In an arrangement for my ensemble I performed a lot of surgery on Duke’s classic Solitude. I’ll provide an analysis and score and musical samples in my next post, but I wanted to give a little background on the technique of gestural writing and how it can be used to extend jazz composition.
“Re-texturizing” is as good name as any for some of the procedures I use while a piece is undergoing such surgery. Traditional jazz arranging uses some tried and true techniques: reharmonizing chord changes, composing lines around the melody, and developing material. In Solitude I sought to rethink phrase length and ensemble sound, loosen up the textures, and radically change the point of view of the tune and the sound of the band.
In modern music we can rethink “melody”– it’s quite a plastic concept. Orchestrational texture can be used in a melodic way, so that the overall gesture becomes an idea, a nugget, a recognizable sound. Just because you can’t sing along with it doesn’t mean it’s not melodic.
This is nothing composers like Stravinsky and Berio weren’t doing 80 years ago. As far as altering broad ensemble gestures and utilizing cool and expressive ensemble textures to develop an idea, check out the work Legetti, Crumb, or for that matter any “modernist” composer of the last century. Even the minimalists had a different view of melody and how phrases are expressed over time by the ensemble.
Gestural writing in jazz asks a lot of the ensemble and of the listener, and it poses some tricky issues for the composer, not the least of which is properly communicating your ideas to the players. In an idiom where so much depends on “feel”, it’s easy to over-notate your music. How classical do you want to get? Where does improvisation fit in, or does it at all? What’s the role of the rhythm section? Is it supposed to swing, and how much?
Here are a few ideas to chew on:
- Disassemble and reassemble—use a few ideas and work them to death.
- Start simple. Dangle things from the top line, work from the top down.
- Let ideas resonate—break up or stop the time, breathe.
- Involve the rhythm section in music that isn’t accompaniment. Make them part of the overall texture, or give them leadership positions.
- Remember that with the proper feel, and with your players all on the same creative page, highly notated passages can sound like controlled group improvisation.
- Use the whole group to create forward motion, not just the rhythm section. Write out your ritards and accelerandos in time.
- Don’t overwrite (or at least not too much!) Open up ideas; create headspace for the listener; allow things to happen.
- Don’t be afraid to take a chance on something! You can always jettison or revise an idea.