or I might orchestrate it on Sibelius and play it.  I usually hit a brick wall at this point so I take a break, maybe for half an hour, maybe for a week.  I find that when I take a break, my subconscious does a lot of work in processing what I’ve written and finding new avenues.  I will keep coming back to the piece and if nothing happens within a few minutes I stop and do something else without getting frustrated.  Eventually I get an idea and the brick wall comes down.  Then I just write until I hit the next wall and the same process continues.

    Do you compose at the piano or away from it?

    I mostly compose away from the piano.  When I first start a piece, I improvise at the piano until I come up with something, ranging anywhere from a few seconds to a minute or two of music.  From there it’s completely away from the piano.  I usually write a lot in my head throughout the day, and then just input it directly into Sibelius.

    Do you use MIDI playback on Finale/Sibelius?  How else do you utilize technology in the act of composing?

    I utilize MIDI playback extensively.  Though I don’t rely on the MIDI playback to tell me anything about what will work in an actual performance orchestrationally, it is very helpful in getting an idea of what contrapuntal passages will sound like that are too complex to realize on piano.   I think it’s also helpful to feel the pacing of the piece, even if I have to imagine drums in my head.  Sometimes I use Sibelius as a quick way to try several different orchestrational approaches and see which one I like best, keeping in mind that again, MIDI doesn’t reflect an actual performance.

    What do you wish Finale/Sibelius would improve about their music notation programs?

    I’m happy with Sibelius!  Nothing comes to mind at present.

    Is transcription/analysis and score study something you do regularly?   If so, can you site examples?  Do you find nuggets of ideas this way?

    Transcription has always been a huge part of my development as a jazz composer.  I would guess that 95% of my musical knowledge has come from transcription and analysis.  In high school I transcribed a bunch of “Singers Unlimited” and “Take 6” scores, and in college transcribed many Bob Brookmeyer, Maria Schneider, and Jim McNeely scores either in my head or to piano reduction and studied them extensively.  In my first big band pieces, I would find the central theme of a work and write my own composition based on it.  Though those compositions are fairly derivative, they were immensely helpful in learning the craft.  Though I no longer do this consciously, I’m sure that ideas from various pieces come forth in my music from the hours of listening I have put in.

    How important is musical innovation to you?

    I can’t really say that I’ve thought that consciously about it.  When I write, I’m trying to write something that I will enjoy listening to, that an audience of both musicians and laymen will enjoy, and that the band will enjoy playing.  I’m also trying to work on things that I may not have worked on before or don’t feel completely comfortable with.  If the piece is really easy to write with no speed bumps along the way, that’s a problem for me as it means I didn’t challenge myself.  In this way, I’m being innovative within my own sphere of compositional output.  But I’m definitely not on a mission to change jazz as we know it every time I write a piece.  However, there are always times when I’m frustrated with an element of sameness that permeates my pieces on some level, and I would like to be more adventuresome in my future writing.  Unfortunately, I have yet to commit to this goal wholeheartedly.

    What concepts have you explored in your recent work?

    It seems that the majority of my most recent work is largely tonal, utilizing more pop- or classical-oriented harmony instead of jazz harmony.  I don’t really think of harmony in terms of chord symbols, and I think this helps me to write more contrapuntally and freely than I would otherwise.  My most recent piece exhaustively uses the aforementioned harmony in movements of major 3rds, which is a new practice for me.  I’ve gone as far with tonality as I want to for now, so I look forward to returning to my exploration of modal harmony in future pieces.

    On average, how long does it take you to write a piece?

    8-12 hours, though this is usually over the course of a week or two when I have some free time.  I rarely second-guess myself, so I think this helps me to write efficiently.

    Typically, how many big band charts do you write per year?  How does this compare with music you write for other instrumentations?

    In looking at the past year, I've written eighteen big band charts (nine arrangements, nine compositions).  I've also written twelve arrangements for orchestra, a concert band piece, a multi-movement brass quintet piece, and several chamber ensemble pieces.  I also orchestrated a musical that’s hoping to get on Broadway.  I’m lucky in that I have the BMI workshop, a rehearsal band, orchestration lessons, and a handful of commissions to keep me busy writing all the time.

    Do you still practice and perform on an instrument professionally?  How do you balance writing and playing?

    I’m ashamed to say that my trombone rarely sees the light of day, as I don’t have much motivation to practice other than pure enjoyment or in preparation for the occasional gig.  I’ve channeled most of my free time into writing.

    When you think about it, writing big band music makes no sense.  It takes hours to write and prepare the music.  It’s exorbitantly expensive to assemble a band for performances, let alone recording.  The audience for it is miniscule.  Very few performance venues have the space or money for a big band.  Big band CDs sell poorly.   So….   Why are you interested in writing big band music?  Why do you do it?

    I’ve never really thought about it.  I grew up listening to the music, and my dad had written some pieces when he was in college, so I guess I was just following in his footsteps.  Writing in my undergrad made me stand out and I loved the thrill of hearing a piece played for the first time by a great band and knowing all of the hard work I spent in learning my craft and writing the piece was worth it.  I think what I love about the big band the most is that unlike small group music, I can have complete control over what is played while, unlike writing for orchestra, I can still leave a large amount of improvisation imbued in the piece.  Balancing the elements of composition and improvisation is very exciting.  Also just hearing the sheer power of seventeen people playing their hearts out!

    Do you have a job outside of being a composer?  How do you support your composing and band leading “habit”?

    My main source of income is as a copyist/transcriptionist for a few well-known jazz figures.  I also work as the Jazz Manager for the New York Youth Symphony and as the Administrative Assistant for the Manhattan School of Music Residence Life Office, as well as teach a few lessons on the side.

