Jazz Composition Blog

Allen Myers – Poster Presentation “Inspiration in the Development of Form”

Brad Mehldau DMA Program Notes of a piano recital – discussion on his use of consonance and dissonance

BMI Jazz Composers Workshop

Bill Holman Interview

Earl MacDonald Blog:    Composing       Bob Brookmeyer rehearsing Vanguard Orchestra,     Arranging for Westchester Jazz Orchestra    Stealing from McNeely

George Handy arranger and composer of Boyd Raebrun Orchestra, Dissertation by Benjamin Biermann

Gil Evans Arrangement of “My Ship” w/ Transcription by Jim Martin

Herb Pomeroy – The Pocket Herb (notes from Herb Pomeroy’s Line Writing, Duke Ellington and Jazz Comp Courses and a second set of notes from Pomeroy’s Line Writing and Ellington classes)

Inside the Score in the 21st Century: Techniques for Contemporary Large Jazz Ensemble Composition by Tyler Dennis

International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers

Jacob Collier – Music Theory Interview

Jazz Continuum Collected Writings – Keeping the Peace by Graham Collier

Jazz Arranging and Composing Books

Scott Healy’s Jazz Composition Blog: Writing, Arranging and Listening

Scott Healy Blog

Tim Davies  – jazz part 1, jazz melody and voicing part 2,

UNC Jazz Press

 Bob Brookmeyer

The Life of Bob Brookmeyer 

A Study of BobBrookmeyers’ Compositional Stytle for Large Jazz Ensemble dissertation by Stephen J. Guerra Jr.

Darce James Argue

Darce James Argue’s Blog – Part of the Carnegie Hall Musical Exchange

Darce James Argue Interview

Performance at Berklee with the Rainbow Big Band

Duke Ellington

Smithsonian Online Virtual Archive

Duke Ellington Jazz Composition Study Group Los Angeles

Duke Elington and Billy Strayhorn Jazz Composers (Smithsonian Albert H. Small Document Gallery)

The International Duke Ellington Music Society 

Arranging Ellington: The Ellington Effect by Darcy James Argue – Article discussing the unusual voice leading in just a few bars of Ellington’s Mood Indigo.


John La Barbera

John La Barbera Jazz Arranging Interview Part 1

John La Barbera Jazz Arranging Interview Part 2

Jim McNeely

“Lickety Split”: Modern Aspects of Composition and Orchestration in the Large Jazz Ensemble Compositions of Jim McNeely: An Anyalsis of “Extra Credit”, “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and “Absolution”

Jim McNeely Website – Study scores can be purchased in the store section

Mostly Music Blog – interview with Jim McNeely

OmniTone Interview

Village Vanguard Orchestra

Maria Schneider

Maria Schneider Website

Maria Schneider Videos includes advice to young composers, composer’s block and more

Flexible Motifs

Motifs are the building blocks of music construction.  They help to define a theme and distinguish it from someone else’s music. Melodic, rhythmic, contours, articulation and timber all play a role in the defining of your themes.  Repetition of the motifs and the implementing of variation techniques allow our ideas to develop into strong musical identities. Contrasting motifs allow initial ideas to sound fresh once again as they return.  The more use of repetition of the melodic motifs and return of themes, rhythmic motifs, form, harmonic progressions or harmonic entities, the more the listeners attention can be brought into focus.

Expectations, delayed gratification of an expectations and the fulfillment of an expectation gives the composer or improviser tools for engaging the listener.  Too much change over too long a period of time and the average listeners attention may be lost. Expectations delayed for extensive long periods of time will put a much greater demand on the listener and once again may mean that you lose the listeners interest.  Both of these points of course depend on the listener’s musical knowledge and experience as a listener. Too much repetition with not enough variation or contrast may as a result bore the listener.

Consider for a moment contour, articulations and timber.  These elements of a motif or theme may provide a source of inspiration for varying traditional melodic motifs, linking contrasting motifs or become the seeds for new themes. As an outgrowth of what has come before, they can lead the listener into new directions. Utilized either individually or in combination, contours, articulations and timber may open up directions for your music to unfold, as you consider moving away from specific melodic, harmonic and rhythmic devices typically used to define a theme.

