Tag: Third Stream music

Interviewing the Interviewer: A Conversation with Ethan Iverson

Who will interview the interviewer? I’ve always wondered at the asymmetry in interview situations. As a cussedly un-hierarchical thinker, I find myself asking why one person’s opinion matters more than the other’s. This sense of discrepancy was heightened last summer when I was interviewed for Ethan Iverson’s blog, Do The [email protected]. Ethan is, of course, in addition to his role as writer, interviewer, and general chronicler of the music of our time, a very widely regarded jazz pianist and a composer in his own right, so it felt awkward that my personal history and opinions were receiving such marked emphasis.

Luckily Ethan and I have an ongoing relationship (unfortunately not a feature of most interview situations), so I had plenty of opportunity to ask him if he himself had ever been interrogated in a similarly in-depth fashion. Sure enough, it emerged that he hadn’t. Since I knew I had a guest-blogging run at NewMusicBox in the offing, I thought that a great way to top it off would be to interview the interviewer, to take the occasion to learn some things about Ethan’s history, development, and interests that I hadn’t known before.

As NewMusicBox is geared towards composers, we thought we’d take as our subject Ethan’s passion for classical and contemporary music, from the jazz-eyed perspective. If you didn’t know it already, you’ll see that Ethan has an extremely interesting and idiosyncratic take on new music based on years of serious study and experience from which I think we can all both be entertained and learn quite a bit.

Ethan Iverson walking across a roadblock in the middle of a street. (Photo by Jimmy Katz)

All photos by Jimmy Katz.

PZ: You were raised in the jazz tradition. What was your first contact with classical music? With contemporary music?

EI: These days everything is accessible. But back when I was a teenager in small town Wisconsin, it was so hard to get any information.

I was determined to become a jazz pianist. However I also could sight-read pretty well and played Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart at an amateur level. I didn’t have a piano teacher. I just went for it. There wasn’t much 20th-century music around, but when I could find it I read though the easier things of Bartók, Robert Starer, Kabalevsky, Tcherepnin, Flor Peeters, and Khachaturian.

In jazz I developed a real love of Paul Bley. I didn’t realize it at the time, but his great work of the 60s has the ambience and texture of modernist European classical music. It’s abstract, and his two in-house composers, Carla Bley and Annette Peacock, had a modernist sense of flow.

PZ: It’s amazing that you had no piano teacher at all! Could you mention some specific Paul Bley albums for readers who might not be familiar with his work?

EI: The one I knew best at the time is Ballads. Closer and Mr. Joy are two other classic works.

When I moved to New York in 1991 to go to college, one of my first connections was you! You showed me Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, Arnold Schoenberg. You probably don’t remember this, but I gave a little recital at NYU of the Bach E minor Partita and the easiest atonal music I could find: Schoenberg’s Op. 11 and Op. 19, the Webern Variations, Babbitt’s Duet and Semi-Simple Variations.

PZ: I do of course remember that concert! It’s funny you considered those pieces easy, because in fact it’s a very ambitious program.

EI: Well, you are right, it was certainly too ambitious for me! I definitely didn’t play it well.

The Babbitt piece I really liked was Three Compositions for Piano. As you will remember, Babbitt was at all the new music concerts, especially if his music was programmed, which was all the time. Never lacking for gumption, I introduced myself and told him I had just purchased the score to Three Compositions. He gave me his phone number: the next day I called him and he gave me several corrections to the score. Sadly, it was way too hard for me to really work on back then, although I kind of learned the notes to the first movement at a slow tempo. Sometimes I wonder if I might get back to it someday.

Around that time my girlfriend got me the job of rehearsal pianist for the Gregg Smith Singers. The first day was Stravinsky’s Mass with Robert Craft guest conducting. The Sanctus movement of the Mass has an exposed slow quintuplet that used to be a serious rhythmic challenge to the average oboist. In rehearsal with Craft, I somehow kind of nailed that quintuplet the first time (probably a mistake as much as anything). Craft looked over at me and muttered, “Not bad.”

That tiny exchange was an extremely helpful inspiration: almost an injunction to keep learning about classical music.

PZ: That’s amazing that you worked with Craft! Do you have any other impressions from that experience?

EI: I was the rehearsal pianist for Craft just that one time, and I’d never worked with a conductor before. However the whole Gregg Smith Singers experience was great. Gregg loved all sorts of music, and in addition to a steady diet of modern choral composition he would give masterclasses in the Monteverdi Vespers. I asked a lot of questions, and he was always very kind. Gregg must have liked my enthusiasm for learning; he suggested I play Hindemith’s The Four Temperaments with orchestra at his music festival in Saranac Lake. I refused, thinking (quite rightly) that it was beyond my capabilities.

Through that job I briefly met many composers, including several that have gone on to be important in my more recent studies: Hale Smith, Louise Talma, William Duckworth, and Leo Smit.

PZ: So what direction did your continued investigation of classical music take?

EI: There used to be a dusty and overstuffed music store on Broadway just above Houston called (I think) Lee’s Music. Lee had piles of sheet music at discount prices, and I bought much of the standard piano repertoire there. Stravinsky’s Serenade in A was a key purchase. I vividly remember reading the opening pages and thinking, “This is my future.” Eventually I listened to every Stravinsky work. The other composer that had such an impact was György Ligeti, whose complete work is relatively easy to acquire and listen to.

PZ: Before your career took off with The Bad Plus, you worked for many years as the musical director for Mark Morris. Can you tell me how that came about?

EI: One thing that was clear to me in the 1990s was that I needed to keep working on my ideas. I was still planning on being a jazz pianist, but I was in no rush to try to crack the secret of how to have a career in that music. To make money I did a lot of stuff, especially playing in a tango band with Pablo Aslan and Raul Jaurena and accompanying dance classes at Martha Graham.

The dance class work led to playing for Mark Morris’s company class in about 1995 or so. Eventually Mark asked me to be the rehearsal pianist for a full production of Rameau’s Plateé. At the first rehearsal Mark played everybody the complete opera on the stereo. To my surprise, when I checked something against the piano, the piano’s A was more like an A-flat on the record. I had sort of heard that Baroque performance used a lower tuning than modern A=440, but this was my first time encountering it in a professional situation.

At the end, I went up to ask Mark about the discrepancy between piano and the recording. He was changing, and I accidentally caught him between dance clothes and street clothes. Indeed, he was entirely naked when he got interested in my question and offered a learned and extended disquisition on 440, 415, and the varieties of contemporary interpretation of Baroque pitch.

I listened carefully. When he finally finished I said, “You know, Mark, I’ve never discussed intonation with a naked man before.”

Mark gave me a wicked grin and replied, “Stick around, baby!”

Which I did: Not long after the premiere of Plateé, I became Mark’s music director [and stayed] for over five years. This is when I really learned something about conventional European classical music. Mark Morris has an incandescent mind. I have often said, “I didn’t get to play with Miles or Mingus, but I did work for Mark Morris.”

I didn’t get to play with Miles or Mingus, but I did work for Mark Morris.

In addition to watching his work every night, I got to play in the pit, and sometimes the other musicians were big stars. Somehow the very first chamber music from the standard repertoire I really worked on was Schumann’s Five Pieces in Folk Style with Yo-Yo Ma.

Later I met Mark Padmore through Mark Morris and we performed Schubert’s Winterreise together a few times. To this day I don’t know why I got to have these kinds of profound experiences, but I assure you I took detailed notes while they were happening.

I have several more fun stories about famous classical musicians from that time with Morris.  Simon Rattle came to a gig in Philadelphia, where were touring the marvelous dance V to the Schumann Piano Quintet. Afterward Rattle was standing around waiting to talk to Mark, and there he was, stuck next to the musical director. Rattle smiled at me and said, “Nice rubato in the Schumann!”

Of course he was just being nice, but it’s also true that we had played the piece many times and that I (along with the other musicians in the pit) had shaped a fairly unusual version of the score that really clung to the choreography onstage.

By the way, by this time I had figured out I needed a steady piano teacher and was working intensively with the brilliant Sophia Rosoff. When the [Mark Morris Dance Group] went to Florida that gave me the chance to take a lesson with Sophia’s friend Robert Helps shortly before he died in 2001. I hacked my way through the Roger Sessions Second Sonata in front of him. I thought this was a good idea because Helps was a renowned interpreter of Sessions; indeed, I was at a Merkin Hall concert of “Helps plays Sessions” that was also attended by Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, Garrick Ohlsson, and Alfred Brendel. After listening, Helps asked, “How long have you been working on this?”

A couple of months.

“I’ve been working on it since 1946.” He closed the score. “Let’s look at the Chopin études you know instead.”

It went on to be a great lesson and post-lesson discussion. Helps is still an underrated composer. His recording of Quartet (not the more familiar Piano Quartet, but the solo work from a hard to find Desto LP) is one of the finest documents of a composer-pianist that I’ve heard.

PZ: What do you think is the relationship between jazz and contemporary music? Of what value is contemporary music to you as an improviser?

EI: Many major jazz musicians know a lot about European classical music, then and now.  I treasure the liner notes the great Herbie Nichols wrote for his first 1956 Blue Note LP, which begin, “Sometimes I burst into laughter when I think of what the future jazzists will be able to accomplish,” before going on to cite Villa-Lobos, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Piston, and Bartók as inspirations.

These days I think there can actually be too much “classical” sounding stuff in jazz.

However these days I think there can actually be too much “classical” sounding stuff in jazz. In a master class I heard Paul Bley warn about this. Bley thought it was better for young jazz musicians to study Louis Armstrong than Alban Berg.

Indeed, it is important to remember that any Dexter Gordon record has so much more meaning and validity than most modern nerdy music-school jazz connected to formal composition.