    Define success from your vantage point.

    Working towards one’s goals with earnest and steadfast devotion.  I don’t think the end result is nearly as important as the process of getting there.

    What are your career goals?

    Eventually, I would like to be able to make a living solely from writing in any capacity and through teaching if need be.  I am keeping my options open and am always working on improving my abilities in writing in all styles for all instrumentations.  I also love teaching, so I am always welcoming new students to further my abilities in preparation for someday teaching at the collegiate level.

    Why did you enroll in the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop?

    I wanted the opportunity to hear other people’s music while getting insight from Jim and Mike on my own pieces.  I’m normally fairly confident in my work, but it’s really nice to have a second and third opinion to help me to see the music in a different way.  It also is nice to have deadlines and it forces me to write more than I probably would be doing otherwise.

    Do you have a degree in composition?  What training have you had in composition?  What have you done to supplement your training?

    I have a Masters degree in jazz composition.  Before this, I was completely self-trained.  I have many books on composition, arranging, orchestration, harmony, etc. and dozens of study scores and hundreds of transcriptions.  I think listening intently to big band music has done the most to supplement my training.  I basically learned how to write for big band from listening to Bob Brookmeyer’s “Get Well Soon” album twice a day every day for months during my commute to my summer job.

    What do you enjoy doing outside of music?  What non-musical things/topics capture your interest/imagination?

    I read a lot.  I take online courses in things I’ve either always wanted to know or just want to brush up on.  I really enjoy good film and TV!

    Music has the power to….

    make people laugh, cry, smile, frown, or feel any other kind of emotion.  We are ruled by our emotions and moods to some extent, and thus music has the power to affect the choices we make and how we relate to others.  For me, music is an uplifting experience, and I try to showcase that in my own work.

    I compose music with the goal of....

    creating a feeling that will permeate both the musicians and the audience.  Ideally, I would like the audience to leave a concert in a different mood/state of mind than when they came in and give them something to think about in a purely emotional way and also in an intellectual way.

  8. Three Generations, 88 Keys
    I had a lovely weekend in Winnipeg, performing two sold-out concerts with old friends Ron Paley, Will Bonness and the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra.  Here are the program notes I contributed:

    Three Generations, 88 Keys

    March 16, 2014 (2pm & 7:30pm)

    Ron Paley’s Early Influence

    My initial exposure to jazz music was through Ron Paley’s weekly performances on the local CKND TV show, “Friday Night Live”. I watched and videotaped the show regularly. Ron’s big band rehearsed on Thursday afternoons at Silver Heights Collegiate and I would stay after school to hear a few pieces and see the “famous” musicians I was watching on TV.

    I started playing piano with the SHCI jazz band, and our director, Jim MacKay, selected one of Ron’s pieces, A Family Jewel for the band. Ron visited as a ‘clinician’ to rehearse us. It was a unique and inspiring experience, at the time, to work directly with a composer. I remember being struck by the piece’s beauty and really practiced it --- even going to the extent of copying Ron’s recorded piano solo. Our band went on to win at MusicFest Canada with this piece in our set.

    When I decided to audition for university music programs, I went to Ron for help. He wrote out chord voicings for me, and gave me some scales to apply within my improvisations. At the end of the lesson he refused to take any form of payment. I learned later that there are many ‘now-professional’ musicians who share the same story.

    Earl MacDonald, Will Bonness, Ron Paley

    Earl Teaches Will

    After completing my Masters degree from Rutgers, I spent a year in Winnipeg practicing, teaching and recording my first CD. During this time, I met Will Bonness. I believe he was in the 7th grade when he came to my parent’s home for his first lesson. He played “A Night Has A Thousand Eyes”, in the style of McCoy Tyner. It was incredible and a total surprise.

    Socially, Will was very awkward, and only answered my questions with a word or a small sentence fragment at best. I gave him a hefty, challenging assignment at the end of the first lesson. The next week I inquired how he did with it. He mumbled, “fine”. When I asked if he had any questions, he replied, “no”. In addition to perfectly executing what I assigned, he demonstrated the permutations he had worked out on his own. Wow! It was a joy teaching Will each week. As a middle school student, he worked through everything I had done as an undergraduate (and more).

    I left Winnipeg to teach as a sabbatical replacement St. Francis Xavier University, but gave Will follow-up lessons when I returned for Christmas and the summer. Later, I recommended him as my successor in Maynard Ferguson’s band. He left his grade 12 year early to go on the road, returning in time for grad! Maynard called me to tell me he loved Will’s playing and thanked me for suggesting him.

    Will is such an incredible, inspired pianist, and he gets better every time I hear him. With most pianists, I admit to feeling competitive and want to “out do” them… while secretly hoping they won’t outshine me. But with Will, I simply delight in the fact that I had a role in his musical development.


    Rehearsing the WJO

    For our program we have selected a mix of material by Ron, Will and me. We will trade off at the piano and in the role of conductor.

    I will play Ron Paley’s A Family Jewel as I did back in 1988 with the Silver Heights Collegiate Jazz Band. Ron will conduct. This will be a special moment for me. I know the audience will love the piece too. The melody is so strong, it should be in the standard jazz repertoire and played by thousands of musicians worldwide.

    Here is some insight into the tunes I have contributed:

    Friday Night At The Cadillac Club was arranged for Maynard Ferguson’s band. In 2002, it won me the Sammy Nestico Award, sponsored by the USAF Airmen of Note.