The shape of a contour that is repeated, possibly in the form of a sequence, will provide in time its own identity. Study Jimmy Rowles ballad “The Peacocks” for a good example strong contours.  When you focus on contour(s), the pitches of a motif, intervallic relationships and rhythm can change dramatically and yet still show a relationship to what has come before. The more repetitive and distinct the contour, the easier it will be recognized.  Consider the following motifs extracted from McCoy Tyner’s “Blues on the Corner” solo. Six distinct contours can be observed that help organize his solo. Most appear as four note groupings.  Whether consciously considered or not on his part, the repetition of these shapes cannot be denied as these contours occur throughout the solo and help define his improvisation. Having six to draw upon make their recognition less obvious to the listener. Considering the speed at which these improvisation occurs, I feel the organization of the contour motifs are sensed rather than understood on the part of the listener.



Up – Down

Down – Up

Up – Down – Up

Down – Up – Down

Articulation patterns do not really need to rely on melodic motifs, rhythms, harmony or contour. Altering of various articulation patterns over time can lead to new motifs. Use of repetition of the new alterations will allow the listener to sense the variation and organic development.

Timber motifs would not rely on melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, contours or articulations for identity. In my dissertation Kaleidoscope, based on Sebastien Japrisot’s novel “Trap for Cinderella”, many elements of music were used to define two characters whose identities were distinct. Over time the two themes, performed by the alto saxophonist, with their distinctive qualities become blurred by their combination. Timber becomes the final clue as to the identity of the main character, an amnesiac, for the listener. Rhythms from the main thematic statement have been altered to a point that they are no longer useful for determining the identity. As rhythms have been augmented in the first and last of these phrases, the contour, while present for the specific theme, is not recognizable either to the listener.

The following is an excerpt of the abstract from my dissertation that explains the role timber plays in the concluding phrases of the piece.

The organization of Kaleidoscope involves three reference pitches (B = amnesiac, C = Do, and E = Mi), as well as the three themes (Jeanne, Do, and Mi). After the presentation of themes and the saxophonist’s cadenza, a series of shifting variations reflects the amnesiac’s confusion by combining various parameters of the themes, and hence blurring our memories of the personalities that the themes represent. These parameters, which include rhythms, contours, synthetic scales (and their relation to either whole tone or octatonic harmony), and timbral indications for the soloist as either jazz (edgier or bright tone) or classical (dark rounded tone) are juxtaposed to confuse our perception of their relationship to the original state of the themes.

The final phrases reveal the soloist’s interpretation of the amnesiac’s identity through his/her application of the appropriate timbre to the concluding phrases or specific concert pitches.

Timber can also become apart of the process of revealing melodic motifs of a theme. The constant shifting of timbers becomes a motif in and of itself.  Listen to Jim McNeely’s arrangement of “The Fruit” on his CD Group Therapy to expereince how the orchestration of the timberal shifts in a pointallistic manner slowly reveals in fragments the theme amongst improvised lines. He engages the listener in discovering the the theme in a very spontateous way.

When used in combination with timber, any other parameter normally associated with a motif (contours, articulations, specific rhythmic, harmonic or melodic) become aural reference points as the composition evolves. The more distinctive the timber, the easier the aural signpost will be for the listener. This could be the sound of a trumpet in a harmon mute with a flute doubling it, a very low or high note by a single instrument that appears out of nowhere or a dissonant chord that is orchestrated the same or similar manner with each return.

A New Order Groove (2009)

Inspired by the big band writing of Chuck Owen while attending the International Jazz Composers’s Symposium several years ago, I set out to compose a work that paid tribute to one of his compositions.  The Jazz Surge big band was so impressive that I picked up every CD his band had available at the conference. My choice of composition was “Mo Leids” which is a sequel to his earlier work “Lieds”. I guess my composition “A New Order Groove” could be subtitled “Much Mo’ Leids”.  Though I am not sure if Mr. Owen would agree.

This piece was written for Kansas City based trumpeter Clint Ashlock and his New Jazz Order Big Band. The opening of the piece begins very similar to “Mo’ Leids”.  The “New Order Groove” is a funky jazz-rock style and explores the intervallic aspects of the blues scale.  Half step, whole step and minor thirds are exploited to achieve flexible direction for my phrases.

Improvisation functions for texture, transitions and in the traditional featured solo and collective sections. Texturally, various soloists interact with melodic statements in the opening section in an unpredictable manner to keep the listeners focus constantly shifting.  My goal was to knock the listener off balance a bit and yet still engage them. After an extensive set up leading into the main theme, two traditional solo sections follow featuring the tenor sax and Clint on trumpet.

Click several times on the score to enlarge.

