Jazz composers typically start out as jazz instrumentals, who for one reason or another decide that they would rather play and record their own music. This was certainly the case with me. Though I had enjoyed playing in big bands for years, one thing had always troubled me about big band jazz music. As soon as someone started to improvise no more than eight measures would typically go by before the horn sections started playing background figures, and these figures usually got in the way of the soloist. Fairly early in my playing career I formed an opinion that the only environment where a soloist could truly have the freedom to express his ideas was in a small group.
Once I began writing, it didn’t take me long to appreciate the compositional craft employed by the great instrumental composers; the inventive counterpoint, the lush harmonies, the brilliant orchestrations, and the organizational structures that would (hopefully) hold the listener’s attention. Though I wasn’t interested in playing this music myself, I found myself wondering if there was a way that a jazz composer could employ this level of compositional sophistication while preserving the integrity of the improviser’s art form. I concluded that it was possible, provided the composer had sufficient knowledgeable of both the compositional and improvisational crafts.
Telling musician what notes to play, how to play them, and when to play them may work in classical music, but it doesn’t work in jazz where self-expression of the individual is the essence of the music. Yet jazz ensembles, especially larger ones, require some “regulation”, at least a framework, if not an arrangement. Any conductor will tell you that the more performers there are the more difficult it is to get them to play together. Music that is totally improvised can be difficult to control. One might argue that such a system limits the number of musicians that can perform at any given time; too many musicians playing the wrong thing at the wrong time and the performance slips into chaos.
I believe that the solution is to strike a balance between the two extremes, one that offers a framework that enhances the performers’ ability to play together as an ensemble, while at the same time providing as many opportunities as possible for the creative expression of the individual. Such an arrangement, as demonstrated in Turnaround, offers the best of both worlds.