    Sordid Sort of Fellow was composed with Winnipeg trumpeter, Frank Burke in mind. Frank used to tell me all kinds of crazy stories about his connections to Winnipeg’s underworld. To be safe, I will refrain from elaborating, in the event that any of these stories are true.

    Mr. Sunshine is the follow-up commission for winning the Sammy Nestico Award.

    Dolphy Dance will receive it’s debut performance with the WJO! I tried to stretch the salsa idiom, approaching it from a sideways vantage point, using “hipper” lines and harmonies than one typically encounters. To get my imagination rolling, I pictured saxophonist Eric Dolphy showing up to do a salsa gig in a New York Salsa/Mambo dance club.

    Bad Dream is new melody written over the harmonic progression of “You Stepped Out Of A Dream”. It was inspired by a terrible nightmare that continued to haunt me the next morning. Night terrors are reproduced by creating "atypical sonic environments", achieved with unconventional notation practices drawn from contemporary classical composition techniques.

    Hit the Road, Jack was commissioned by the other WJO — the Westchester Jazz Orchestra, for their Ray Charles tribute concert. It’s fun and has proven to be an audience favorite.

    This concert is a labor of love that has been in the works for over a year. I’m trilled to return to Winnipeg, and am incredibly happy see and visit with dear, old friends – both on and off the stage. Thank you to Richard Gillis, and thank YOU for being here. Enjoy the show.

  9. My New Favorite Album (du jour)
    I've been listening to this album A LOT lately.  I think I'd like to become Vince Mendoza when I grow up.  Enjoy this little sample:

    Jim Beard - Revolutions.
    with Vince Mendoza and the Metropole Orchestra

  10. Tomorrow's Jazz Program
    Many university jazz programs today are doing a fine job producing graduates capable of sight-reading, interpreting a wide variety of written music, improvising, composing and arranging --- all at relatively high levels. In many regards, the curricular structure, guidelines and expected competencies outlined in the N.A.S.M.’s handbook appear to be working. The dedicated jazz educator must now grapple with how to balance traditional, proven methods of instruction with new systems, approaches and tools to best educate and equip our students for the future.

    At increasingly younger ages, undergraduate students are becoming adroit in transcribing and copying master musicians, and assimilating their musical vocabulary. This adheres to the fist part of Clark Terry’s celebrated philosophy for learning to play jazz: “Imitate. Assimilate. Innovate.”

    Transitioning from copying to creating is where students often falter. As mentors/guides/coaches, we collectively need to ponder how to help our students make the leap to musical innovation and creation. Ways in which this could be accomplished include:

    1. subtly modifying our pedagogy to emphasize the conceptual.
    2. encouraging and rewarding experimentation with instrumentation.
    3. increasing the required presentation of original compositions.
    4. prompting upperclassmen to write and play their own melodic lines, rather than only drawing upon transcribed material.
    5. directly exposing our students to cutting-edge, innovative artists through campus visitations. 
    Jazz Education
    If we are preparing and shaping tomorrow’s artists, we need to be concerned with their complete education. Skilled, conservatory-trained musicians without inquisitiveness for the world around them make boring artists. Somehow, we must impress upon our music students the importance of studying and contemplating the humanities. Artistic collaboration with other university units is one means through which to realize this mission.

    Tracking the career paths of recent fine arts alumni reveals a trend towards blended careers, encompassing several skill sets. Tomorrow’s jazz program will embrace this shift, by developing/offering new cross-pollinated degrees which partner with business, education and/or other fine arts disciplines, thereby better preparing students for “real life” employment situations. Emphases in jazz studies within arts administration or business management degrees would be both practical and attractive. Adeptness in grant writing, project management and marketing has become mandatory for musicians, yet these disciplines have not entered the core curriculum of most conservatories.

    Accessing information has never been easier than in this current technological age. We must not only stay current, but lead in finding new ways to utilize technology to our advantage. There is a need for the development of helpful music “apps”. Entrepreneurial ventures could be explored, such as a university-run recording label with online distribution. Streaming concerts and lectures will become the expected norm.

    Our current jazz programs have done well in embracing the use of notation software in arranging and composition courses. Similarly, we should further stress the use of new recording technology. In the last decade, affordable, easy-to-use home systems have replaced the large professional recording studios. To remain current and create job opportunities, we must provide our students with the skills needed to create music for films, jingles, TV, video games and other digital media, from their laptops.

    With a pang of remorse, the time may come when it will be necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of our jazz ensemble offerings. We will ask, “Has the big band become an obsolete instrumentation outside of academia?” If so, should our time and fiscal resources continue to be channeled into this area? Should big band be the default “flagship ensemble” by which our jazz programs are judged, or should we branch out to include other instrumental configurations? Options are limitless, but might include 10tet (decatet), jazz/strings lab ensemble, commercial ensemble, art ensemble, and studio orchestra.

    The jazz educator’s work is not complete in challenging lingering, negative perceptions about jazz music and its practitioners. Even within music schools, classically oriented colleagues joke about our being up late at night, hanging out in bars. The jazz educator of today and tomorrow must be willing to proselytize for their art form and the discipline and intellect it demands. Every performance must be well-prepared and of the highest artistic caliber, capable of enhancing our collective lives, by providing unique expressions of emotion, thought and spirit.

    Should a student of jazz ultimately choose another career path, he/she should be exalted for the transferable skillsets learned through the study of jazz. In saxophonist David Liebman’s article for Instrumentalist, “Jazz Education In the Century of Change: Beyond the Music”, he eloquently addresses the question, “What values does a jazz education offer beyond the music itself?”