Taking that a step further, in no way do I feel that the greatest jazz is lesser than the greatest 20th-century composition. Indeed, I’d argue the reverse. The best of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Ornette Coleman with their most sympathetic collaborators is clearly the greatest 20th-century music.

Back to present day jazz: The Bad Plus recorded a faithful arrangement of The Rite of Spring, which in our rendition sounds like a lot of modern jazz except that the pitches are better. I can’t speak for Reid or Dave, but for me part of that was a little tweak to some of my contemporaries: “Look, if you want to jump in these waters, why don’t you hang out with these kind of masters, too?”

At any rate, Paul Bley’s warning be damned, I am committed to some kind of blend and can’t stop now. I certainly appropriate Stravinsky, Ligeti, Richard Strauss, Alfred Schnittke, and Thomas Adès in my improvisations.

As an American musician, I’ve developed a strong taste for the pillars of American classical music: Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Conlon Nancarrow. It is astonishing how bad some of Copland is, but his best stuff remains essential. (In jazz we mostly reference Copland through the prism of Keith Jarrett’s appropriation.) Ives is kind of a must: he’s also an easy resource for the improviser. Nancarrow is a similarly obvious musician to spend some time emulating. (On YouTube there’s a version of James P. Johnson’s “The Charleston” à la Nancarrow. I thought that made sense because James P. was also a master of the piano roll.)

A more recent American master is Frederic Rzewski, and several years ago I created a series of “improvised” arrangements of folk songs inspired by his North American Ballads. On my recent recording The Purity of the Turf, I improvised a noir-ish “Darn That Dream” that has clear overtones of Adès and Rzewski.

PZ: What excites you the most about written contemporary music?

EI: In all the art I admire, there’s some kind of voyage of discovery. After a first hit of intoxication, you open the door and explore the work or the genre further.

On the other hand, I don’t want to work too hard. Obviousness can be a virtue, not a sin. Perhaps some professional composers regard Ligeti as “too easy,” but he’s just about perfect for my speed.

My tastes in atonal music have evolved. Now I like stuff that is chunky and theatrical. I don’t listen to much Babbitt or Carter any more, but I do listen to a fair amount of Aribert Reimann, Harrison Birtwistle, and Ralph Shapey, all of whom offer more discernible narratives than Babbitt or Carter.

Of course it is still very hard to absorb this music the first time through. It’s best to pick a single piece and listen over and over again. For Reimann, I’ve heard Neun Sonette der Louize Labé many times; for Birtwistle, I know The Triumph of Time very well (and also wrote it up for DTM); for Shapey, my standard is Sonata Profundo. After repeated listens the harmonies become old friends and the story becomes clear. This is a very rewarding process.

A lot of it comes down to piano music. I haven’t heard everything yet, but by the time I’m done I’d like to be aware of all significant 20th-century piano music. The dimensions of this marvelous repertoire are simply extraordinary. If the piece at hand isn’t too hard, I might be able to play through the simpler sections, audit a recording, then sight-read it some more. Of course I don’t understand everything about all the music I survey casually, but for my general output I don’t need to. It just sinks into the subconscious.

In my way I’ve tried to shine light on neglected corners. I produced a concert of three major mid-century women composers—Louise Talma, Miriam Gideon, and Vivian Fine. I have interviewed George Walker and Alvin Singleton, and am working towards making an album of piano music by composers who interacted with jazz on a deep level. That project would include not just great black composers like Walker and Singleton but also Benny Goodman’s pianist Mel Powell and Thelonious Monk’s arranger Hall Overton. Ron Carter told me I had to be aware of Noel Da Costa. I chased down Da Costa’s Extempore: Blue, an obscure piano piece that is like a slower and bluesier Cecil Taylor. I love it!

The point for me, really, is to simply keep learning. Repeatedly playing Talma’s Alleluia in Form of Toccata or Overton’s Piano Sonata in concert has been great for me in every way—great for my chops, great for my focus, great for my imagination. In this category I must put our recent adventure with your new composition Clockworks, certainly a great learning experience!

PZ: What schisms in your mind exist in 2016? Do you hear any music coming from the younger generation of composers that you find striking? What do you think of “alt-classical,” if anything? Of the music that follows on the heels of any of the above trends?

EI: I’ve always wanted to stand out of the crowd, be someone different. Most jazz pianists love French classical music, especially Debussy, Ravel, and Messiaen. I have rejected that influence. I’d rather get my added-tone harmony straight from Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Red Garland, musicians who prioritize the blues.

I don’t listen all that much to many young American composers.

So bear my contrary nature in mind when I say I don’t listen all that much to many young American composers—although recently I was exploring the work of Scott Wollschleger and Jason Eckhardt, two authentic and inspiring American composers who couldn’t be more different.

PZ: I’ve known Jason for years, and I agree his music is very heartfelt, full of passionate immediacy and poetry. I don’t know Wollschleger as well, though I remember being moved by Music Without Metaphor, which you played at your solo set at the IN/TERSECT Festival.

EI: Neither Wollschleger nor Eckhardt is alt-classical or indie-classical though.

Indeed, I’m not entirely convinced that the influence of Philip Glass and Steve Reich—both of whom certainly are geniuses—is always benign. The phrase “alt-classical” suggests to me adding an overt influence of rock to minimalism. These are tricky waters that might end in unconscionable banality.

It’s actually hipper for actual rock musicians to appropriate minimalism. Radiohead and Sigur Rós are perfect examples, not to mention any pop, rock, or hip-hop producer worth their salt these days. For that matter, The Bad Plus album Made Possible has some of those references, especially in the pieces written by Reid Anderson and David King. (Anderson’s “Seven-Minute Mind” offers kind of a Glassian bassline meeting the dance floor, with my piano improv being rather Lisztian.)

Jazz is American. The best jazz has usually been made by Americans. There is great fully notated music everywhere, but those born overseas have the richest heritage to draw from, especially in terms of romantic harmony. I already mentioned Adès, Reimann, and Birtwistle. Among the other living composers I wish I had time to explore thoroughly are Poul Ruders, Lera Auerbach, Hans Abrahamsen, Alexander Goehr, Magnus Lindberg, Wolfgang Rihm, York Höller, George Benjamin, Georg Friedrich Haas, Kaija Saariaho, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Tristan Murail, Benedict Mason…I feel like the more names I add the more I’m going to leave out.

Most of those fabulous composers went through the crucible of high modernism before setting into a mature and comparatively accessible style. They all also operate within their tradition. For the Germans, the ghosts of Brahms and Bruckner are blessedly present. For the Russians, the French, the Nordics, whoever, there’s a connection to an internal tradition of masterful formal scores and at least some kind of general audience attuned to that national language. For example, there’s a superb new album by Gavin Bryars, The Fifth Century, which builds on the heritage of earlier English composers John Dowland, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Herbert Howell.

It is harder for contemporary American composers to navigate personal identity, especially faced with so much indifference and lack of government support.  At this point our general audience “great composer” is John Williams. One step down in popular recognition but one step up among the cognoscenti, John Adams has been awarded keys to the kingdom and status as “our great American composer.” I mean, I like listening to both John Williams and John Adams sometimes—at their best they are awesome—but neither interface with the hopes and dreams of classical music like any of the living European composers on my above list.

The late Peter Lieberson impressed me as someone who found a charismatic voice while remaining true to the highest standard of esoteric compositional craft. After he died, I wrote a survey of his complete recorded work. Getting to know Alvin Singleton’s output was a revelation. Next up for my interview series on DTM is James Newton, whose formal scores are astonishingly beautiful. Singleton and Newton share a deep love for Mahler. I’d usually rather listen to Strauss or Bruckner, so their perspective broadens my worldview. There’s always something to learn!

Through Mark Morris I heard a lot of Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, Colin McPhee, and Harry Partch. Compared to conventional classical music, that’s all outsider art, and it’s great music, too. No one writes a prettier tune than Lou Harrison, although I admit I have seldom used him as a resource for my own purposes. The current composer making the most of that tradition is John Luther Adams, and I support the wide acclaim given to Become Ocean.

PZ: How does all of this relate to your compositional practice—specifically, what is your catalog of compositions written for non-improvising ensembles? What are your future plans as a composer?

EI: I haven’t written much for non-improvising ensembles. Truthfully I doubt it would be a valuable use of my (or anybody else’s) time for me to work on becoming a professional formal composer, although it’s pretty easy for me to sit and write something when there is a good enough reason for the piece to exist.

I doubt it would be a valuable use of my (or anybody else’s) time for me to work on becoming a professional formal composer.

I did write a short string quartet for Brooklyn Rider, Morris Dance, dedicated to my old boss, and there’s a piano suite without improvisation for Dance Heginbotham, Easy Win. A long time ago there was Kolam with Zakir Hussain, Yo-Yo Ma, and the Mark Morris Dance Group. I have a suspicion I’ll be working on something for Mark Morris again soon. Looking ahead to 2018, the American Composers Orchestra has asked me to write some kind of modest piano concerto.

My style in that world is somewhat neoclassical and dance-based. I write at the piano by ear, and only use some mathematical system for generating pitches when a lot of notes are required. A good way to get a classical group to groove is by writing some fun polyrhythms.

My piano technique keeps improving as well. Sophia Rosoff isn’t teaching anymore, so now I am enjoying a continuous stream of revelations from John Bloomfield.  Later in 2018 I will be playing the Schnittke Concerto for Piano and Strings with A Far Cry in Boston. I was reading the piano part last week. While five years ago I would have thought it was too hard, now I think it is perfect for me. At the least I certainly understand the style. Indeed, playing it feels like I’m playing in The Bad Plus.

