Michael Mull Octet

Michael Mull Octet

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Music vs. Title Survey

A Happy Father's Day to all you awesome pops out there!

I was talking about composition with my friend
Steve Blum a month or two back, and the topic of titles came up. Turns out, Steve often starts with a title, whereas I rarely produce a title until near the end of the composition process. Everyone approaches composition a different way, and that includes the use of a title. I thought it would be interesting and enlightening to send off emails to some of my favorite composers in the jazz world asking them about this topic, and compile the answers here for y'all. I'd like to thank everyone listed for their time and great responses!

The question was:
"When you write a piece of music, what usually comes first, the music or the title?"

Here are the answers I received:

"Usually the music comes first in m
y case. The best titles for me do come when I'm at the beginning of the writing process however and am still feeling that initial inspiration. It's harder after the tune is complete to go back and find a title that fits the initial feeling for me."
Donny McCaslin, saxophone 

"I almost always conceive the music first and titles comes later."

Edward Simon, piano

"Without hesitation the music comes first. Some titles come soon after finishing work on a tune, but many don't happen until I'm forced to come up with names of tunes for a record. I'll occasionally come up with a title I like separate from writing music. Then I'll add it to a list of potential tune titles that I'll reference if I'm not coming up with anything for a particular tune. Just like a lot of things, it either comes easily or it takes a while."

Steve Cardenas,

"For me a mood will come to me when composing and usually a title will follow. Other times a composition will surface at roughly the same time an event of notice occurs in my life."
John Fumo, trumpet

"The title either comes first or during the process....it usually helps me maintain a direction in the writing."
John Hollenbeck, drums

"Almost exclusively, the music happens first but sometimes on rare occasions a word or image will spark something to happen. I remember reading about Mathew Sheppard and that was one of those rare moments where I started working on lyrics and the music followed."
Alphonso Johnson, bass

"I don't think I've ever written a tune to fit with a title, although that might change with a few potential commissions coming up. What I do have is a list of potenital titles for tunes that I can match with new pieces, but only after I've written the music. So I guess technically sometime I do have the title before the music, but it's usually correlation rather than causation."
Gary Fukushima, piano

"The music almost always comes first. The only exceptions are when I come up with what I think is a clever title and I need to write a tune as an excuse to use it, but that usually doesn't work. I don't often write tunes based on specific places or events - they are mostly just explorations of musical ideas, so titles are sometimes hard to come by."
Ben Monder, guitar

"The music comes first."
Darek "Oles" Oleszkiewicz, bass

"For me, it's usually the music first but occasionally a title will inspire the direction. 'Boxer Rebellion', inspired by our 2 dogs, is an example of a 'title first' composition of mine. More often, I will have a person in mind, which I find more inspiring. This was the case with 'Message From Art' (Art Blakey), 'Kind of Bill' (Bill Evans), 'Bella Luce' (Conte Candoli) and 'For Gillian' (my wife). 'Sixth Sense' was inspired by an exercise on the drum set and 'Native Land' is a homage to planet earth. In each of those tunes, the music came first."
Joe LaBarbera, drums

"The very first thing that comes to mind is who is the music for, then sometimes the title comes first and the music is written but often what i write is concieved for a group or individuals and then the title is added, so I would say...maybe its 30 percent title first, and 70 percent music, then title. That said, I do keep a bag or lists of titles for every occasion."
Vinny Golia, multi-woodwinds

"It's very rare that I have a title before I write. Most often, I have to think of a title at the last minute when a recording is about to be released! Usually I start composing with a mood in mind, but since music is expressive in a way for me that's beyond words, often it's hard for me to think of a specific title that accurately captures that mood."
Chris Potter, saxophone