    Discussions of vocationalism are sometimes avoided within academia, based on the notion that professors are only responsible for transmitting information and guiding students’ artistic development. However, savvy students and parents are understandably seeking more thoughtful, calculated responses to their occupational queries. The tremendous cost of post-secondary education obligates the leaders of tomorrow’s jazz programs to know a multitude of current career options, and the route to attain such work. Industry mentorship programs could be cultivated at radio stations, concert venues, record labels, recording studios, publicists offices, jazz festivals, etc.

    Personally, I bubble over with enthusiasm when considering the many possibilities for tomorrow’s jazz program. I believe the future is bright for jazz education!  I would love to hear from other passionate jazz educators about their vision for tomorrow's jazz program.  Do we stay on our current path, maintaining the status quo, or should we start instigating some radical changes?

  11. 2/23 UCONN Jazz Showcase
    On Sunday, February 23 at 3PM, von der Mehden Recital Hall will present the UConn Jazz Showcase. This is event is free for students, faculty, and children with ID and $10 for general admission.

    This performance will feature a full big band and jazz combos directed by Earl MacDonald, John Mastroianni, and Gregg August. The big band will perform arrangements by John Clayton, Chris Merz, and Michael Philip Mossman.  A faculty duo of MacDonald (piano) and Mastroianni (saxophone) will also play several selections.

    von der Mehden Recital Hall is located at 875 Coventry Road, Storrs, Connecticut, across from Mirror Lake. Complimentary parking is available at Parking Lot 1.

    rehearsing with the UConn Jazz Ensemble

  12. Reflections of Monk
    I attended the "Reflections of Monk" performance at New York City's Birdland jazz club on Tuesday, Feb. 18th, and thought it might be fun to share some of my impressions.

    This was my first time in the new Birdland, and I was highly impressed with the club's physical layout.  The stage is well situated so that everyone sitting at tables has a clear view of the band.  The $40 music fee was steep; nevertheless, the club appeared to be at near capacity.

    photo by Brian O'Kane
    The band featured:
    Tom Harrell - trumpet
    Greg Osby - alto saxophone
    Ben Allison - string bass
    Matt Wilson - drum set

    Producer, Milan Simich was given credit for assembling the ensemble.  I imagine that a recording session might follow the week long stint, but this wasn't announced.

    As the title infers, they played renditions of Thelonious Monk tunes.  I could only stay for the first set, which was comprised of the following tunes:

    Who Knows?
    Let's Cool One
    Monk's Dream
    Friday the Thirteenth

    To my ears, it was obvious that this was the band's opening night.  Some of the heads (especially the opener) were a bit sloppy.  The band interacted well, but clearly they were still "feeling out one another".

    It was interesting hearing Greg Osby in this context.  Monk's harmonic material forced him to play more bop-like than I have heard him play before.  Only on Rhythm-a-ning did he really open up, let loose, and play the fast, angular, "slightly out" linear material I equate with his sound.

    Tom sounded great throughout.  No complaints.  His tremor may have increased since the last time I saw him, but it didn't affect his sound drastically.  His improvisational lines were beautiful and well executed.  Some of the Monk heads weren't as polished as I would have liked, they aren't the easiest pieces to play, as any jazz musician will attest.

    This was my first time hearing pianist Aaron Goldberg live, and I was impressed.  He's got incredible facility and great ideas.  In my opinion, his rousing solos consistently stole the show.  I appreciated his ability to develop simple motifs and move them around harmonically.  When pianists play Monk tunes, they often fall into the unfortunate trap of playing like Monk.  Their touch changes, and they play more clusters and whole-tone runs than usual.  Aaron did a nice job of sounding true to himself on this repertoire.

    Ben Allison is a marvelous soloist.  In fact, he may be one of my favorite string bass soloists, due to the beautiful, singable melodic content in his solos.  I hate to be critical, but I'm not a huge fan of his walking.  His quarter notes often sounded short and detached.  Sometimes the pitch wasn't very distinguishable; it was just a nondescript thump.  (I may be off base... no pun intended.) This was my second time hearing Ben live, and I had the same impression when I heard him at Smalls with Jonathan Kreisberg a couple of years ago.

    Matt Wilson is a bit of an anomaly.  Honestly, I can't decide if I love or take exception to his orchestrational choices on the drum set.  He's a bit of a show boater which I find off-putting.  I found myself closing my eyes to see if I'd be less critical without watching him.  I admire his creative spirit, but at times its just too much for my tastes.  There were some beautiful moments though, which he played a significant role in creating.  What he played during bass solos was especially sensitive and complimentary.

    Overall, I'd say it was a good night and I'd recommend the show for those interested in attending on subsequent nights.  The band did a nice job breathing new life into Monk's timeless, beautiful compositions.  I imagine that by the end of the week, the music will have reached a remarkable level.

  13. Looking Forward, Looking Back
    "Looking Forward, Looking Back" seemed like the perfect title for New Years' Eve, the day we look ahead to the New Year, while also spending some time in reflection.  This is the fifth and final post in my mini-series providing insight into my graphic, aleatoric compositions.

    This piece is designed to tell a story about a crucial, life-changing decision.  The problem is, the decision is being made by someone other than yourself.  Two possible scenarios are:

    1. a wedding proposal where she says, "Give me a day or two and I'll get back to you."
    2. a job interview
    Here's the score (click on it to enlarge it to full size):

    And here is a live performance of it, featuring my band,  C.O.W. (the Creative Opportunity Workshop).  Note that all the trumpet parts are played by saxophone.  You might enjoy following along with the score while simultaneously watching the performance.

    Happy New Year!

