Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Composers Group at the 2010 Dordogne Jazz Summer School

Stuart and Billy on trumpet, Vincent on sax, Dieuwke on flute, Dorian on bass, Tony on baritone sax, the other Tony on drums and myself on the keys. I started the group out with a strange assignment that has actually worked in my favor many times over the years. I asked each person to write down a letter from the music alphabet on a piece of paper, for us to use to create a musical theme. The series of tones had an odd sound at first. Each person played it separately on their instrument, and we likened it to something you would hear in a Hitchcock film – very dark and noir-ish. We tried the idea using different rhythms, and also experimented by rotating the notes around in a different order. After 10 minutes or so, we were starting to accept and even enjoy the sound. We then tried putting chords underneath the notes, and were shocked that suddenly, something that seemed so strange at first, now sounded quite beautiful.

I like this exercise, because sometimes, as a composer, it can be so difficult to start writing a piece. What notes do I choose? What if I don’t pick the right ones? What if I do all this work, and it doesn’t become a hit? By selecting something random, we can get going on the actual work (or you could call it play) – experimenting and toying and considering and choosing. And we can almost do it fearlessly, because we haven’t yet put our idea on a pedestal, making us afraid to mess with it or mess it up.

We had a temporary snafu in our schedule after losing our original bass player, so we began rehearsing one of my tunes titled, “Something For You.” (This is one that I feel comfortable playing the bassline on piano.) Someone in the group, I think it was Stuart, suggested that the B section of the head would sound nice as a flute solo. I thought that was great, so we tried it, and then decided that it would sound cool in that spot if the horns played harmonies underneath the flute. So we spent time arranging the notes of the chords for the two trumpets and two saxes. Everyone seemed pleased with the end result, and happy to have been part of the process.

Another exercise we did later in the week was to listen to our original notes-out-of-a-hat and the chords we had put under them, and imagine what the next rhythmic idea could be. Everyone sat quietly, jotting down their thoughts, and then each person played back what could be the “answer.” Each idea was different, yet they each sounded valid. Rather than asking the students to pick the next notes, I just asked for rhythm. With only one thing to choose, the notes actually flowed very easily from them.

We performed four of my tunes for the Friday concert – Monteton Blues (up tempo), No Brainer (a slow blues), Something For You (a happy little tune) and Lemonade (a very quick blues). The day before the concert, I was looking around the stage for something percussive that we could use in our performance. Something unexpected, and hopefully, something from the back of the room, rather than from the stage. I noticed the pots and pans hanging from the ceiling, and was imagining the owner, Patrick, banging on them to start our piece. Then I remembered the bell. Every evening, someone rings a bell when they are about to close the bar. And this same bell is used to announce lunch and dinnertime. I asked Dorian about it, and he said to ask Josh, one of the young guys who works in the kitchen. Josh was excited about the idea of incorporating the bell into the piece. But he wasn’t sure where the bell was. I spotted Manu, the owner’s son, who is a fabulous drummer and just happened to be home for a couple of days between gigs. He said he would get the bell to Josh, so everything was worked out. Except for the fact that we couldn’t really rehearse the opening, it just had to come together in the moment.

I had mentioned in one of our group sessions the importance of quiet, dreamy time for creativity. I also suggested that when there is a deadline, our creativity can kick into high gear. I noticed that my brain was not able to shut off until the moment we performed on Friday night. All week, I kept thinking, what else could we add to the music and our performance of it?

Our group was the first to perform on Friday evening, so it seemed fitting to start with Monteton Blues. The players were lined up and ready to go. Rather than count them off, I pointed to Josh at the back of the room, and he wildly started shaking the bell. Then it was, “A-one, a-two, a-one, two, three, four” and off we went. Great fun, and everyone did a great job!

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