In my daily piano practice I’m still working on the blues and rhythm changes with a side helping of Bach and Chopin; 43 is a bit old to feel like I’m not settled into a total groove yet, but I’m still taking in what is possible and making up my mind about what really works for my personal aesthetic. Mark Turner told me something once that I found helpful: “It takes us longer to be great now, since there is so much more to learn.”

Anyway, while I won’t rule out writing formal scores for others, I don’t see that process as a requirement to accomplishing my tasks. If a little ways further down the road I achieve some inarguably valid synthesis of jazz and modernist European classical, I’m reasonably certain that my own piano playing will be at the heart of that success.

Muhal Richard Abrams: Think All, Focus One

Muhal Richard Abrams sitting in front of the New Music USA mural (created by the staff at New Music USA in 2015)

Muhal Richard Abrams

A conversation at New Music USA
January 15, 2016—2:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Although very early on in our conversation Muhal Richard Abrams adamantly denied ever being anyone’s teacher, I learned more during the hour I spent talking to him than I had in most of my music classes. And yet, I feel like it’s almost impossible to adequately communicate what it is exactly that I learned. At the risk of sounding like a Zen koan, that is precisely what I learned.

Let me attempt to explain. To Abrams, there are no boundaries. Any label we put on something—fixed composition vs. spontaneous improvisation, group vs. individual, even old music vs. new music—is artificial and limits possibilities. From his vantage point, all dualities are contained within each other. All improvisations are compositions and all compositions begin as improvisations. A solo performance can inhabit multiple personalities and an orchestra can be the embodiment of a pluralistic individualism. As for old and new, “None of it’s real because the situation that is characterized as old often times is revisited and found to be useful for some future purpose. And something new can be visited and found that is reminiscent of something that’s old.”

Though an iconic figure in the history of jazz, the 85-year-old composer/pianist also eschews the word jazz since it only describes certain aspects of his music.

“The word jazz can be confusing,” Abrams points out. “But if we say music, it could be anywhere. It’s just music. The next question, what type of music? Okay. No type of music. Just sound.”

And indeed over the past seven decades, Abrams has created music that some listeners might categorize as blues, Latin, classical, and all kinds of jazz from swing to bop to free. He’s even experimented with electronic music.

“That came about because sound can be produced in any way that you feel that you’d like to produce sound,” Abrams explains. “It’s just electronic sound. … But sound, that’s the thing, because before music can be called music, it has to be harnessed and structured from sound. Music is a by-product of sound. Sound is the thing. Sound.”

While the music he has created is extremely individualistic, it is also the by-product of his humility and deep sense of community. I titled this feature “Think All, Focus One,” which is the name of one of his most fascinating explorations involving electronics, the closing track of an album released 21 years ago on the Black Saint label. It’s as succinct and definitive a summation I can conceive of for a creator whose life’s work embraces and reconciles such a broad range of aesthetics.

This Spotify playlist containing over seven hours of music by Muhal Richard Abrams merely scratches the surface of his immerse and highly varied discography.


Frank J. Oteri: There’s a beautiful quote by you at the end of your liner notes for a record that came out in 1987 called Colors in Thirty-Third which I think sums up your belief system about music: “May the past, present, and future be ever before us as one.”

Muhal Richard Abrams: Well, I think I was trying to be in any time. I was thinking infinitely, if that’s possible. And I believe it is. Whatever I said could be in any time because it applied to what I feel is your essence, your inner focus.

The CD cover for Colors in Thirty Third (Black Saint, 1987)

Black Saint released Muhal Richard Abrams’s Colors in Thirty-Third in 1987

FJO: So many people describe music as either being “old music” or “new music.” But sometimes the lines can be very blurry. For example, in jazz, changes in style happened very rapidly; the transition from swing to bop and then cool and free all happened in a relatively brief period of time. Your music incorporates elements from all of these styles. For you, it’s all part of the language. And your music tells us that we can do it all.

MRA: Well, it’s partly human language. We can’t separate ourselves from other human beings because we are expressing ideas and all human beings express ideas. I may express it through a musical continuum and a poet may it express through literary continuums, but it’s basically the same thing because when we confront the whole idea of movement or rhythm, all these different sections or areas have rhythm in common, you know. And human beings have rhythm and breathing in common.

So, in reference to people saying this is old or this is new, if it’s old for you, then it’s old for you. If it’s new for you, it’s new for you. But those are just terms that are useful to describe the particular mood that that person or those people are feeling. None of it’s real because the situation that is characterized as old often times is revisited and found to be useful for some future purpose. And something new can be visited and found that is reminiscent of something that’s old. Take women’s fashion or men’s fashion. We see it every day. You know what I mean? And we certainly see it in music. Why is it that Beethoven and Bach are current and present today and valid today? Why is Duke Ellington still extremely important? When we view him as an individual creator, there’s a lot to learn. We’re observing an individual’s output, and I think the fact that we are all individuals for some reason or other is the basis of real education.

FJO: When you started to answer my previous question you said that you express things in music that other people express in poetry. Before we began taping our conversation we were talking about visual art, which is another avenue for personal expression. What caused music to be the thing that you expressed yourself in throughout your life? How did you come to music?

MRA: I expressed myself in the visual arts first, though certainly not long enough in terms of a practice. I was attracted to all of it at the same time. But I applied myself to the visual arts and then music took over. That’s it. It just took over.

FJO: Was there any kind of crystallizing moment of hearing something?

MRA: I think I started remembering something. I think that’s what it was. In the visual arts also, I was remembering something because it didn’t seem like I had to learn it. It certainly required practice, of course. Everything requires practice because if you don’t practice, then you’re kidding yourself, in terms of developing and receiving really great ideas. I started remembering things and my musical memory started to dominate. It’s the best way I can explain it. It just started to dominate, so I just put the bulk of the practice in music.

FJO: Was there a lot of music in your household when you were growing up?

Cover for Eddie Harris's 1970 Atlantic album Instant Death

One of the most unusual entries in the Muhal Richard Abrams discography is his appearance as a sideman for Eddie Harris’s funky 1972 Atlantic album Instant Death.

MRA: I grew up in Chicago, and there was music all around. It was a blues center. I listened to all kinds of that. I grew up around Muddy Waters and all those guys. And there were a lot of great jazz musicians. And a lot of those great jazz musicians played classical music. So I was impressed with all of it. Then I got a chance to listen to regular so-called classical music. I was enjoying and appreciating that, and having the desire to learn how to compose all sorts of music because my training was like a street improviser. I learned to play standard tunes and what not like that. But I always held two situations at the same time: making up things and being with things that were made already. It all was happening at the same time.

FJO: One of the things that I find so fascinating about your development is that playing the piano and composing music are both things that you pretty much did without a teacher.

MRA: Oh yeah.

FJO: This is pretty extraordinary. Of course, there have been others who have done that, but there aren’t too many of them, especially not many who have taken it to the level that you have. But what’s ironic about that is that you have been an important mentor to so many other people, both your contemporaries and musicians from younger generations, yet you yourself had no such mentor.

MRA: I can certainly identify some people that I associated with that were older than I was around Chicago. I certainly learned a lot from them. But I don’t claim to be a teacher. I never have claimed to be a teacher. If someone claims that they’ve learned something from being close or around me or associated with me, that’s fine. Those kinds of things happen through association, but mentor or teacher? If people want to apply those terms, fine. But I don’t think of myself in that way. I love sharing and collaborating with people, young or old. There’s something to learn from each person’s individualism, and if I’m associating with you, then your individualism can tell me something that I don’t know anything about. And my individualism can possibly do the same for you, because we all, as individuals, have something that no one else has. As I tried to state earlier, I think that’s the basis of the real human education.

FJO: Well, one of the things that’s so transformative about small group improvisatory music—call it jazz or whatever you want to call it—in its history in America is that it is such a human music because it is about people spontaneously creating together and reacting to each other. So you can hear someone’s individuality, and it leads you down a certain path, and then they hear what you did, and it leads them down a certain path, and it’s this wonderful, fluid conversation between individuals.

MRA: We have used the word jazz, but any type of description of music, especially the word jazz, can be confusing because, like we spoke of earlier, some people say they like the old or that this is new and the word jazz has stuck with a lot of people as a certain type of activity, so it can’t describe anything past that for those people. But if we say music, it could be anywhere. It’s just music. The next question, what type of music? Okay. No type of music. Just sound. You know, because that’s what it is. Sound. Before it’s even organized into any kind of continuum that we would call music, it’s just sound. As we speak here, I certainly feel that every serious practiced output that has come about since the beginning of time, is good—and valid. A style name limits the scope or the focus and that turns out to be unfair to quite a number of people.

FJO: Jazz has certain associations for people and so does classical. It was interesting to hear you say “so-called classical.”

Cover for the 1981 album Duet featuring Muhal Richard Abrams and Amina Claudine Myers.

In 1981, Muhal Richard Abrams joined forces with Amina Claudine Myers for an album of duets for two pianos that explores a wide range of musical styles.

MRA: It’s the same. You’re putting a restriction on a vast area of activity. And, by the way, you alluded to the fact that one could learn from the other. Classical music is the same thing. It’s written composition, of course, but the great composers did a lot of improvising, too. All of them. When you play their music, you can tell. It’s not just mechanical. Rachmaninoff sat down and played ideas at pianos. I’m sure he did that. Then he said, “Well, I’ll make this a piece.” Certainly Chopin must have done that. But they were well-trained musicians, so they knew how to handle the material of harmony, rhythm, and melody, because you hear all those things. It’s just too human in its feeling and its activity to be strictly mechanical. As a composer, if you give me a score pad I could just sit right now—I don’t need to have a piano or anything—and I can just write; I don’t have to know what it sounds like. I know how to structure it. That’s one way. If I sit down at the piano and start playing and say, “Yeah, I like this. I’ll write this down.” That’ll sound a little different. So I’m sure in their case, they improvised a lot of things. But it’s quite different from a person that has had the experience of improvising as a focus; theirs was compositional as a focus.