  14. Jazz Meets Baseball
    "Stealing Third" is a musical game inspired by the secret, encoded signals of a third base coach, who tells base runners to either "stay put" or "steal to third."

    The game/piece requires a conductor and works well with a small group of musicians (probably no more than six players).  The conductor builds a piece using the signals below, in any order.  The various elements can and should be used more than once.

    • A clenched fist is used to get the attention of the players before giving an instruction.  The clenched fist is followed by...
      • a conducted "downbeat" indicating a contrast in texture during collective, group improvisation. (loud becomes soft, dense becomes sparse, etc.)
      • holding up 1, 2, 3 or 4 fingers and then pointing at specific players to cue an upcoming solo, duo, trio or quartet.  The players continue with the previous texture until a downbeat has been given.
      • a tug on the ear, which cues "cartoon sounds" (also known as, extended instrumental techniques). These could include playing a mouthpiece alone, tapping keys, closing the piano lid, blowing air through a horn, removing tubing from a brass instrument, etc.)  Upon the downbeat, the conductor quickly points at individuals who reveal their predetermined, unorthodox sounds.  The players must be "on their toes" and ready to react should they be pointed to next.  
      • touching his nose, signaling it is time to end the piece.  The players don't have to stop abruptly; rather, they end the piece organically.

    [Click on the score to enlarge it to full size.]

    Let's play ball!

  15. In Response To My Critics
    I knew the gamble I would be taking by including some "free improvisation" on my new album. I anticipated that these tracks might not be as favorably received, but I wanted the CD to accurately represent the band's repertoire and it's original "raison d’être."  Initially this band ONLY played "far out", experimental pieces, which makes it somewhat ironic (albeit expected) that critics are saying pieces like Where Thinking Leaves Off "seem out of place among more engaging tunes."  Another reviewer offhandedly insulted me by saying Where Thinking Leaves Off was "appropriately titled" --- as if to infer that no thought went into the composition or performance.

    Where Thinking Leaves Off was written after reading Søren Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling", and depicts the story of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, told in the biblical book of Genesis (chapters 17:1 - 18:15, 21:1 - 7, 22:1 -18).   The title comes from a Kierkegaard quote, "faith begins where thinking leaves off."  Emotionally potent content saturates every scene, spanning Isaac's miraculous birth to geriatric parents, to Abraham nearly sacrificing his son on an alter. The contrasts, tensions and emotions make for a fertile improvisational playground.

    Be assured, the hours of preparation that go into my graphic scores overshadow the effort it takes to write a brief album synopsis without reading the press release, liner notes, band description and other written materials prepared to coincide with the album's release.  This arrogant, misinformed trend in album criticism is disappointing and serious cause for concern.

    That said, I had hoped each piece could stand on its own artistically, without an explanation. Maybe I was wrong.  Maybe I was expecting too much of my listeners; but then again, it's not as if I was inventing and introducing the free jazz idiom.  It's been around for 50 years, but appears to be just as polarizing now as at it's inception.

    In no way does the negative response of a few critics make me think my explorations into graphic composition are artistically weak, unsound or invalid.  In fact, I'm rather proud of this work.

    An audio player and the score for "Where Thinking Leaves Off" appear below.  See if you can follow along with the score.  (Saxophone replaces all the indicated trumpet parts.)

    Dave Douglas, the trumpet playing composer, introduced me to the concept of graphic scores and aleatoric composition back in 2001 while I was a participant at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music. I've done some further study since then, investigating the work of Earle Brown and R. Murray Schafer, among others, who utilized unconventional notation practices.

  16. Gush - an avant-garde musical experiment
    Today I am sharing my piece, "Gush" to further illustrate the concept of guided free improvisation.  Gush depicts the affects of adding various stimuli to a water-based ecosystem.  For it's debut performance it was scored for 3 saxes, 4 brass and rhythm section.  The entrance and exit of each instrument is variable and cued by the conductor or a designated member within the ensemble.

    Although "Gush" was later recorded by my quartet, the Creative Opportunity Workshop, it didn't make it onto my "Mirror of the Mind" CD.  I decided to release a balanced cross-selection of our repertoire rather than focusing solely on avant-garde experiments (or arranged pop tunes or contemporary jazz compositions).

    The following video was created by Ted Efremoff and Deborah Dancy, as part of a collaborative, cross-disciplinary suite entitled "Above the Surface of the Water", for I which composed the music.

    Can you hear the school of minnows frolicking joyfully in the water?  How about the fisherman's hook interacting with the salmon?  The motor boat stirring things up?  The affect of pollutants on the fish and plant life?

  17. Musical Masturbation
    I have heard it said that free jazz is a lot like masturbation; it is self indulgent and should be done in private.  A few years ago I may have subscribed to this viewpoint, but I'm becoming more open minded.  I now see free improvisation as a legitimate and effective form of self expression.  But like any art form, it takes time to develop a level of proficiency (which facilitates the communication of plausible musical statements).

    As a creative musician looking to stretch my imagination and further develop the intuitive side of my musicianship, I have found "playing free" to be beneficial.  I think it has made me a better composer and improviser in tonal settings.

    The author of the Wikipedia article on Free Improvisation defines it as "improvised music without any rules beyond the logic or inclination of the musician(s) involved."  My compositional forays into free jazz tend to have some rules and guidelines, so as to steer the improvisors.

    Here is a video of my band, the Creative Opportunity Workshop, playing a free piece I entitled, "Quaternary Triangulation":

    The score is a set of instructions which looks like this:  (If you click on the image, it will expand to full size.)

