Too many jazz guys tend to think that composition is putting together a string of “cool” chords, writing a melody consisting of patterns that fit over the chords over some hip rhythms, and then improvising by playing more patterns over their cool chord progression.
This is why jazz is struggling. It’s why so many people “don’t understand it,” or hate it outright. It’s bad composition.
A good composition, on the other hand, is satisfying. There’s a sense of unfolding about it, a “story” being told. A good song or melody teaches itself to you as you listen to it. Great improvisers know about this. Rhythmic, melodic, formal and harmonic development is integral to their performance.
Good composition connects to human instinct, to primal needs for recognition, form and logic, all of which are innate. A talented composer understands this on some level – whether by education, or by his own instinct.
Music doesn’t have to be simple to be logical or recognizable. I’m not arguing for simplicity. I am arguing for logical rhythmic construction, formal development, melodic development, functional harmony, opposition and resolution, and logical harmonic progression. All of these elements can be present in original material. Harmony can be dissonant, or complex – but it must resolve, ebb and flow. If these elements are present, the material will be recognizable and coherent by the end of the first hearing.
As a product of jazz education myself, my first lesson with a classical composition teacher after being active as a professional musician for over 30 years was an eye-opener. I studied with Edgar Grana (who taught Mike Brecker, Mike Stern, and others).
Although I had been exposed to traditional Western European music theory, studying counterpoint, figured bass, chorale writing etc. in college, I had never taken formal composition lessons.
I had gone to Berklee one summer, learned their harmonic vocabulary, and took some classes in arranging and theory. I like “cool chords” and wrote my share of cool chord tunes. Some of them actually worked OK (saved by my better instincts), a couple of them even recorded by Chet Baker, Roland Hanna and others. I wanted to study composition at the University of Illinois, but was put off by a meeting with a composition teacher who told me “just write something.”
I needed to learn “the rules” – the basic elements of classical composition.
Forget The Chords
Edgar Grana’s lesson was kind of a shock. I had gone in wanting to learn how the second movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G was put together… I wanted find out how Ravel came up with “those chords,” among other things. Grana smiled, put it aside, and reached for Schubert’s Second Symphony. He spread it out, circled the first little cluster of notes on the score, and the lesson began.
He had me trace the evolution of that motif through the score, identifying the ways in which it was developed and permutated – then, identify the next motif where it was introduced, trace its development, then watch as another came in, and then how they’re re-introduced, juxtaposed against each other, creating dissonance and resolution. We listened to it, and it became obvious to me that the way these elements were introduced made them persistently recognizable, even when they were all happening at once in the chaotic atmosphere later in the same movement.
It would have been possible to do a vertical analysis of any point in the score to identify the resulting chord, but it would have been pointless. The “chord” was the result of an accident, really – a crossing point of melodic lines taking different paths to their own destination.
Forget “Jazz Arranging”
In a Berklee jazz arranging class, I learned to make every lead note supported by a chord. I was taught to think vertically, and as a jazz bassist I was constantly learning chord progressions for tunes. Everything had to be harmonically justified.
Early in my career as a bassist, I had learned the bassist’s role extended beyond playing the bottom of the harmony into the realm of melodic motion and counterpoint. I became aware that “line writing” was part of the jazz arranging universe, exemplified most brilliantly in the work of the late Thad Jones, and taught at Berklee by the late Herb Pomeroy There was more to jazz arranging that a series of chords.
And, as Mr Grana told me, “forget the chords.”
The idea of forgetting about the chords, and letting introduced melodic elements coexist, following their own path, was at the same time shocking and liberating to me. You can do that?
Yes. And the result has more depth and logic to it. It’s satisfying.
Motives must be introduced
Constraints apply to the composer following the rules of classical composition. Every motif must be introduced and restated, getting it into the short-term memory of the listener. The restatement can consist of a basic variation, but must precede the introduction of the next motif.
The problem with the “cool chords” approach to jazz composition is lack of development. The uneducated composer believes he always needs to be original. If the material is fresh in every bar, there’s no development. A good composer starts by copying what he just did!
An improviser trying to be original in every melodic statement has the same problem. You’ve got to repeat yourself to make your point, otherwise you have a string of undeveloped ideas without a frame of reference for the listener, who is asked to endure a stream of random new information, without having their basic need for recognition satisfied.
Note to the Youth of Jazz
Learn composition and make better music.