At letters T to X featured soloists introduced one at a time. A vamp drum solo is followed by a vamp bass and drum solo.  Letter V introduces the bari sax into the mix.  Within four bars slowly the band starts to respond to the soloists.  Over time each new voice improvising interacts with the others to additively increase the density of the texture.

At letter X a heavy demand is placed on the 1st tenor sax, bari sax, trumpet 3 and trombone 2 to create and hold a groove without the assistance of the rhythm section. From Y to BB, once through the alphabet it was time to double up on the rehearsal letters, the whole band eventually joins in with ever increasing lengthening and overlapping phrases slowly overtaking the soloists. Each soloist one at a time take their place back into the interactive layers of their section in the band.  The same approach happens earlier during the tenor sax solo when prodding interjections by the band eventually swallowed up the soloist.

Another example of textural development occurs during Clint’s solo. The solo starts with trumpet and rhythm section. Each section leading up to letter T slowly increases rhythmic activity and background figures continue to extend into longer sixteenth note phrases. By letter S the whole band is backing Clint with call and response phrases heard from soprano sax and Alto 2, fast moving lines in the tenor sax and trumpet 2, syncopated figures by the trombones with trumpet 3 and 4, and a bass line outlined by the bass, baritone sax and 4th trombone.

Body and Soul Suite (2009)

CMB-2412-2For the 70th anniversary of the Body and Soul recording by Coleman Hawkins, I wrote a three movement suite with the intentions of having it performed by my jazz orchestra. I was asked to perform in the Northwinds Big band concert that happened to coincide with the day of the anniversary. I agreed to play with the understanding that my piece be performed on the concert. This saved me some time organizing a band as the director had musicians and a few rehearsals already scheduled. Unfortunately after three rehearsals in preparation for the concert, 43 degree weather shut down our outdoor concert.

My original intentions were for the suite to be much longer than three movements. I simply ran out of time to extend it several more movements in length. Once I was done, I went on to my next composition and did not look back to extend further. The future may hold a few more movements.

My goal was to pay tribute to the improvisational work of Hawk. The first challenge for me was to study the solo and determine what the building blocks, motives, for composing the suite would be. After this, my main concern was the first movement. Do I start constructing my own themes or do I somehow acknowledge the recording? Chances were quite good that a good portion of our audience would not have even heard the original recording. I decided to write a transcription of the original recording with just a few twists.

The orchestration was based on my tenet. The group consists of an alto, tenor, and Bari sax, two trumpets, two trombones and rhythm section. Both the alto and bari double as well on flute and bass clarinet for extended colors for the ensemble. With the tenor center stage, I was left with six horns and rhythm section for building the suite. My choice of a tenet is based on an early instrumentation of the band Either Orchestra.

In analysis of the recording I discovered what appeared to be multiple levels to Hawk’s lines as if to imply his own counter lines or playing a duet with himself. I decided to score horns coming in and out on the solo outlining the different levels. This means that the horns must move in and out of phrases along with the tenor soloist. Many players thinking as one with Hawk’s sense of phrasing. This would be a challenge for the band and hopefully at the same time open up an appreciation to his masterful solo. How do I write the parts? Do I simply put in rests between the phrases or do I write out the entire solo with cues? I chose the later and in addition to shrinking the note size for the cues, I enlarged the size of the main notes for each horn player. In addition to the shadowing of Hawk’s solo I included the original background accompanied horn figures and then altered them rhythmically to complement the rhythms of his improvisation.

Sometime in the early 90’s a Picaso exhibit was held at the Cleveland art Museum and featured a performance by jazz tenor saxophonist David Murray who was commissioned to write “The Picaso Suite” based on the first unaccompanied tenor saxophone solo which was also recorded by Coleman Hawkins. Since the event was sold out, I was able to listen to the concert broadcast live on WCPN Cleveland Public Radio. During intermission of the concert, but before the performance of the suite, the radio station played the original “Picasso” recording. This opened up the idea of allowing my soloist the opportunity to pay homage to Hawk’s “Picaso” in a similar manner. Between the movements the soloist sews the seams of my suite with their own take on Hawk’s improvisation.

The second movement entitled “Looking Forwards and Backwards” transfers the listener from the 1939 recording to something quite unexpected. The movement starts off with a straight eighth syncopated bass pedal point and leads into a modal composition with interpretation of motives extracted from Hawk’s solo.

The third movment, “Hawk’s Blues” continues to explore motives in a straight ahead swinging minor blues.