    The result is four, short, contrasting trios.  In the video, the suite unfolded as follows:
    Mvt. #1:  cello (leader), accompanied by piano and percussion
    Mvt. #2: piano (leader), accompanied by percussion and sax
    Mvt. #3: percussion (leader), accompanied by sax and cello
    Mvt. #4: sax (leader), accompanied by piano and cello

    As an educator, I have found this exercise to be helpful in getting students to consider and execute elements of contrast: fast/slow, high/low registers, long/short articulations, dense/sparse, loud/soft, etc.  It doesn't hurt for professionals to be reminded of these devices either.

    In an earlier blog post I touched on my experiences using "guided free improvisation" in educational settings.  I have provided a link, so I won't expound here, although I see tremendous untapped potential here.

    Over the next few days I will share several more of my free compositions, so as to provide some insight into a style which is perhaps too easily dismissed by the uninitiated.
  18. Miles Apart
    Despite the joyousness of the season, there is always some sadness when we can't be reunited with ALL of our family members over the holidays. This song "Miles Apart" was written while thinking of the distance which separates my parents and my sister's family from my own. We live on opposite coasts.

    The above video footage comes from my CD release concert which took place on Oct. 11th, 2013 at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts in Storrs, CT. The members of the band are Kris Allen - sax, Christopher Hoffman - cello, Rogerio Boccato - percussion, and me.

    I was somewhat miffed when a recent reviewer wrote, "The genesis of “Miles Apart” is murky, and whether it is meant to convey distance, or an allusion to Miles Davis, no amount of listening will sort out." A quick reading of my online liner notes would give the answer and much more.  Detailed song descriptions for all the pieces on my latest CD appear on my website.  Perhaps in our postmodernist world research is now passé.

  19. CD Release Concert Footage
    The CD release concert for my "Mirror of the Mind" recording took place back in October at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts in Storrs, CT.  Two of my students, Colin Walters and Mike O'Callaghan filmed it for me, but I haven't had time until recently to edit the video and put it into usable, bite-sized chunks.

    Here is my song, "Bottom Feeders", featuring Kris Allen (alto sax), Christopher Hoffman (cello) and Rogerio Boccato (percussion).

    If you're wondering about the title, I provided a full explanation on my website, at the following link:  http://www.earlmacdonald.com/mirror-of-the-mind/about-the-music.html

  20. Developing Musical Ideas
    The commute to New York City is without question the least glorious aspect of my participation in the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop.  I drive for two hours and then take the train for an additional two hours.  EACH WAY.  The up side is that it gives me some uninterrupted time to think, problem solve, or listen to some new music.

    Train to New York CityOn my way to the last meeting I found myself obsessing about how I might lengthen or add to my piece.  Currently, it's duration is just under 5 minutes, which seems a bit short.  It dawned on me that I haven't consciously utilized any of the conventional development techniques used in music composition.  I have been so focused on adhering to rhythmic clave, and staying within the parameters and spirit of salsa, that I somehow overlooked the obvious.

    I often tell my arranging students that "everything we write is viable for development".  It's funny how when we are personally in the act of creating, we sometimes don't see the obvious, or forget basic principals, because our focus is too narrow.

    So... I've decided to take a step back.  My plan is to distance myself from the piece for a couple of weeks, and then dive in again, with the understanding that everything is "up for grabs".  Any and all aspects of the piece are subject to development, including:
    • all salsa elements: rhythms, montunos, bass tumbaos, brass hits, instrumentation, repeated figures, form, etc.  They can all be developed, and they don't have to sit in the expected/standard 4-bar format.
    • melodies (backwards, upside down, etc.)
    • motifs
    • the harmonic progressions (move, transpose, modulate, elongate, truncate, etc.)
    • dynamics
    • voicings
    • form
    • counterpoint
    [I included this reading session recording in my last post, but here it is again for reference:]

    This may sound strange, but when writing this piece, I intentionally tried NOT to incorporate a clearly distinguishable melody.  I wanted to see if rhythm alone could carry the piece.  In lieu of a "melody" I wanted to integrate some weird, chromatic "Eric Dolphy-esque" lines.  Somehow this notion may have "obscured my vision" and hindered my process.  By accepting that these weird lines ARE in fact a melody or THE melody, I can proceed to take these lines, or portions of them, and work with them using conventional techniques of good composition and arranging.  This material could be used elsewhere in the piece!

    writing music
    By trying (so hard) not to break any of the rules of Salsa, I may have inadvertently handcuffed my creativity.  The genre is now established.  The parameters are in place.  Now it's time to think outside of those parameters and feel free to break some rules.  I will allow myself to take the music to another place.

    So... that's what I came up with during the commute.  At the actual workshop, I also got some valuable tips from my colleagues.  Their general consensus was that my piece was too dense --- both in orchestration and with too much going on at once, thereby overwhelming the listener.  Overwritten brass and backgrounds which obscure and detract from the soloist are other valued criticisms I received and plan to address.

    Clearly I've got my work cut out for me.  But in the meanwhile, I have two other new pieces on the go.  I'll fill you in about those later.

  21. A Work In Progress
    As I mentioned in a previous post, I have rejoined the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop this year, partly as a sabbatical project, but mostly for the purpose of sparking my imagination and pushing myself to try some new things as a composer.