FJO: So to take an improvisation and turn it into a composition, the lines can often be very fluid and very blurry, as they ought to be. And I think they always were, as you’ve said. But what are things that make something that was spontaneously conceptualized in the moment into something that could theoretically be something that you’d want to repeat and do the same way other times, again and again? What gives it that essence of compositionality? How does it go from being an improvisation to being a composition?

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's album Afrisong.

Muhal Richard Abrams’s 1975 album Afrisong is a collection of seven of his solo piano improvisations.

MRA: I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think what I’ll say is probably pretty similar in each case. Some things you want to keep for several reasons, but one of the main reasons is that you learned something from doing this. You were enlightened by it. So you want to keep it because it might have constituted an area where you solved something that you might have been having questions about. Let me try this. Let me see what this is like. Oh, I think I’ll write it down. Sure.

FJO: So when did that first start happening for you?

MRA: It always happened.

FJO: But you said that when you first started making music, you were improvising.

MRA: But I was doing that too, though.

FJO: So you were writing stuff down? How did you come to learn music notation?

MRA: Well, I came to a point where I wanted to be more technically enlightened about composing, so I started to study on my own. I remember they had these harmony books. They’re teaching people harmony out of a book. I’ll just go buy the books, and I’ll read the books. And so I just see what it is. I didn’t need the teacher. No disrespect to the teachers, it’s just my kind of feeling. I’ve always had a kind of feeling that I could teach myself if I could find the information somewhere because I had the patience to spend the time to try and learn it no matter how difficult the learning curve.

FJO: But there’s also another kind of learning that happens from working relationships. For many musicians, working as a sideman in someone’s group has been an analogous experience to being that person’s student. And there were all these great musicians you played with when they came to Chicago—like Max Roach and Dexter Gordon. This had to have been a learning process for you.

MRA: Oh yeah, on the stage—listen, that was it! You didn’t go up on the stage unless you could really complement the scene.

FJO: So how did those opportunities come about? How did Max Roach learn about you?

MRA: Mostly through Joe Segal, the person who had a venue called the Jazz Showcase. He had it at different clubs and things, but he really started with having jam sessions at Roosevelt University, so we would all participate in jam sessions. Then he started to bring in national and international entertainment and would hire us as sidemen for the people that were coming. That’s how that came about.

FJO: You attended Roosevelt briefly.

MRA: Very briefly. I was searching for a learning path. However, I found that I didn’t really need that either.

FJO: Well, there’s a quote from you I came across where you said you wanted to go there to learn about the music, but what they were telling you about the music wasn’t the same as what you were experiencing.

MRA: It was very basic, and I was performing more advanced type things than they were. But let me be fair to them. You know, if teachers are going to teach, they start with the basics. I don’t blame them for not having different information than I had from actual playing in the street. But, like I said, what I did decide is that the same literature that they had there to teach me, I could just get the literature and teach myself. That way, the pace by which I would learn the literature could be a pace that I would set. It would take me six months to learn that a triad has a positive and a negative, but you could learn that in two days.

FJO: I wish there was some recorded documentation of your performances with Max Roach.

MRA: No, we didn’t record. I performed with him, and it was great. That was some education. That was like a Ph.D.

FJO: And Dexter Gordon?

MRA: Same. And Sonny Stitt.

FJO: I’m also intrigued that you worked with a really great singer who’s not as well remembered now as she should be—Ruth Brown.

MRA: Yeah. Believe it. And Percy Mayfield. You remember Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love”?

FJO: What do you feel you got from working with Ruth Brown?

MRA: Her feeling was so great. It was a challenge to present the right complement every night. Just basic things. But my experience in Chicago around blues and different forms like that came in handy. I was ready to do it.

FJO: One thing that I hear, and I was wondering if you will agree with me or not, is I find your piano playing so melodically rich; the melodies just soar. It almost sounds like singing at times. Some pianists are really rhythmic, or percussive, or really big on harmonies, but I feel that your pianism is a very melodically flowing pianism.

MRA: Yeah, I guess it is. I don’t know. I feel a lot of worlds all at the same time and respect for a lot of worlds, even the percussive world sometimes. I do that, too. Actually, I think what it is for me is I’m composing. I think it’s basically that. I’m composing. And for me, there are two ways of composing: writing it on a paper and improvising. So when I’m playing the piano, it’s improvised composing or composed improvising. The memory of what you’ve been and what you are and whatever you will be comes out.

FJO: None of what you did with Max Roach, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Percy Mayfield, and Ruth Brown got recorded. But you did record with a group called Modern Jazz Two + Three.

MRA: Oh yeah. It was the first recording I ever made.

FJO: I’ve been trying to track down that record for a very long time, but somebody posted one of the tracks on YouTube—a composition of yours called “Temporarily Out of Order.”

MRA: George Coleman reminded me of that piece a couple years back. He used to play it. He sang it. I’m surprised that he remembered it.

The cover for the 1957 album Daddy-O Presents MJT+3

The first recording on which Muhal Richard Abrams appears is the 1957 Argo album Daddy-O Presents MJT+3. It was briefly re-issued on CD in Japan in 2002.

FJO: It’s got a great melody and some interesting chord progressions, but what strikes me about it is how different it is from what you started doing very soon afterwards with the Experimental Band. I don’t know the whole album, but judging from that one track, wonderful though it is, it is not experimental music. So what led you to go from straight-ahead type playing to wanting to really be open to the full range?

MRA: I was always that way. It’s just that I came to a point where I needed to express the more open type approach. You know, you evolve. So I came to that point and, because I was seeing it all the time through writing original pieces, I just decided to open it up. There were a couple of musicians around Chicago who agreed with that. And we just started opening things up.

FJO: But what’s interesting about what happened in Chicago with you and the other musicians there is that it was very different than similar developments with free music in New York and Los Angeles at the time. While you were opening things up, as you say, you remained mindful about earlier history and also about contemporaneous popular music. It was never experimental for the sake of being experimental. It was really about just having this open view, as we’ve been saying before, of being mindful of the past, the present, and the future all at the same time rather just making music for the future and forgetting about the past.

MRA: Well, I don’t even think that’s possible. People could fancy themselves doing what you just said, but I think basically people were trying to be composer-improvisers and the main generator was the individualism of each person. That is very important because I believe that individualism resulted in a scene with quite a few very strong individuals, like those that came out of the AACM. They were very strong individuals because they were encouraged and presented with a situation that asked them to present their individualism in concert. So there was a constant challenge to meet those challenges.

Cover for the 1985 Muhal Richard Abrams Black Saint album View from Within

On Muhal Richard Abrams’s 1985 Black Saint album View from Within, styles range from straight-ahead hard bop to free jazz, Latin, Chicago blues, and even contemporary classical music.

FJO: Since the past, present, and future are all a continuum, I’m going to jump decades ahead and then we’ll jump back. In the ‘80s you released a record with a very interesting title—View from Within. There’s an incredibly wide range of music on there. One track is Latin music. Another one is a full-on Chicago blues.

MRA: That’s right.

FJO: There’s also material on there that sounds like classical music, as well as stuff that sounds like straight-ahead jazz. But what’s interesting is that you describe all this as a view from within as opposed to the view from outside.

MRA: I’ve kept a better balance by respecting other things. Somehow it balances me to do that. Learning from another individual’s information—that’s extremely important.

FJO: Now in terms of balancing, to bring it back to the 1960s, your second LP—Young at Heart/Wise in Time—is like two completely different records. You reminded me of it when you were saying that sometimes you also get all rhythmic and percussive. There are sections on the ensemble side, Young at Heart, that are throbbing and really intense, especially in the interplay between you and the percussionist, Thurman Barker. But the other side, Wise in Time, is a beautiful, lush, at times almost Rachmaninoff-esque piano solo.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's album Young at Heart / Wise in Time (Delmark, 1969)

Muhal Richard Abrams’s 1969 Delmark album Young at Heart / Wise in Time is ideally suited to the LP format since it consists of two very different side-long tracks: a composition for ensemble and a sprawling solo piano improvisation.

MRA: Well, listening to people like Art Tatum, and also Rachmaninoff, it was sitting down getting a feeling of how the piano sounds as a complement to all these people. That’s all it was: Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Art Tatum, Monk. Just sitting down and being musical in that way, to explore how the piano can sound. I think that’s probably what happened in that instance.

FJO: It’s a perfect listening experience on an LP because you have the two sides, whereas on a CD or an online stream you don’t get that same sense of duality.

MRA: It was limited, but yet not.

FJO: Now, in terms of the composition-improvisation divide, how much was worked out in advance and how much was completely spontaneous.

MRA: The piano solos were improvised. Period.

FJO: Completely improvised?

MRA: Yes, that’s what I’m saying—just sitting down and respecting the fact that it’s important to make an effort to be musical and to explore, as best you can, how the piano can sound. So that’s a compliment to Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Chopin, Monk, Duke, and also one of my first influences on piano, King Fleming. I just mentioned him because he needs to be mentioned. He was the first pianist I heard who was a jazz pianist and was classically trained. The way he played the piano, he was aware of the piano sounding in a combination of manners—jazz and classical, all at the same time. He listened to a lot of people who were like that: Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum. But I think King Fleming’s influence as to how a pianist should sound hit me first and early, because he was the first pianist that I’d gotten close to who could play like that. And he had a large band, and the arranger who orchestrated for that was a trumpet player, Will Jackson. I need to mention him, too. I learned a great deal from both of these gentlemen. I learned performing in a jazz band from King Fleming and writing for a jazz band from Will Jackson. They’re both deceased now, but I think that other people should know about them.