Closing to the Third Movement

The transformative nature of the suites last two movements allow each to stand very much on their own. Often the third movement is performed by itself.

The world premier of this work took place on April 18th 2013 at the Liberty Performing Arts Theater  in Liberty Missouri.


Moose the Mooch (2010)

Originally arranged for the Kansas City based contemporary ensemble Blackhouse Collective, the most recent version is for big band. My goal was the unexpected. Infusing a jazz standard with the unexpected was where the fun began for me as I set out to put my own stamp on the contrafact of “I Got Rhythm”.

The extended introduction consist of a drum solo with fragmented improvised manipulations of motivic cells drawn from the melody stated by the horns. These phrases are further fragmented at times when they are divided across different sections of the band creating a Klangfarbenmelodie (pointallistic effect). No harmony is stated though a few clusters surrounding the motives are added for spice.

Click on score for larger version

Once the melody is stated at letter K, a syncopated groove established with parallel fifths attempt to keep the listener off balance and harmonically vague. The pointallistic approach continues in the horns as the melody is stated providing shifting colors from various members diving in and out of the phrases. The bridge provides a momentary release as the bass references the chord changes in a chromatic and syncopated way.

The first solo following the statement of the theme starts off with traditional Rhythm changes. Unexpectedly for the next two chrouses minor major seventh chords are substituted for the original changes. The relationship of these new chords also change over time leading to unpredictable harmonic direction. Over the first two A sections and the bridge where a minor chord is heard, a minor major seventh is substituted. The first bar Bb7 to Gmi7 becomes GmM7. The second bar Cmi7 F7 becomes simply CmM7. This pattern continues until the last A section starting in bar 201. The minor major sevenths are added a half step above the expected minor chords. Bb7 to Gmi7 being treated as an altered G7 becomes a bar of AbmM7. In the next bar the Cmi7 to F7 becomes F#mM7 a half step above the dominant. As the third chorus begins further exploration of substitutions continue. The overall sound is of passing diminished whole-tone scales that push us away from the standard progression.

Coming out of the Melodic Minor harmonic background, the syncopated fifths in the low register return with a short eight bar interlude by the horns pushes into a one chorus soli section with more traditional harmonic progression. Compare the different chourses as the soli section enters with the following choruses for the tenor sax solo. The unexpected returns as the progression continues to explore reharmonized variations on the progression for further chromatic exploration.


A = Bb7 G7 Cmi7 F7 Dmi7 G7 Cmi7 F7 Fmi7 Bb7 Eb7 Eo7 F7 (1 bar) Cmi7 F7

A = Bb Bo7 Cmi7 C#07 Dmi7 C#o7 Cmi7 Bo7 Bb7 Bb7/D Eb7 Eo7 F7 (2 bars)

B = D7alt./Eb (2 bars) G7alt./Ab (2 bars) C7alt./Db (2 bars) F7alt./Gb F7(#11)

A = Bb7 G7 Cmi7 F7 Dmi7 G7 Cmi7 F7 Fmi7 Bb7

Tenor Solo:

A = Bb7 Db7 Gb7 F7 Ab7 G7 Gb7 F7 Bb7 E7 Eb7 A7 Bb7 G7 Gb7 B7

A = E7 G7 C7 F7 D7 Db7 C7 B7 Bb7 Bb7/D Eb7 Eo7 Ao7/Bb (1 bar) Bbo7 (1 bar)

B = AmM7 EbmM7 DmM7 AbmM7 GmM7 DbmM7 CmM7 F#mM7

The last A section of the first chorus took one player by surprise during a reading because the changes for the rhythm section are different than those for the tenor soloist. Here is the progression for each part.

Tenor Sax:

A = AbmM7 GbmM7 AbmM7 GbmM7 BmM7 EmM7 AbmM7 FmM7

Rhythm Section:

A = Bb7alt G7alt Cmi7 F7alt Dmi7 G7alt Cmi7 F7alt Fmi7 Bb7alt Eb7alt (1 bar) Bb7alt G7alt Cmi7 F7alt

Similar harmonic patterns from the beginning of the tenor solo return at the top of the second chorus. The last A of the second chorus lands on an F pedal. In the last four bars we get a foreshadow of what is to come as the texture in the horns thickens as they slowly enter coming in on the and of beat four in each bar playing any low note they wish. The effect is percussive and potentially very dissonant.

