With a fun summer now firmly in the rear view, Fall this year beckons with many cool facets; amid several ongoing projects the main focus now is the release of t e s s e t e r r a. Recorded in NYC last October/November — can’t believe it’s been almost a year! — this music is the realization of one of my longstanding dreams: wedding two of my favorite ensembles — classic jazz trio and string quartet — as a vehicle for both a heightened level of writing and of trio playing. The ensemble comprises my trio with Jared Schonig (drums) and Matthew Clohesy (bass) and the great NYC-based string quartet, ETHEL.
For t e s s e t e r r a, the tune list is all iconic song repertoire, ranging from Hoagy Carmichael (Georgia On My Mind) to Paul McCartney (Blackbird), Crosby Stills & Nash (Suite: Judy Blue Eyes) to Cole Porter (All Of You) — even Sting (Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic) to Chopin (Waltz Op. 64 no. 2.) All deployed with varying degrees of compositional diffraction, the intent being to balance a jazz trio’s improvisational nature with the inherent intricacy of true string quartet writing — and of course to achieve a result that will delight the listener.
I’m very excited to report several other key developments in conjunction with this release; foremost is my new relationship with the U.K.-based label Ubuntu Music. I’ll give a more thorough report on that in a later post, suffice to say I’m very enthused about Ubuntu and feel this could be home for many projects. Also, specific to this project, I’m practically delirious over two other items: my CD cover will be a painting by legendary American painter Alex Katz, and my longtime friend, collaborator and former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky wrote the liner notes. All in all quite a ‘high art’ outing (if I do say so myself.) And yes, with the Alex Katz cover art it’s practically a foregone conclusion that we will do vinyl.
O F A E S T H E T I C I N T E R E S T
In my description of t e s s e t e r r a, I said it was "a vehicle for both a heightened level of writing and of trio playing." You’ll notice I used the word ‘writing.' That’s intentional; I increasingly find myself using the term ‘writing’ to describe that part of my creative work. This is because the inherited labels ‘arranging’ and ‘composing’ have become, for me, semantically unsatisfactory.
Technically, ’arranging’ refers to a treatment of a piece of music originally written by someone else — that piece’s ‘composer.’ Over time I’ve come to think of this legal definition as overly simplistic and therefore imperfect — indeed often even inaccurate. Especially when bringing another term into the conversation: orchestration, the beyond-schematic skill of specifically notating what is to be played by each instrument. In the case of a jazz-centric project such as t e s s e t e r r a, orchestration also includes the careful ‘mapping’ of sections where improvisation is to happen.
The reality is that most composers have some method of outlining their work that precedes the nuts & bolts orchestration, e.g. they don’t start a full symphonic score before they’re pretty sure of how the whole melodic theme will play itself out. Therefore when they do start orchestrating you could say that they’re essentially arranging their composition.
Arrangers also start with a general outline — the real ingenuity in arranging is inventing the new treatment of the chosen pre-existing work, i.e. the ‘broad strokes’. But no one who lacks orchestration skills is seriously considered to be an arranger. When someone hires an arranger they expect to receive charts which the ensemble will look at during the performance, i.e. having a cool idea for a new treatment/version of a known song is all well and good but if you’re unable to realize it in a practical way it’s not worth a whole lot.
So the commonly understood definitions of composing vs. arranging, especially when also factoring for orchestration, can in some cases be deceptively hard to pin down. For instance, compared to Beethoven or, for that matter, Duke Ellington, a simple, folksy pop song can seem not that ‘compositional.' But it’s legally defined as a composition simply because it’s totally original, i.e. it never existed before.
Things can then get really confusing — artistically if not legally — when new arrangements of pre-existing material are conceived and executed with a standard of expansive imagination and detail that clearly push them into the realm of composition; this is the case with a lot of
‘re- imagined,' contemporary arranging work, including t e s s e t e r r a.
Professional arrangers have been dealing with this paradoxical conundrum forever — legally, no matter how much ingenuity one brings to arranging work, it’s still just arranging because someone else, the composer, wrote the original tune. It’s not that this view doesn’t have merit — obviously it does. But it’s a complex subject and the fact is that ‘arrangers’ have been getting screwed for decades and everybody I’ve ever dealt with in the music business acknowledges that.
So my answer, semantic though it may be, is to say that I’m writing and let it go at that. (If you’re still reading I hope it was interesting.)
Until next time, blessings & listen well.