FJO: Curiously, on your first recording date as a leader, in addition to playing piano, you also played clarinet.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's first album as a leader, Levels and Degrees of Light (Delmark, 1967)

On Muhal Richard Abrams’s recording debut as a leader, the 1967 Delmark album Levels and Degrees of Light he plays clarinet in addition to playing piano.

MRA: Well, I just feel musical with anything that I would apply myself to. I wanted to play the clarinet, so I just picked up clarinet and respected the fact—I practiced clarinet. I certainly didn’t stay with it as long as I could have, but I stayed with it long enough to do what I needed to do in terms of when I did perform with it.

FJO: And I imagine that it gave you other ideas that you might not have gotten on the piano, because of the different physical relationship it requires, producing sound with your breath.

MRA: It’s a different feeling because it’s a different mechanical manipulation. Sure.

FJO: This multi-instrumentalism is a hallmark of AACM members. In terms of the beginnings of the AACM, you were its founder as well as its first president. You were the person who brought these people together. But notions of hierarchy seem antithetical to you, as well as to aesthetics of the AACM overall; so how did that work?

MRA: There was no hierarchy. We all agreed to agree; sometimes we agreed not to agree. But we certainly agreed to contribute to each other’s efforts to express one’s individualism. And that was the basis of it.

FJO: So how did that whole thing come about?

MRA: Well, I had organized a band called Experimental Band, which was a precursor of the AACM. I needed a place to try out some of the newly learned things that I was educating myself about in terms of music through my studies. I needed a place to express those things. They were more open things. They weren’t things that you’d play in jazz clubs. So I organized what I called the Experimental Band. The musicians could come and experiment with composition and improvisation. We were of like minds. And so from there we came to a point where I collaborated with three other musicians to create a formal association based on the same idea. That’s how the AACM came about.

FJO: It began from a group, but it’s not a performing group per se. It’s sort of a composer collective, but it operates in a different way than most composer collectives. It came from this idea of not playing in clubs and finding alternative venues for this kind of music, but it’s not a venue in and of itself.

MRA: We presented our own concerts. We also created the venue for producing the music or, rather, for presenting the music. We created a venue through just renting a space and presenting the concerts. In other words, it was a total effort. We weren’t looking for a place to perform the music. We created a place to perform the music. And so it was all one.

FJO: There are two things that could be strong motivators for doing this. One is what you had said about making music that wouldn’t work in a club. Or maybe it was music that the club wouldn’t want necessarily because it didn’t fit with the definition of music the people at the club were interested in presenting or that they felt the audience expected from that club. But there’s also another motivator which is about creating a space for the kind of listening that is most appropriate for this music. To really be able to focus on it requires a different kind of space than a club.

MRA: Well, no. Not really. Let me say this. It could have been played in clubs. In fact, we did. We were in residence every Monday night at a club. We played the way we played, and the place stayed packed with people who wanted to hear what we were doing. So it could be played in clubs. It was just that it wasn’t regular gig music. People come to hear standard things. But certainly we played in several clubs and the night we played was the night that people would come to hear what we would do. So it could be played anywhere. In Chicago, it was like that. It could be played anywhere in the city.

FJO: The reason I wanted to talk about it now is because the world 50 years ago is quite different from the world today in terms of venues. Nowadays, people who doing the most experimental kinds of things want to go back and play in clubs and suddenly clubs have become an even more tolerant space; whereas a half century ago there were more limits on what you could do. I think the notion of what is possible in a club now is very different.

MRA: Certainly you go to clubs here in New York now and you might hear anything because it’s wide open to individualism. I think that is the real factor that brought this type of situation to the fore, because individualism is not something that’s strange. You know what I mean? People today expect to hear an individual doing an individual type of presentation.

FJO: I’m also curious about this in terms of recording and how most people experience music. We didn’t really talk about listeners so much in this, like the ideal listening experience for somebody hearing what you or what other people associated with the AACM do. I don’t expect you to speak for the others, but to speak for yourself. What is an ideal listener in terms of focus on the music? Should the person be paying full attention? Could the music just be in the background? So many people nowadays walk around wearing headphones and listening to music as they’re going through their daily routines. Is that an okay way to experience this music versus being completely focused on it and having it speak to you— and have only it, ideally, speak to you?

Cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's 1995 New World CD One Line, Two Views

Another provocatively titled Muhal Richard Abrams recording is the 1995 New World album One Line, Two Views which once again demonstrates Abrams’s penchant for reconciling seemingly opposing aesthetics.

MRA: Well, let me ask a question. How many different ways can a person decide to concentrate? I think that question asks many other questions. If a person is concentrating and seriously listening, it could be through earphones walking down the street. I wouldn’t even attempt to try to say what would be the ideal situation or where a person should listen to music. I think they make that choice. But the fact that there are people who seriously want to listen to certain kinds of music—well, they’ll do it anywhere, even through earphones. You know what I mean? They’ll do it anywhere, if that is convenient for them, and they’ll just do it whenever they find a convenient time to do it. I think that’s the answer, because people are listening to all sorts of things and I think a lot of them are quite eclectic, too. I mean, they’re listening to all kinds of stuff.

FJO: Well, if they listen to you, they’ll be hearing everything.

MRA: [laughs] I don’t know about that.

FJO: To bring it back to those early AACM years, you were such an important voice in the Chicago music scene, and yet in the mid-1970s you moved to New York City and have been here ever since. What made you uproot yourself?

MRA: What can I say? It was just time to move. Chicago is a great place, but New York is a different kind of place. The intensity and the challenge is quite constant. I guess it was just time for me to do that. You’re swimming in a pond and sometimes you go where it feeds into the ocean.

FJO: You came to the ocean, but a lot of the things that you did here were similar to what you had done there. In New York City, you were a major force in developing the loft concert scene. So to some extent you brought a Chicago idea to New York.

Cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's album 1-OQA+19

The somewhat cryptically titled 1-OQA+19, Muhal Richard Abrahms’s first album as a leader recorded in New York City (in November and December of 1977) and featuring four other AACM alumni (Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Steve McCall, and Leonard Jones), is definitely a continuation of the ensemble music he was involved with in Chicago.

MRA: Well, I don’t know about that, but I didn’t intend to function in any other way except for the way I was functioning. I have to include other people, of course, but we all came to do what we do: presenting concerts, same as we’d been doing in Chicago. Now we’re in the ocean; we do it according to this space.

FJO: It was such a vital time for this music, but now, 40 years later, a lot of that scene has disappeared or has changed very fundamentally. Back then Roulette was a loft. It was Jim Staley’s apartment. Now it’s an official, street-level concert venue. It’s amazing that we finally have such a venue that’s dedicated to new, exploratory music. That’s wonderful. But I also think we might have lost some of the personal, home-grown, DIY quality that we once had when so many of these concerts were taking place in people’s own homes. With the way the real estate market has played out, the way demographics have changed, we probably can no longer have such a scene in quite the way that we had it back then.

MRA: You hit it on the head when you said real estate market. There’s a reason for that. The real estate requirement for higher rents caused people to just give it up in terms of maintaining those venues. It happened to quite a few, without naming them, as I’m sure you know. But with Roulette, his [Jim’s] perseverance in terms of what he wanted to do paid off, which is great.

FJO: But what’s interesting is now he’s got this great space, but it’s not a loft anymore. It’s something else. It’s a fabulous something else, but it’s a different listening modality. It doesn’t have the same intimacy. It can’t.

CD cover for the 2005 Pi release Streaming featuring Muhal Richard Abrams and George Lewis

The 2005 duo album Streaming, released on Pi, is a truly collaborative effort between two old friends and musical co-conspirators, Muhal Richard Abrams and George Lewis.

MRA: Well—and I’m sure you know this—you have to upgrade. You’re asking people for money, so you have to put it on a level where you can use that kind of money you’re asking for, if you’re fortunate enough to make those kind of contacts. But I think the music itself or the idea of the music and the presentation of the music hasn’t changed. At Roulette, they present a great variety of musical approaches. If anything, he expanded, but I suppose it has to be what it is in terms of physical structure in order to accomplish what it is that they want to do. If you do something for ten years, you say, “I want to do it again for the next ten years; however, I want to levitate and do it like this.” Things just have to grow. There’s a nostalgic feeling in reference to vinyl records and CDs, there’s a nostalgic feeling for the lofts and whatnot like that, but I think that the musical content in the lofts is still at play. It’s just not in the lofts.

FJO: So, for you, where are the ideal places where you would like to either play music or have your music played by others to be heard?

MRA: Oh, I don’t have any except for the AACM concerts. We’re still producing those concerts. But Roulette is a good place for having things done that are not AACM-type presentations. And Tom Buckner’s series does quite a few good things. I mean, I like seeing some things on his series that otherwise maybe wouldn’t be on an AACM series, some compositional things. I’ve done some things on his series. There are a few venues in Brooklyn. I don’t function in Brooklyn, so I’m not in touch with those other venues, except for Roulette. But they have other venues around that seem to be pretty consistent in presenting written and improvised music.

FJO: To bring it back to your music again, my all-time favorite piece of yours is The Hearinga Suite. I feel it has a foot in both of the worlds we’ve been talking about: that of composed improvisation and improvised composing—so-called classical music and so-called jazz. It’s a fluid interplay that is both at once—informed by both, yet neither. It’s its own thing. So I wanted to talk to you a bit about it and how it came into being. Do you feel it represented a turning point in your music because of its scale, both in terms of its length and the number of players involved in it?

MRA: No, I was always like that. I mean, it’s just happening. It’s a project that I did at that time, but in terms of the musical ingredients, they were always there. The idiom, the compositional makeup of the piece, that’s just me in that.

FJO: What does the word Hearinga mean?

MRA: It’s an expression, like a song—Hearinga—like a name or something. It has nothing to do with the music, but it’s an expression that is used to speak in reference to the music.

FJO: I thought it was about hearing, because it’s “hearing”-a. I thought you gave it the title as a way to focus listeners on hearing this multiplicity.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's The Hearinga Suite (Black Saint, 1989)

The Hearinga Suite, arguably Muhal Richard Abrams’s most ambitious work, was released by Black Saint in 1989.

MRA: That’s great, because certainly I intended for the title to provoke thought and wonder. But the intention was to bring a thought from the listener that would require the listener to deal with the listener’s self. You see what I’m talking about? It’s hard to explain, but I mean—it’s like I’m thinking and I’m looking at the table. I’m thinking about the table, and all of a sudden I’m seeing shapes within myself and getting questions and answers about something that I might not have been thinking about at all.

FJO: The individual movements go in so many different directions like, for example, “Conversations with the Three of Me.”

MRA: Oh yeah, that’s the piano thing.

FJO: I love that title, but there are so many more than just three of you.

MRA: Well, hey, right. But that’s rather metaphysical and also quite mundane at the same time. I used three improvised approaches.

FJO: So what are they?

MRA: There are three different moods, but they’re not moods that are separate. They’re played like a sonata. You play this slow, you play this a little fast, and then you play this fast. But it’s not exactly that type of thing because everything is improvised on the spot. The name came after the performance. All names come after the performances.

FJO: You also use a synthesizer on it.

MRA: That’s one of the moods.

FJO: Certainly there are things that can be done on synthesizers that are impossible to do on a piano or with other instruments. Even by the mid-1980s when you made this music, electronic music was largely a new sound world. So what brought you to use synthesizers, and do you feel that changed your language in any way, musically?

MRA: Well, let’s think of it this way: we’re actually talking about sound. We’re talking about music, but we’re talking about sound. So that came about because sound can be produced in any way that you feel that you’d like to produce sound. And that’s it. It’s just electronic sound. That’s the difference. There’s electronic sound, then the two piano sounds—three moods. Three of me, you know, a conversation with the three, so there’s an electronic part, and then there’s two different moods for the piano. So that’s the conversation, you know what I mean? But sound, that’s the thing, because before music can be called music, it has to be harnessed and structured from sound. Music is a by-product of sound. Sound is the thing. Sound.

FJO: You went even deeper into exploring electronic timbres in the ‘90s with “Think All, Focus One.” That’s probably my favorite of your electronic improvisations. It’s from another extraordinary album with a really great title: Think All, Focus One.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's album Think All, Focus One (Black Saint, 1995)

In addition to six compositions for septet, Muhal Richard Abrams’s 1995 Black Saint album Think All, Focus One contains a fascinating synthesizer improvisation.

MRA: Well again, here I have a provocative statement which has nothing to do with describing the music. It’s a statement that is intended to provoke, but not for control or anything. It’s just meant to provoke. It’s a feeling that comes together in that statement. You know what I mean? Think all, focus one. And I know what I get from it, but I don’t know what you might get from it.

FJO: Well what I think I got from it is that there’s all sound out there available to you, and you should be mindful of all of it: all styles, all possibilities of what you’re doing on any instrument, the whole breadth, the whole line between complete spontaneous improvisation to fully worked-out composition, as well as the rhythms and the melodies of all cultures. But despite thinking of all of that, you must be an individual.

MRA: That’s very good. That’s a nice compliment to the title, I must say.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's 2001 Mutable CD, The Visibility of Thought

In 2001, Mutable released a disc devoted to Muhal Richard Abrams’s notated compositions called The Visibility of Thought which includes performances by baritone Thomas Buckner, pianist Joseph Kubera, and the string quartet ETHEL.

FJO: Now when you write music for other people to play—like, say, the music you’ve composed for groups like the Kronos Quartet or ETHEL who performed a piece of yours for baritone and string quartet with Thomas Buckner, or the orchestra pieces you’ve written that have been performed by the American Composers Orchestra or the Janacek Philharmonic—these are situations where the musicians are working from written musical scores and they are performing this music without you. I imagine there is no improvisation in any of this music.

MRA: No. It’s written.

FJO: How does it feel to be apart from the music and for it to be fixed in that way?

MRA: Well, I’m improvising all the time, and I’m composing all the time. It’s the same thing. It’s the application that’s different. I am applying the approach to this orchestra with a written presentation, but it’s the same process. The difference is in the sense that I can make a certain kind of a texture with fifty strings. Four French horns can make a certain kind of texture. So I’m dealing with respect for the orchestra. That’s a component. I have elected to respect this instrument called the orchestra. And the possibilities of sound that can be gotten from treating it in a certain compositional manner.

FJO: But when you do something for an ensemble of improvising musicians, they bring their own individualism to the table.

MRA: I insist on it.

CD cover for the 2015 ECM CD Made in Chicago

Though released under the name of percussionist Jack De Johnette, this extraordinary live recording from a 2013 Chicago Jazz Festival concert in Millennial Park (which was released on ECM in January 2015) is truly a group effort by all the members of the quintet which also includes Henry Threadgill, Larry Gray, Roscoe Mitchell, and Muhal Richard Abrams.

FJO: And you’ve performed as a sideman with others and you bring your individualism to them.

MRA: That’s right.

FJO: But when you’re writing a piece for orchestra, the whole idea is that it’s all on the page. They’re following the notes, and then they’re following the conductor’s interpretation of those notes. There’s a lot less room for self-expression.

MRA: Well, but there’s room for self-expressions, plural. You follow what I mean? People who are adept at playing classical music, I mean really great orchestra people, interpret musical symbols in a manner that can conjure up all sorts of pictures and panoramic images in terms of what you feel and what you hear when you hear a piece played by a really good orchestra. The way they interpret what you put down, that’s another element. You’re getting a plural of individualism, a pluralistic individualism, as a result of all these people playing together and playing with each other. There’s something that happens with them. There are certain people that couldn’t play with them because they wouldn’t be able to transfer that, they maintain the orchestra feeling for whatever is going on. It’s very important to them. In those great orchestras, it’s very important what happens among them. And that’s the other element. See? So you’re getting this plural individualist situation that goes on with them. It’s hard to explain because I think that the whole situation of individualism is transferable in terms of what a situation might be in terms of numbers of people.

FJO: So would you be okay with them taking a lot of liberties with something you’ve written down? How much can they change it and have it still be your piece? How much give and take is there in that process?

MRA: But the orchestra doesn’t change. The conductor might want to—

FJO: Speed it up?

Cover for the 2010 Mutable CD Spectrum

The 2010 Mutable CD Spectrum features a performance of Muhal Richard Abrams’s orchestral composition Mergertone, a work commissioned by the Ostrava Days festival and premiered there in 2007 by the Janáček Philharmonic conducted by Petr Kotik.

MRA: Yeah, he might, but he doesn’t really change it, because if something sounds one way going at a slow tempo and you speed it up, then it’s a different mood. You discuss that with the conductor. And any changes, certainly a good conductor will consult with you before he make them; he’ll ask and make suggestions. And if you say, “No, leave it,” he’ll just leave it like that. So there’s always that collaboration. I mean, it’s a rare moment when a conductor will go off on his own, because he’s endeavored to interpret what the composer has written.

FJO: The structure is so large, so it requires a different way of working. There’s so little rehearsal time, so even if you wanted there to be room for improvisation in that context, there wouldn’t be enough time to make that work. Plus a lot of these musicians don’t have experience with improvisation and feel uncomfortable with it. But would you want to create such a piece?

MRA: No. To ask people who don’t improvise to suddenly improvise, it’s been my experience, you don’t get a great result. And it’s not the fault of the people. They’re great musicians and great on their instruments, but you’re asking them to do something that they don’t do! That doesn’t work out too good. You have to approach that situation differently. If you want improvisation, then you bring improvisation with you, so they don’t have to deal with it. And mix it.

FJO: The last thing I wanted to talk about with you is that on all your recordings, going back decades, there’s always a line stating how to obtain scores of this music. I wonder how many people have contacted you for scores and if they have then gone on to perform that and what those performances have been like.

MRA: Oh, I can’t speak to that. I don’t quite know what they do with it. They can do what they want with it. I don’t ask that they do anything when they get it. But usually they’ve listened to a recording and they try to stay as a close or true to what they heard. You know what I mean? Some people may change it, but what can you do? I don’t have any requirement beyond what I ask of myself.

Sixteen Jazz Composers’ Works to be Performed by Three Orchestras

The official logo for EarShot, the National Orchestra Composition Discovery Network

Between May and September 2016, three different orchestras will give public readings of new works for symphony orchestra written by a total of sixteen jazz composers as part of the third Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute (JCOI) Readings, a program coordinated by EarShot, the National Orchestra Composition Discovery Network. In addition to the reading sessions, the activities at the three orchestras—the Naples Philharmonic (May 25 and 26), American Composers Orchestra (June 15 and 16), and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (September 20 and 21)—will involve a variety of workshops and other opportunities for the participating composers.

The 2016 JCOI Readings are the culmination of a process that began in August 2015, when 36 jazz composers of all ages were selected from a national pool of applicants to attend the weeklong JCOI Intensive, a series of workshops and seminars devoted to orchestral composition held at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music in Los Angeles. After completing the Intensive, sixteen composers were given the opportunity to put what they learned into practice by composing a new symphonic work. The composers, working in jazz, improvised, and creative music, were chosen based on their musicianship, originality, and potential for future growth in orchestral composition. Each composer will receive coaching from mentor composers and a professional music engraver as they write their new works. Composers will also receive feedback from orchestra principal musicians, conductors, librarians, and mentor composers, throughout the readings. Each of the three orchestras will workshop and perform between four and seven composers’ new works.

Robin Holcomb, Sonia Jacobsen, Yvette Jackson, and Nathan Parker Smith

The four composers participating in the Naples Philharmonic’s readings (pictured from left to right): Robin Holcomb (photo by Peter Gannushkin), Sonia Jacobsen, Yvette Jackson (photo by Ava Porter), and Nathan Parker Smith. (Photos courtesy Christina Jensen PR.)

The Naples Philharmonic readings will take place at Artis-Naples Hayes Hall, with mentor composers Vincent Mendoza (composer/arranger), James Newton (JCOI Director; University of California, Los Angeles), and Derek Bermel (Artistic Director, ACO). The featured composers’ works will be conducted by Naples Philharmonic Assistant Conductor Yaniv Segal. The participating composers are: Robin Holcomb (b. 1954), a Seattle-based composer and singer/songwriter whose music draws on both her childhood in Georgia and her stints working among avant-garde musicians in New York and California; Sonia Jacobsen (b. 1967), a much-awarded composer, jazz saxophonist, and founding director of the New York Symphonic Jazz Orchestra currently based in Chapin, South Carolina; Yvette Jackson (b. 1973), a composer, sound designer and installation artist focused on radio opera and narrative soundscape composition from La Solla, California; and Brooklyn-based performer and composer Nathan Parker Smith (b. 1983), who leads the Nathan Parker Smith Large Ensemble which performs throughout New York City.

The Readings will include an open, working rehearsal on Wednesday, May 25 at 2pm, and a run-through of the composers’ pieces on Thursday, May 26 at 7pm. Both events are free and open to the public.

Jonathan Finlayson, Dawn Norfleet, Ben Morris, Ethan Helm. John La Barbara, Guy Mintus, and Brian Friedland

The seven participating composers in the ACO Readings: (top row, left to right) Jonathan Finlayson (photo by Scott Benedict), Dawn Norfleet, and Ben Morris; (bottom row left to right) Ethan Helm, John La Barbara, Guy Mintus, and Brian Friedland. (Photos courtesy Christina Jensen PR.)

The American Composers Orchestra’s readings will take place at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, with mentor composers Derek Bermel, Anthony Davis (University of California, San Diego), Gabriela Lena Frank (composer in residence, Houston Symphony), and James Newton. ACO Music Director George Manahan will conduct. The participating composers are New York-based Jonathan Finlayson (b. 1982), a disciple of the saxophonist/composer Steve Coleman who has performed alongside Mary Halvorson, Henry Threadgill, Von Freeman, Jason Moran, Dafnis Prieto, and Vijay Iyer; Boston-based Brian Friedland (b. 1982), whose music is rooted in jazz piano traditions but also shows his love of genres ranging from Balkan Folk to classical minimalism; New York-based saxophonist and composer Ethan Helm (b. 1990), who co-leads the jazz quintet Cowboys & Frenchmen; Israeli-born, New York-based jazz pianist and composer Guy Mintus (b. 1991), who has collaborated with master musicians from Turkey, Greece, Iran, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, and Mali; Ben Morris (b. 1993), a recipient of two Klezmer Company Orchestra Composers’ Prizes, three Festival Miami Composers’ Awards, and an ASCAP Morton Gould Award who is currently pursuing his masters’ at Rice University; John La Barbera (b. 1945), a composer/arranger whose music has been performed by Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Torme, Chaka Khan, Harry James, Bill Watrous, and Phil Woods; and Dawn Norfleet (b. 1965), a jazz flutist, vocalist, and composer residing in Los Angeles who is on the faculty at the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County and the Colburn School of Performing Arts.

The Readings will include a private, working rehearsal on Wednesday, June 15, and a run-through of the composers’ pieces on Thursday, June 16 at 7:30pm, which is free and open to the public (reservations suggested).

Hitomi Oba, Gene Knific, Anthony Tidd, Emilio Solia, and Amina Figarova

The five composers participating in the Buffalo Philharmonic readings (pictured from left to right): Hitomi Oba, Gene Knific, Anthony Tidd, Emilio Solia, and Amina Figarova (photo by Zak Shelby-Szyszko). (Photos courtesy Christina Jensen PR.)

Finally, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra readings will take place at Kleinhans Music Hall, with mentor composers Derek Bermel, Anthony Cheung (composer, University of Chicago), and Nicole Mitchell (composer/flutist). All of the works will be conducted by Stefan Sanders, associate conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

The participating composers are: Amina Figarova (b. 1966), an Azerbaijan-born, New York-based pianist and composer who studied classical piano performance at the Baku Conservatory as well as jazz performance at the Rotterdam Conservatory, Netherlands, and attended the Thelonious Monk Institute’s summer jazz colony in Aspen; Gene Knific (b. 1992), a pianist, composer, and arranger based in Kalamazoo, Michigan who has won seven DownBeat awards for his performances and compositions; Los Angeles-based saxophonist and composer Hitomi Oba (b. 1984), who holds an MA from UCLA in Music Composition and whose album, Negai, received a Swing Journal jazz disc award; London-born, Philadelphia-based Anthony Tidd (b. 1972), who has performed with Steve Coleman, The Roots, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Wayne Krantz, Meshell Ndegeocello, Common, and Jill Scott, and has produced albums by The Roots, Macy Grey, Zap Mama, and The Black Eyed Peas; and Buenos Aires-born, Brooklyn-based Emilio Solla (b. 1962), who has recorded more than 40 albums performing with Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo O’Farrill, Cristina Pato, and Billy Hart, and whose latest album, Second Half (2014), was nominated for a 2015 Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz Album. The Readings will include a private, working rehearsal on Tuesday, September 20, and a run-through of the composers’ pieces on Wednesday, September 21 at 7pm, which is free and open to the public.

JCOI is a new development in the jazz field, led by ACO in partnership with the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music in Los Angeles and the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University in New York. While many jazz composers seek to write for the symphony orchestra, opportunities for hands-on experience are few. Since the first JCOI readings in 2011 and with these new sessions at three orchestras, nearly 100 jazz composers will have benefited from the program and so far 27 new jazz works for orchestra have been created and workshopped. EarShot, the National Orchestral Composition Discovery Network, initiates partnerships with orchestras around the country; provides consulting, production, and administrative support for orchestras to undertake readings, residencies, performances, and composer-development programs; identifies promising orchestral composers, increasing awareness and access to their music; supports orchestras’ commitment to today’s composers and enhances national visibility for their new music programs. EarShot is coordinated by American Composers Orchestra in collaboration with American Composers Forum, the League of American Orchestras, and New Music USA. It brings together the artistic, administrative, marketing, and production resources and experience of the nation’s leading organizations devoted to the support of new American orchestral music.

(—from the press release)

Sounds Heard: Derek Bermel—Canzonas Americanas

Following a recent release of Derek Bermel’s music for full orchestra (the excellent album Voices on the BMOP Sounds label), this new collection focuses on Bermel’s work for that quintessential contemporary sinfonietta, Alarm Will Sound. Led by artistic director and conductor Alan Pierson, AWS’s one-on-a-part instrumentation has provided a proving ground for a generation of eclectic and beat-friendly composers, to whom Bermel has become something of a (youthful) elder statesman. While Bermel’s music shares many characteristics with that of the 30-something Brooklyn scene, it’s undeniable that his distinct style in many ways harkens back to Copland and Bernstein’s generation and that era’s fascination with American folk and jazz sources. This collection of Bermel’s music provides a helpful point of entry for those curious to know just what has made this composer so consistently stand out: his music’s fusion of quasi-minimalist beat-based sensibilities with a dizzying diversity of popular and/or indigenous sound sources from across the globe.

AWS’s instrumentation would seem to provide ideal expression for Bermel’s musical ideas. While I have always enjoyed his works for standard chamber ensembles and full orchestra, it’s in these compositions for a large confederation of soloists that his knack for utilizing extended techniques and vividly complex textures really comes to the fore. Pierson and AWS turn in performances that throb with crisp intensity when called for, while also displaying sensitivity to the many timbral colors that make Bermel’s music pulse, zing, and shimmer. The title selection, Canzonas Americanas, pairs the ensemble with Brazilian singer Luciana Souza, who conjures up an intimate sound that is the ideal fit for Bermel’s genre-hopping music. Originally commissioned by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Canzonas blossoms from its opening solo violin figure into a bustling, Andriessen-esque passage without skipping a beat. Bermel’s facility in fusing the simple lyricism of folk sources to more hard-edged and propulsive textures is one of his music’s most attractive qualities, and he illuminates a vast expanse rarely traversed by composers today—making him an eclectic in the most meaningful sense.

Three Rivers first struck me as being akin to Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs and other works from the mid-century “Third Stream.” But whereas many of Bernstein’s compositions in this genre seem almost too neatly contained within their assumed jazz-inflected style, Bermel assumes the guise of jazzy gestures in order to go way beyond anything resembling the Paul Whiteman variety of safe (if charming) pops fare. The three rivers of Bermel’s title refer to three streams of music, initially introduced in succession but eventually piling up in a gloriously raucous climax. Wild drum solos and off-kilter wind licks let us know we’re listening to something that sounds a bit like jazz, yet the familiar gestures of jazz have been transformed and transfigured into something entirely Bermel’s, in way that pays homage to the sound of Mingus and Gil Evans while creating something wholly independent of their influence. At his best, Derek Bermel is a composer who is always reaching beyond himself, pushing past stylistic limitations rather than simply confirming them. Three Rivers is one of the album’s best calling cards, and the members of AWS swing with a surprising lightness rarely heard in their heavier rhythmic playing—a capability that I do hope more composers will exploit.