Improvised low note of choice for percussive effect

The third chorus of tenor solo finds the band once again in standard chord territory. In the bridge I have a dissonant chord rescored as each new rhythm enters. The chord is constantly reorchestrationed and plays against the tenor part in minor major seventh harmony, a bassist creating his own atonal bass line and the guitarist and pianist playing what is only marked as dissonant chord with the rhythms of the previous choruses and of beat four rhythm. The reorchestrated chord was an attempt to have a static chord change in color over time.

Another interlude of sorts develops for 25 bars staring at letter DD involving the whole band ensues with continued exploration of klangfarben melodic snaky lines passing from one horn to another as the drummer fills between the phrases. Floating fifths return leading into a shout chorus of sorts that is similar in texture to the preceeding interlude. Dissonace builds during the bridge leading into an inverted version of the contours of the melody broken up in a pointallistic style amongst the various members of the band. The pitches of the inverted melody are choosen by the band members themselves. The pull of tonal progressions leading to chromatic altered style harmony find its way to atonality.

At letter JJ the return of the main theme arrives. Unlike the early version, this one quickly breaks down as slowly more players are asked to only follow the contour and rhythms while choosing their own notes.

Atonality increases slowly to blur the melody

The bridge at KK brings the band to half time and slowly more and more players are asked to improvise a short solo, thickening up the texture as the last four bars accelerate into LL where the band returns to the original tempo. At this point the themes original contours, are stated and the band improvises note choices once again as more and more horns enter leading into the tag. The tag also has improvised note choices and accelerates to the end where a one bar drum fills leads into a Bb stinger.

Entire band improvises on the contour of the theme.

Shifts in color was achieved with not only passing the melody amongst the different sections, but also from changing mutes in the brass and with Alto 1 doubling on flute and tenor 1 on clarinet. It was the contour and the rhythmic nature of the theme “Moose the Mooch” that led me to choosing this piece for the Blackhouse Collective. I felt it was possible to still recognize the basic elements of the tune despite pitch choices by the musicians. Early on in the work, cluster voicings and the stretching of the harmonic territory were utilized for increasing moments of surprises for the listener and to prepare the way for the ending. Atonality slowly creeps its way into the fabric of the work allowing for a major climax in the closing bars of the piece. Due to its length and limited rehearsal, it did not make it on the Blackhouse Collective concert. The score examples here reflect the reorchestrated version for big band.  The chart now sits in the folders of Clint Ashlock’s New Jazz Order Big Band here in Kansas City.

Id (1991)

The title “Id” is borrowed from Freud’s Personality theory. It is a name for the instinctual part of behavior. Instinct describes the quick process of composing this piece for big band. It was written while attending Indiana University and is dedicated to Domonic Spera. Mr. Spera’s big band gave the premier and a second performance at the Indiana Music Educators Convention in 1991. A year later I found Mr. Spera had incorporated the piece for discussion and listening as a part of his advanced jazz composition class. I was pleasantly surprised to say the least. The dissonance of the main theme draws on the influence of Debussy’s use of exact parallel voicings as well as Duke Ellington’s cross section voicings. With each voice played by a different instrument among the different sections of the band, the dissonance of the minor second and the major seventh between voices I feel is further enhanced. I was looking for a striking sound to this angular theme.

Harmonic Structure of the horns voicing

Id Score page 3 The composition attempted to bring free and organized sections together for a raucous high energy groove. It is an up tempo 3/4 piece with rock and free jazz elements. Solo sections vary from a completely free section for the sax soloist, to ostinato figures with cross rhythms amongst the different sections of the band as background figures for the trumpet and trombone solos. The rhythmic figures were influenced by a study in African Rhythms back in the 80’s with the Ohio Chamber Orchestra and Cleveland Ballet tympanist George Kitely at Baldwin Wallace University (formerly known as Baldwin-Wallce College). Id page 10 Bob Brookmeyer gave some worthy advice upon hearing the piece years later while I was attending University of Missouri at Kansas City Conservatory. His advice was to never let the success of your piece be entirely dependent on the soloists. My recording had some wonderful soloing by some exceptionally talented young musicians but that did not stop him from offering his wisdom. His other piece of advice was drawn from his early years studying music history at the UMKC Conservatory. He recommended that I study the long expansive melodic lines of Gregorian chant. He also believed that a solo section should not occur until it is the only thing that can happen. Upon hearing “Shockwaves” for jazz octet, a work of mine from the mid 90’s, he felt I had reached a better balance than I had in “Id”. You can read about the form of Shockwaves in the Inspiration for Development and Form poster presented at the International Jazz Composers’ Symposium.