Monday, November 19, 2007

Extended jazz compositions

Several years ago, I hung out on a mailing list that discussed John Zorn and his various projects, including the various artists that he produced on his nascent Tzadik label. This essentially meant that we could discuss just about anything, since Zorn either played in or produced many flavors of jazz, classical, and the more outside forms of rock. I learned a lot about different kinds of music there, and have continued to follow other writers that hung out there as well. In addition to Brian Olewnick, whom I've mentioned before, one of the other seminal voices was Steve Smith, who has since graduated to the big time, writing for Time Out New York and the New York Times. Steve's tastes were extremely wide ranging; if I've finally learned that our tastes in metal don't always overlap, over the years he introduced me, through his entertaining and extremely literate writing, to classical works like the Shostakovich symphonies, as well as several creative improvising artists.

Steve also has a blog, and last week he posted an impassioned article about a forthcoming reunion of Tim Berne's group Bloodcount, where he reiterated his position that Berne is one of the leaders in extended jazz compositions. I've always been curious about jazz composition. I've played classical music most of my life, and dabbled in country and rock for a while in my younger days, but I have no experience performing jazz. My understanding of jazz composition is pretty much that jazz songs are pop tunes, and that performers generally play the song together once, then take turns improvising over the chord changes, and then make a final tutti statement at the end. But Steve always seemed to allude that Berne's compositions were somehow more than this, so I asked him for some additional information in a comment to the post above. But it's outside Steve's scope, and probably outside his interest, so I decided to listen again to one of the three Bloodcount albums that were recorded during a stint at Les Instants Chavirés, a tiny jazz club outside Paris (recently available again after being out of print for more than a decade) with an ear toward deciding what was composition and what was improvisation. Or really, since improvisation is simply composition on the spot, what part of these pieces did Berne compose alone in his studio, and what part got formed in rehearsel, and what part got formed the night it was recorded live?

The volume of the Bloodcount Paris Concerts entitled Poisoned Minds has two pieces: The Other, which clocks in at 27:29, and What Are The Odds?, which takes 41:28. The ensemble is Berne and Chris Speed on sax (with Speed playing clarinet on The Other), Michael Formanek on bass, Jim Black on drums, and Marc Ducret on guitars. Ducret plays a minor role on the album, never soloing, and not even audible until twenty minutes into The Other. So we're essentially listening to a quartet. I imagine that writing for a jazz quartet requires considerably less detail than for a larger ensemble; a horn section particularly seems to call for a more fully notated arrangement. The jazz rhythm section is probably never notated. Published "arrangements" in fake books and the like have a melody line and chords, nothing else. Presumably Berne's charts have no more detail than this, since the goal is to create a framework for improvisation.

The Other opens sounding like other jazz pieces. It's a slow, impressionistic melody in long phrases played by the group, led by Berne on alto, accompanied by a harmonic line on the clarinet and a bowed line in the bass. Both of the harmonic lines generally move more slowly than the primary melody, but I don't get a sense that the harmony is specified. Berne's music seems like it's based on melodic gestures and textures, and not a pop song structure. Berne probably composed the melody, or the opening melodic fragments in the studio, and the group may have composed the harmony lines in rehearsels -- it doesn't sound fully composed. A couple of minutes in, the rhythm section drops out, and we have a brief wind duet, but the other instruments come back to close the section. Then there's a bowed bass solo, with a sparse accompaniment on the drums, clearly improvised on the spot, but accompanied at the end by the wind instruments with a slow harmonic movement, which in turn gives way to another duet section that sounds more composed. The rhythm section gathers itself into a groove, and the wind lines build slowly to a climax, which disintegrates into two fast moving improvised lines. This section concludes with a unison statement from all the melodic players, then splinters off again into a drum solo. All of this takes about the first half of the piece.

There's not much point in describing the remainder of the album in detail, but it's probably safe to guess that Berne composes the melodic kernels and phrases, and the overall structure of the piece. This structure probably includes the textural character of the transition sections, where the solos occur, and how to get into and out of the solo sections. I don't imagine that each player would need more than a couple of pages of sheet music per piece, but I imagine that some sheet music would be present, at least for the melody players.

Berne's narratives come from the variety in the textures, along with hearing the melodic lines evolve and mutate over the course of the piece. The musicians in the rhythm section are equal partners to the melodic players, and Berne isn't afraid to rock out once in a while. Ducret is a great foil, and even if his role is fairly minor here, on some of Berne's other albums, such as Caos Totale's Nice View (with a full brass section of Steve Swell on trombone, Herb Robertson on trumpet, and Django Bates on alto horn) and his Julius Hemphill cover album, Dimunitive Mysteries (with David Sanborn on second sax), his noisy solos are an integral part of the experience. Part of what I like about Berne's albums (and after Steve's article, I've gone back and listened to every one I have) is that they don't sound like "jazz," but a hybrid where jazz is only one of the elements, sitting comfortably alongside classical and the occasional rock.

All of the albums mentioned in this post are currently available from Winter & Winter. And, as I discovered after this article was more or less complete, Berne's sells some of his scores from his label's web site, although not for any of the music I've discussed here. There's a sample page that shows notations for alto sax, guitar and keyboard, but which doesn't include any chord changes.

No comments: