The Jazz Composer: Moving Music off the Page

By Graham Collier
Northway Publications

Graham Collier

Directing 14 Jackson Pollocks

Jazz Continuum GCM 2009

One of the United Kingdom’s most accomplished jazz composers, arrangers and big band leaders, Graham Collier, who will be 72 in late February, has long crusaded against what he calls “grey music” – that is so-called jazz that lacks passion and excitement. This measured and well-researched volume is his most recent polemical volley in his on-going battle against mediocre big band jazz. Suffused with observations and experiences drawn from a lifetime in the jazz trenches, in many ways it’s his most personal and profound book.

Two of Collier’s immutable mantras are “a jazz composition can be made out of anything,” and more tenaciously “jazz is played in real time once”. He eventually elucidates his own methods for creating high-quality, memorable jazz compositions and arrangements in the penultimate chapter. To summarize in a truncated manner, he says there is a “necessity to recognize the existence of ‘jazz form’,” which even with unexpected restrictions uses methods designed to bring out musicians’ creativity. This encouraged creativity can reshape any carefully organized composition, even if using only some of its parts. “If what is written produces a good performance, then that is sufficient – until the next time,” he opines.

Offering a history of how multi-faceted and adaptable writing developed in jazz, Collier cites important compositions and arrangements from past masters of the form – including Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis and Gil Evans – and explains the mechanics and strategies which made their music sound best when moved off the page. Performance is paramount, notes Collier. By harping on such a somewhat oxymoronic statement, though, he demonstrates how far rote grey music has come to dominate the jazz discourses.

There are reasons for this, and throughout The Jazz Composer Collier excoriates the misguided musicians who perpetuate much of the undistinguished present-day sounds that are labeled jazz. Courageously for someone who has been involved in jazz education since 1963 when he was the Berklee School of Music’s first British graduate, and who was director of London’s Royal Academy of Music’s jazz department from 1987 to 2000, jazz educators rank among the chief offenders. Other factors are certain fabulously popular jazz arrangers; the world-wide commercialization of the music in general; and inevitably, jazz’s neo-conservative movement, its figurehead Wynton Marsalis, his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and the trumpeter’s many followers and acolytes.

Collier’s didactic background ensures that even most obtuse point is made clear and that the reader never loses the thread of his thesis. He constantly refers to what is about to be explained and reminds the reader of earlier information in subsequent chapters.

While not denying the transitory value of studying scores by important jazz composers, Collier decries the growth of tribute bands in general. “I have difficulty accepting the increasing number of repertory bands and tribute bands that are beginning to dominate today’s jazz scene,” he writes. “One recent festival I attended had tributes to so many past musicians that I despaired of hearing anything new.”

This homogenizing celebration of the tried-and-true became accepted in mainstream circles around the time when thinking musicians had to decide how to deal with the revolutionary changes which gripped jazz from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. The most expedient method was to ignore them altogether, create a singular fashion of composing and playing jazz, elevate an unchangeable pantheon of musical heroes and retreat backwards. Writing of today’s most praised historical Jazz figures, Collier sardonically notes: “Lately the pantheon seems to have been exclusively designed by (and for?) Wynton Marsalis.”

So unlike the past, when Ellington, for instance, become a major composer “… by learning how to use the individual timbres and soloing styles of his musicians … and by constantly experimenting with the melodic, harmonic and formal aspects of his compositions,” or when Mingus created a masterful performance in real time on The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, even though Charlie Mariano’s alto part was overdubbed on top of band tracks, unvarying Bebop changes and block voicings have became the norm for small groups and Collier’s particular love, big bands.

“Why does Bebop whose historical period was more than half a century ago … still play such a dominant role in the music?” he asks. “Bebop is formulistic music easy to teach”, he replies. Since many musicians – young or not – idolize the re-creators “to whom technique is all” most seem only to want to play higher, louder and faster, he adds. The result: the domination of dull, lifeless and superficial scores, overwritten and with no breathing space. “My guess is that the rot in jazz arranging came in with the rise in jazz education and the increasing need for arrangements that could be played by a growing number of [student] bands,” Collier posits. Based on block voicings and written for anonymous players “the factory had come to jazz”

Describing some of the most popular stage band composer/arrangers he notes that “these writers seem most interested in homogeneity of sound, of approach, and of language, rather than mining the individuality of the musicians as Ellington did, finding new tonal palettes as Gil Evans did, [or] exploring new avenues of compositions as Charles Mingus did.” Different instruments, harmonies and voicings may be used but even in these cases “the language is restrictive”.

Guilty of promoting such formulistic sounds are a score of craftspeople highly praised elsewhere, he asserts. They include Jim McNeeley, Maria Schneider, Bob Florence, Bob Mintzer and especially Sammy Nestico, whose 600 published arrangements may be in the library of every big band in the world. How can these people “be called jazz composers when …they are using … arranging methods common over the past 50 or more years?” he asks. The answer: “most arrangers in jazz today have decided to satisfy the needs of the market.”

Fulfilling the market’s needs above all else fits in with his own complaint about the increasing “Americanization” of the music. Today mainstream jazz appears to be overly concerned with the good looks and personalities of newer and newer supposed jazz singers and instrumental re-creators. “The whole marketing and packaging … of jazz implies that there is an audience we should be looking for, rather than an art we should be trying to work within,” he states ruefully.

While maintaining that “… claims that jazz is still only an American music have as little validity as saying that literature is only European or that film is still only American”, he also rejects the thesis by some that the future of creative jazz has shifted to Europe. “Jazz may be seen as a broader church outside America, but some of those involved have also been defensive about their approach to the music”. Europe’s Free Music improvisers for instance, he says, have not developed methods that prefigure the future of jazz, nor have the excessively over-composed works of many other jazz-like figures on the Continent.

This lack of more individualized and explanatory criticism is perhaps the only area in which Collier’s methodical and dispassionate study seems to fall down. While he describes notable, advanced big band work done by, he admits, somewhat obscure musicians such as Canada’s Paul Cram, Australia’s Paul Grabowsky and Austria’s Christian Mülbacher – the later two on arrangements of standards – he doesn’t explain why other large non-mainstream bands haven’t produced equally praiseworthy work. One would have liked to see a reasoned discussion of the compositions and arrangements of Barry Guy’s London Jazz Composers Orchestra, for instance or William Parker’s Little Huey Band; or perhaps an opinion on the Italian Instable Orchestra, Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra or ROVA’s large format recasting of John Coltrane’s “Ascension”. What about the large scale programs of Anthony Braxton, Butch Morris and Cecil Taylor?

Still everything can’t be crammed into a single volume. Furthermore Collier admits that the work of some acknowledged – and decidedly non-commercial and market-oriented – older advanced major theorists, composers and arrangers such as Sun Ra, George Russell and Thelonious Monk don’t particularly impress him either.

As it stands through, by encompassing methodical elucidation, historical context and personal examples, this book’s thesis can challenge any thinking musician who wants to write jazz compositions which exemplify both parts of that loaded phrase. Collier himself defines a perfect jazz piece: “The aim …is to create compositions that by relying on improvisers and what happens during the performance have the potential to change each time they are played.”

Trading in his writer’s keyboard for his composer’s music paper and conductor’s baton – well figuratively at least – Collier demonstrates how the strategies he writes about in The Jazz Composer: Moving Music off the Page can be applied. Directing 14 Jackson Pollocks is a two-CD set, mostly recorded in 2004 with a 14-piece band, plus a four-part suite on CD2, taped seven years previously with a mostly different 13-piece ensemble.

Collier doesn’t play but directs both live ensembles with what would probably now be designated as “conduction”. His matter-of-fact attitude on stage, while spurring the group through his complex music caused an artist friend to label his role as being “…like someone directing 14 Jackson Pollocks” – which provided the set’s odd title.

Throughout, the alternately heavy throbbing and gently pulsating ensemble(s)’ contributions add splashes of color and thick sinew to his compositions in broad brush or pointillist fashion. Although the overall effect is that of cascading polyphony, Collier’s compositional skill is such that individual and individualistic textures and timbres can be heard, no matter how many lines are unfolding at once.

Most of the pieces have been recorded in other versions by earlier Collier bands. But the idea of making it new is implicit in the performances on each track. Transpiring as a unified whole, most of the tunes fit together seamlessly so that except for published track divisions, it’s often difficult to tell when one ends and the next begins.

Sprinkled throughout are spaces for soloists to bring their own talents to bear on Collier’s carefully constructed framework. Some – trumpeter and flugelhornist Harry Beckett, tubaist Oren Marshall, saxophonist Chris Biscoe and Art Themen, bassist Jeff Clyne and drummer John Marshall – are known out-of-the U.K., for gigs with various jazz, jazz-rock and pop-rock ensembles. All acquit themselves admirably.

Set up by lyrical Beckett grace notes, “Alternate New Conditions, and some Out Blues” balances on ringing chromatic and slinky staccato guitar lines from Ed Speight intertwined with a slippery alto saxophone solo from Biscoe. Cushioned by interchangeable chordal measures, tutti band passages come to the fore then retreat under Trevor Tomkins’ hard drumming. Another antipodal setting is apparent on “Mackerel Sky, an Alternate Blues”, where pianist Roger Dean’s stretched arpeggios and trombonist Mark Bassey’s brassy slurs and brays are most evident. Later on, the two step aside, as sharp, snapping notes from the guitarist extend the narrative, while massed horns play swaying, contrapuntal lines.

“The Vonetta Factor” and “The Vonetta Conclusion” together become a more than 27-minute tone poem, with massed curling polyphony from the ensemble interrupted by sprightly tuba blats from Gideon Juckes and advanced piano chording. It’s also the only piece to encompass variants of electronics – probably from Dean’s keyboard extensions, possibly helped by Speight’s amp distortions. However, these side-band flanges and oscillated explosions are balanced by rattle snaps, drags and rebounds plus cymbal smack from Tomkins. A mid-section variant includes lyrical – and somewhat syrupy – soprano saxophone trills plus tremolo trumpet lines, with thematic motifs appearing and vanishing beneath chromatic rhythms or behind the soloists.

Re-harmonized, these compositional fragments are dangled, stretched and tightened as the theme advances, percolating slowly in the background as subsequent soloists – most prominently Biscoe on flutter-tongued baritone – have their say, with the final variation balancing on flighty brass triplets and metronomic piano notes. A coda, “The Vonetta Conclusion” downshifts into a snorting and note-masticating trombone showcase for Fayyaz Virji, while dabs of color are added measure by measure by other band members, finally reaching multiphonic stasis just before the turn around and summation.

With an equivalent high standard of thought and execution apparent in both Directing 14 Jackson Pollocks and The Jazz Composer: Moving Music off the Page each can be appreciated singly. Together they create the closest thing to a definitive picture of one composer and his work as is ever likely to come from Great Britain – or most other places.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: CD1 (Forty Years On): 1. Between A Donkey And A Rolls Royce 2. An Alternate Aberdeen Angus 3. An Alternate Ryoanji 4. An Interlude 5. Alternate New Conditions, and some Out Blues 6. An Alternate Eggshell Summer 7. Mackerel Sky, an Alternate Blues 8. An Alternate Low Circus Ballad 9. An Alternate Third Simple Piece. CD2: (The Vonetta Factor & The Alternate Third Colour): 1. The Vonetta Factor 2. The Vonetta Conclusion 3. An Alternate Mackerel Sky 4. The Alternate Third Colour: First Grooves 4. 5. The Alternate Third Colour: Second Grooves 6. The Alternate Third Colour: Third Grooves 7. The Alternate Third Colour: Out Blues.

Personnel: Harry Beckett, Steve Waterman and Alex Bonney (trumpet and flugelhorn); Fayyaz Virji and Mark Bassey (trombone); Gideon Juckes (tuba); Chris Biscoe (alto and baritone saxophones); Geoff Warren (alto and soprano saxophones and alto flute); Art Themen (tenor and soprano saxophones); James Allsopp (tenor saxophone and bass clarinet); Roger Dean (piano and keyboards); Ed Speight (guitar); Jeff Clyne (bass); Trevor Tomkins (drums); Graham Collier (conductor) Except CD2, Tracks 4 – 7: Simon Finch and Waterman (trumpet and flugelhorn); Ed Sarath (flugelhorn); Hugh Fraser (trombone); Oren Marshall (tuba); Warren; Karlheinz Miklin (soprano and tenor saxophones, flute and alto flute); Steve Main (alto, soprano and baritone saxophones); Themen (tenor, bass and soprano saxophones); Dean; Speight; Andy Clyndert (bass); John Marshall (drums) and Collier