"To me, the title is important - it conveys a feeling and intention about the music before a listener even hears the first note. I often write the title BEFORE I discover the musical ideas. It is one of the many parameters that I use to get started writing, and can bring a sense of unity and focus to a composition.
"The relationship between a title and the composition can be very abstract and hard to define, or it can be more literal and even programmatic. But there are many compositions that first attract a performer's or listener's attention because of an effective title. If I complete a composition without a title, it can be difficult to find a title that is 'as good as' the music, and sometimes feels like a compromise (which is disappointing...). The goal is to complete a composition that tells one focused story, and the title can be very helpful in communicating that story."
David Roitstein, piano

"It is not a matter of a title or the music coming first, as both processes happen, as well as co-created titles and pieces that come together simultaneously.
"Some examples would be pieces of mine such as 'Frozen Ropes', 'Drifter', and 'Ceilings' where an entire piece had been completed and needed to be titled. Therefore, whatever popped into my mind--that evidently reflected current circumstances or situations I was immersed in--became the titles.
"Another avenue of construction is exemplified by pieces such as 'Dresden Moods', 'A Tree Frog Tonality', and 'Hydrofoil', where the titles came first and informed the content of the musical composition amply--in these particular cases, an historical event and its aftermath, the inspiration of nature's fine non-human musicians, and a dedication to the spirit of the late Fred Hopkins.
"Lastly the co-created dynamic where a title arises as the music is written. An example of this amongst my works would be 'Nature, Time, Patience'. I realized around half-way through composing the commissioned work, that the aforementioned three elements were going to be essential to the success of the piece, so I simply titled it that."
John Lindberg, bass

"When I write music the music always comes first. It starts as a small impulse and melody is almost always the generator. Melody contains so many elements in microcosm (it implies harmony, form, phrases, meter, etc.) and it also has a forward momentum through its storytelling. I just need to get my self out of the way and find what is contained or implied by that first impulse (more and more I'm convinced it contains all the information including the ultimate length of a piece). The title comes much later for me. I think the process would be less abstract and more stilted if I had word associations from the beginning."
Larry Koonse, guitar

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Osby and Turner

Hello again,

I'm back from a 5-day trip to Maui with my wife. It was a fantastic trip in a beautiful place, and I'm sure I'll be writing some music reflecting on my experiences. Fish, urchins, sea turtles, hiking, volcanoes, and tons of great food!

Youtubing this morning - I thought I would share a few videos and a few thoughts. First, check this one out: Franco Ambrosetti Sextet playing "Sidewinder" by Lee Morgan. Swiss trumpeter Franco Ambrosetti is sounding great here, and surrounds himself with a killing band: Greg Osby on alto, Mark Turner on tenor, Jason Moran on piano, Lonnie Plaxico on bass, and Billy Drummond on drums.

I want to focus on the former two sidemen, Osby and Turner. In my opinion, these are two of the most important saxophonists on the current scene. Both have an amazing technical mastery of the instrument and have developed personal, beautiful tones. Their approaches to improvising on the saxophone, however, are what I feel makes them such important figures in jazz today. Nobody else sounds like Greg Osby; he has found a way to filter the often angular melodic, rhythmic and harmonic content of 20th-century classical music through the jazz tradition. Like Eric Dolphy's playing, one can always hear a deep underpinning of "the blues" in Osby's improvisations, despite the far-reaching harmonic implications and often fragmented rhythmic phrasing. Similarly, Mark Turner's even-toned explorations hold a solid footing in the "feeling" of jazz, without using old material. Turner, a Tristano/Marsh/Konitz enthusiast, is a masterful architect, building an improvisation one step at a time and treating each note with care. His expansive range, balance of wide and close intervals, and extraoardinary use of space are unlike any other player.

I find it revealing and exciting to listen to these players in the context of jazz standards. While both of these saxophonists are notable composers as well, standards serve as a more immediate reference point to the listener and help us to more easily identify some of the players stylistic nuances. This is one reason I particularly enjoy the "Sidewinder" video posted above; listeners don't often get to hear Osby or Turner play this tune!

Here are a couple more examples of these masters playing standard tunes. Enjoy!

Greg Osby playing "Jitterbug Waltz"

Mark Turner playing "All The Things You Are"