    For my first big band piece of the season, I elected to write in the salsa idiom.  It had been a while since I had written in clavé, and I thought this would present some interesting challenges, while being fun.  Before starting, I wrote down a few parameters, goals, thoughts, and questions for myself, to guide the piece's direction.  Some of these included:

    • How can I stretch the salsa idiom?
    • Would "hipper" lines and harmonies work in the salsa style?
    • How important is having a distinguishable melody?  If rhythm is the driving force behind salsa, does the piece doesn't need an obvious, singable melody?
    • Try approaching salsa from a sideways angle/vantage point.
    • Experiment, yet meet the approval of the SALSA POLICE! (avoid cruzado!)
    • Include a mambo section with added layers of complexity.
    BMI Jazz Orchestra
    Jim McNeely conducting the BMI Jazz Orchestra during the 10/01/2013 reading session.
    In my piano practicing this summer I worked on superimposing bebop-ish lines into harmonic situations where their chord tones reflected upper structure extensions and alterations to the given harmony.  I decided to use these types of lines in the chart to give it some edge.  I equate this sound to what saxophonist Eric Dolphy was doing in the 1960s.  I decided to call the piece "Dolphy Dance", picturing Eric playing in a dance band.

    We had a "reading session" on Oct. 1st, so I got to hear my experiments sight-read by a full big band of professional players.  It's still a work in progress but here's a taste (note: the music starts 9 seconds into the playback):

    If any experienced Latin jazz/salsa players have some suggestions or criticisms to share with me, I'd love to hear them.  I'm questioning and considering how I might expand the piece even further, while not making it tiresome.

    I went through the above recording and made the following list of revisions.  Beside each point I will include the corresponding time on the recording, so you can follow along and see what caught my attention:

    • Eliminate flute and harmon trumpet from the intro.  Flute is inaudible until m. 7, then appears to come in out of nowhere, and is uncharacteristic of the expected ensemble sound.  Re-orchestrate melody in m.7 from flute to 3 trumpets and alto. [0.18]
    • m. 6 and 7: the bass line is weak because range prohibits going to the low C in the bari and bass trombone.  Take the D flat up the octave in m. 7.  Have everyone play a half note on beats 3 and 4 of m.6 to break up the line, so it sounds intentional, and not a poor solution to range limitations.  This also better reflects the clavé rhythmic pattern. [0.16]
    • m.17: sound final chord longer.  Tie it to a dotted half note instead of a quarter note. [0.29]
    • m.38:  Simplify the brass hit, to make things more comfortable, and "lock everyone in" rhythmically. [0.55]
    • m.45: change rhythm of saxophone line slightly, so there isn't too much space before the ensemble response.  End phrase with a quarter note on beat 4. [1.03]
    • m. 56 and 64: change half note to a short quarter note to let the backgrounds breathe. [1.17 and 1.26]
    • m.66: change the articulation to an accented tenuto. [1.29]
    • m.81 and 82 (before "J" --- restatement of intro material): add two measures of G/Ab harmony and a melodic bass figure played by the bass, piano, bari sax and bass trombone. [1.46]. Also add this at the 2nd ending. [3.13]
    • copy changes made to the intro into m. 83 - 90. [1.49]
    • m. 42: add the brass hits played during the first repeat. (behind soloist) [1.00/2.26]
    • At rehearsal letters "F" and "G": add a trombone soli (entire section), during the second repeat, so it builds. [2.38]
    • m.109 (4th ending): add 6 measures of G/Ab montuno.  "Double" montuno in the horns the last time, leading to m. 110. [3.44]
    • At rehearsal letter N: saxes enter "p" (quieter) [4.10]
    • At rehearsal letter O: bring trombones 2 and 3 up the octave.  3 up and 1 down. [4.20]
    • At rehearsal letter P:  Only the lead trumpet should play up the octave.  1 up and 3 down.  No optional 8VA on the last note of the phrase. [4.30]
    So there you have it.  Tomorrow I head back into New York City where I hope to benefit from the reactions and ideas of the other workshop composers.  The brilliant, experienced composer, Rich Shemaria will lead the discussion, as both Jim McNeely and Mike Holober will be out of town.  I have admired Rich's work for a long time, and look forward to meeting him in person. (Until now we have only corresponded a couple of times through e-mail or Facebook.) I am eager to hear his thoughts and welcome your input too!

  22. Jazz Radio
    As the date of my CD release approaches, I have been doing many radio interviews.  Here's one which I really enjoyed, with Ken Laster at WHUS 91.7 FM in Storrs, CT.

    Ken's program is shared weekly as a podcast.  He calls it "In the Groove, Jazz and Beyond".  It gets about 10,000 downloads per week.  Ken is a great interviewer.  I felt relaxed throughout and really enjoyed our "on air" conversation.

    I have two more upcoming radio appearances before my concert at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, Oct. 11th:

    I am making all of these appearances to promote the following concert:

    Friday, October 11, 2013 – 8pm - $15 / $10 UCONN Faculty & Staff / $5 Students
    Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts – 2132 Hillside Road - Storrs
    MacDonald’s Jorgensen Center performance will celebrate and coincide with the release of his new CD, Mirror of the Mind. By drawing upon outside influences and incorporating cello into his ensemble palette, MacDonald has again achieved the element of surprise for which reviewers have called him “visionary” and “startlingly original”. Much of the music will be performed in sync with projected visual imagery and videography by artists Deborah Dancy and Ted EfremoffEarl MacDonald – piano, Kris Allen – saxophones, Christopher Hoffman – cello, Rogerio Boccato – percussion.

    I hope to see you there!
  23. Composers' Workshop
    I have rejoined the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop while I am on sabbatical from university teaching.  I participated twice before, in 2003 and 2007.  Traveling to New York City regularly (almost weekly) from Storrs, CT is a considerable commitment because I basically lose a full day of productivity.  I rationalize that it will be worthwhile for the following reasons:
    • benefiting from the feedback of a peer group, as well as Jim McNeely and Mike Holober, the workshop directors.
    • having regular deadlines, thereby forcing me to complete plenty of new music
    • trying some new techniques, and gathering ideas from other composers in an effort to escape my compositional ruts/routines
    • networking --- making some new friends and professional contacts
    • hearing my new pieces and musical experiments played by a band of skilled, professional NYC musicians.
    • setting myself on a forward/creative trajectory which will continue well beyond my sabbatical.
    Earlier this week I met all the workshop participants at an informational session with Jim McNeely and Mike Holober.  The participants are an impressive bunch, with professional and academic credentials galore.  After reviewing the booklet of guidelines, some compositional discussions ensued, which have already got my wheels turning.

    It was made clear that merely arranging and developing our small group tunes was discouraged. Although this is a valid and often used technique, McNeely and Holober encouraged us to stretch and experiment.  We are to experience starting from nothing and building from the ground up --- trying techniques outside our usual 'bag of tricks'.  Exclusive use of repeating, cyclical forms, such as experienced in 90% of jazz repertoire, was also discouraged.  To a degree, this will be a stretch for me; but I welcome the challenge.

    If all goes well, this should be a transformative musical year.

  24. Heintzman Pianos
    I adore my Heintzman upright piano.  It's solidly built, speaks equally in all registers, sounds beautiful, and feels great to play.  By looking up the serial number (41146), I learned it was constructed in 1912 in Toronto, Canada.

    Legend has it that Theodor August Heintzman worked side-by-side with Henry E. Steinway in a Berlin piano factory, prior to their immigrating together to North America.  The superior craftsmanship between the two piano brands is certainly comparable.

    I bought mine in 1992 from Bill Weiss, who was Winnipeg's finest piano technician.  He was in his 80s at the time and has long since passed.  Mr. Weiss rebuilt the instrument, replacing the hammers and bass strings.

    My piano tuner and longtime family friend, Garry Varty found it for me.  Mr. Varty was born blind and enjoyed the irony in saying he "looked long and hard" for an instrument of this quality, specifically for me.

    With great difficulty (a long story), I shipped it to Connecticut in 2003 after getting married and buying a home.

    Earlier this month I spent a week in Kincardine, Ontario performing and teaching at the Kincardine Summer Music Festival.  I was overjoyed when I lifted the piano lid at the performance venue and saw that I would be playing a Heintzman all week.  I was a bit perplexed, because it looked new, and I was under the impression Heintzman pianos were out of production for some time.  I have since learned that the Heintzman name was purchased by a Chinese manufacturer, who claims to build them according to the originals specifications.


    The new Heintzman was a huge disappointment.  They may have replicated the original dimensions, but something is clearly lacking --- "T.L.C." and old-school craftsmanship which reflects pride in one's work.  The instrument's quality was on par with Young Chang pianos, which deflate my sails every time I am forced to play one.  Notes stuck.  The upper register was weak, thin and metallic sounding.  It didn't hold it's tune. As the week progressed, the piano became more and more unravelled.  It was a despicable instrument and I hope to never encounter one again.

    At times I envy horn players (did I really just say that?!!).  It must be nice to bring one's own, maintained, reliable, predictable instrument to a gig.  Pianists on the other hand are at the mercy of the instrument they are dealt.

    I pride myself in getting a decent sound out of even the poorest of pianos, but some nights it is harder than others to overcome, compensate for, and not allow myself to become entirely distracted by poor workmanship or lack of proper maintenance.

    They don't make 'em like they used to.


  25. Jazz Camp
    saxophonist Ralph Bowen
    An evening concert with tenor saxophonist, Ralph Bowen
    Jazz Camp takes a lot out of me.  After a week of teaching during the day, performing at night, and socializing with old friends, I'm wiped.

    I just returned from the Kincardine Summer Music Festival, which is organized by my friend, trombonist Jules Estrin.  The faculty was comprised entirely of friends with whom I went to McGill University in the late 1980s.  They are now all highly respected jazz educators and players in Toronto and Montreal.

    Kelly Jefferson - tenor sax
    Brian O'Kane - trumpet
    Jules Estrin - trombone
    Mike Rudd - guitar
    Mike Downes - string bass
    Ted Warren - drums

    We performed together almost every night, including concerts accompanying Toronto singer/radio DJ Heather Bambrick and saxophonist, Ralph Bowen.

    Ralph was one of my jazz professors at Rutgers and he played on both my "Schroeder's Tantrum" and "Re:Visions" CDs.  It was great to see (and hear!) him.  What an inspiring player!

    I also really enjoyed the teaching aspect of the KSMF.  The students in my ensemble were bright and inquisitive.  They eagerly took notes and asked plenty of thoughtful questions.  I probably gave them a full year's worth of practice material.
    A student ensemble performance at the Kincardine Summer Music Festival's Jazz Camp
    An outdoor student performance at the KSMF
    On Friday I played an afternoon concert with the JazzFM Youth Big Band, comprised of Toronto's top high school jazz students.  These kids can really play!  Drummer Ted Warren and saxophonist Kelly Jefferson were also featured guests.

    Earl MacDonald and Ted Warren performing with the JazzFM Big Band
    Performing with the JazzFM Youth Big Band
    I have taught at many jazz camps over the years but this one is by far my favorite.  I highly recommend it to aspiring young jazz players.  The location is gorgeous, the price isn't exorbitant, the faculty are superb, and the evening concerts rival what you would hear in a Toronto or New York jazz club.  For info about next year's camp, visit the Kincardine Summer Music Festival's web page: http://www.ksmf.ca.  I hope to see you there next summer! 

    Ralph Bowen and Earl MacDonald
    enjoying the view at Lake Huron