Natural Selection features baritone Timothy Jones in the album’s most significant foray into vocal writing. Utilizing everything from speech to slides to gospel inflections, Bermel’s vocal writing makes use of the full expressive range of the male voice, especially some vulnerable falsetto moments that Jones pulls off perfectly, giving a performance that almost doubles as a dramatic reading in its subtle characterizations. The texts by Wendy S. Walters and Naomi Shihab Nye are nothing if not moody, and Bermel exploits this to maximum effect, with a cinematic or even noir-like sound that has tinges of the grotesqueness of cabaret—all resolving in the beautifully simple final song, “Dog,” with its Native American inflections both tender and unexpected.

Hot Zone begins with an affable and funky riff, inspired by Bermel’s study of the West African gyil—a small marimba-like instrument that Bermel studied in Ghana (and whose at times jarring pitchiness colors the sound of the piece). Meanwhile Continental Divide ventures into an almost spectralist, klangfarben-y territory not elsewhere explored on the album, the piece’s offhand jazzy licks subsumed into ominous crescendi. The oldest work recorded here (1996), it hails from Bermel’s days of study with Louis Andriessen and features abrupt transitions along with a more driving motoric sense. The work is colorful, bracingly dissonant, and quirkily toe-tapping—yet at the same time, I’m glad that Bermel eventually progressed from this approach to a style that is markedly tolerant of lyricism and more delicate gestures. It’s the tension and points of contact between Bermel’s affection for beats and grooves and the simplicity of folk-like song that often make his music so persuasive.

This recording is a sonic safari at its core: our chance to follow Derek Bermel’s contact with other peoples and traditions, and the impact of these lived experiences as they play out in music. As an album that shows a composer always reaching outside of his own culture and experiences for inspiration, it’s remarkable that Bermel’s offerings feel so distinctly personal and homemade. Despite their myriad sources and origins, each work on this disc reveals a composer totally in touch with his own social and artistic goals. It’s the most impressive release of Bermel compositions to date, performed by some of the most committed advocates of the composer’s artistic vision.

New England’s Prospect: Stolen Moments

By coincidence, conspiracy, or zeitgeist, two of Boston’s more prominent new music institutions spent the first weekend in December swimming in that channel of classical jazz and jazzy classicism, the third stream. The 2011 Boston Conservatory New Music Festival (December 1-4), directed by Eric Hewitt, took as its theme “Jumpin’ into the Future: New Music Evolved from Jazz,” four concerts of family resemblances and sibling rivalries.

The festival started in very much hybrid territory—Thursday’s concert featured Pierre Hurel and students from the conservatory’s Improvisation Workshop; Friday’s, jazz-influenced chamber music of European provenance. Saturday’s concert, though (the first I was able to make it to), was an open bar of high-proof jazz: The Fringe (saxophonist George Garzone, bassist John Lockwood, and drummer Bob Gullotti) now in their 40th season of free-jazz ferocity.

The program, called “The Future of the Church of Coltrane,” promised four Coltrane standards; true to their open-ended ethos, the group only made it through two. In their interpretation, the Church of Coltrane’s theology came out as positively Talmudic, the beat never regarded directly, but its contours revealed through learned elaboration: a torrent of skittering double-time carved up into heady, complex varieties of hemiola. Coltrane’s own “Crescent” emerged out of a freeform introduction more or less intact, but soon veered off into a thrillingly intricate give-and-take. Gullotti’s drumming reached an almost continuous roll, like a mandolin of indeterminate pitch, Lockwood holding down the time, Garzone in torrents.

The trio then embarked on an improvised course (if there was a tune behind it, I didn’t recognize it) almost suite-like in its variety, from wandering-through-a-minefield free jazz to a driving, straight-eighth groove and back again. Gullotti managed to expand his already wide palette, sticks, mallets, and brushes giving way to hands for a tabla-like accompaniment to a Lockwood solo. I kept thinking of the way you set up a new television, letting it roam across the spectrum, picking up more and more channels to flip between; by the end, Lockwood and Gullotti in furious sync, Garzone switching packets with great, honking multiphonics, the group was jumping between layers of rhythm with unpredictable push button glee.

Garzone started Billy Eckstine’s “I Want to Talk About You,” a Coltrane showpiece, with a ruminative solo based around some neat, Lisztian trompe l’oeil effects, arpeggiating his own changes up and down from the ridge of the melody. Lockwood and Gullotti snuck in with sparse accompaniment, keeping the background at a simmer even as Garzone continued on his voluble way.

The second half was pure improv, which, curiously, at times sounded more like a standard than the standards did, a neat rising-scale colloquy between Lockwood and Garzone falling into a set of tango-beat changes. Again, it was extended techniques from Garzone that shifted the music into more revelatory territory, before an obsessively Beethovenian climax: Garzone hammering away at a minor third and a low-octave root. For an encore, the group flirted with punk: a brief wall of rapid-fire assault, first Garzone alone, then the others dashing in like Butch and Sundance.

* * *

Sunday night’s festival concert brought a third stream extravaganza, with—who else?—Gunther Schuller, the style’s godfather, at the podium, leading combinations of professional freelancers (organized along the 5-5-5 lines of Stan Kenton’s Progressive Jazz Orchestra) and the conservatory’s student body. (Hewitt, a saxophonist and Schuller protégé, who likewise maintains jazz and modernist footholds, slipped in and out of the band.) The opener was a sharp-lapelled reading of the late George Russell’s “Lydian M-1,” the Lydian Chromatic Concept in its ’50s-cool glory, student Laurent Warnier pouring out the vibraphone lead like a classic cocktail.

Charles Mingus, gone since 1979, still throws curves. Three of his quirkier pieces, all in scaled-down arrangements by Schuller for the Mingus Orchestra, straddled classical and jazz in tricky ways. The performance, too, walked an at times tense line between classical precision and reposed swing, not quite sure whether to stay on top of the beat or sink into it. “Taurus in the Arena of Life” chops and changes between slow swing and crisp, Spanish-tinged steps, and each style always took a few beats to come into focus. “Half-Mast Inhibition,” an early Mingus essay, seemed to have its head alternately turned by Les Six and Raymond Scott. As the performances became more nimble, the classical overtones sounded clearer: “Inquisition” came across as the work of a composer on whom Ravel’s Bolero made a deep and lasting impression.

A pair of Schuller’s own works were clearer in their boundaries. “Headin’ Out/Movin’ In,” a 1994 composition, starts in full modernist provocation, the sort of roiling murk that Schuller does so well (contra-alto, bass, and contrabass clarinets, a deluxe expressionist weave), then trips into an atonally refracted Hampton-esque jump; Tim Meyer took the tenor sax lead—originally written for Joe Lovano—with a nice mercenary bounce. “Jumpin’ in the Future,” one of Schuller’s earliest (1947) big band exercises, was surprisingly effortless in its 12-tone swing—Schuller had this third stream thing nailed pretty early on. A fairly leisurely tempo provided a feeling of solid ease.

It was mostly the pros who took the stage for the second half, devoted to the full band. More Mingus to begin: “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers,” a 1965 workout, almost a chorale prelude, with motivically fueled variations in Spanish and swinging colors. The rest was devoted to Robert Graettinger, a composer and arranger who pushed the big band envelope for the Kenton orchestra in the late ’40s and ’50s before dying too young. A pair of arrangements sounded very much like the work of a young man, overflowing with talent and ideas, disdainful of restraint. “Autumn in New York” emerged out of a dense polytonal haze, with the standard sweet sax choir lockstep harmonization sounding practically rococo. “Laura” was even more determined in its unorthodoxy, never coming close to anything even resembling the tune’s standard changes, the formidable trajectory of Raksin’s melody brought out by the lack of harmonic stability.

Graettinger’s originals were similarly drenched in mass. “Thermopylae,” from 1947, applies the dense style to more motivic material in short bits of overlapping melody. The culmination was Graettinger’s magnum opus, the suite City of Glass, here performed in the 1951 version that the Kenton band recorded. The sound is arresting—imagine Gershwin getting his portrait painted by Clyfford Still—and the performance was grand, but the much-of-a-muchness quality was again predominant.

The comparison with Mingus was revealing. Mingus’s handling of the big band style was comparatively more traditional, an outgrowth of the Ellington school. But Mingus was also far more cagey in revealing the band’s full power, which means, of course, that he was far more fluid and varied in his use of instrumental combinations and timbres. Even in City of Glass, Graettinger remained in thrall to the sound of the full band; instead of a play of colors, it was more a saturation, the hues projected together into a dazzling, blinding white.

* * *

The same weekend, at campuses in Amherst and Medford, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project offered its own take on jazz-classical hybrids. (I attended the December 4th concert, at Tufts.) “BMOP and the Abstract Truth”—the title an homage to another progressive big band composer, the great Oliver Nelson—got off to a slow start. George Lewis’s 2010 eight-player Ikons fell much more on the contemporary classical side; despite some intriguing sections—an opening of uneasy oscillations between dense sonorities (almost like late Michael Tippett, actually), a maze of steady, circling eighth notes, eccentrically tenacious—the music eventually settled into busy, arbitrary gong-and-glockenspiel-fueled modernist noodling of a familiar kind.

The stronger pieces on BMOP’s bill, interestingly, juxtaposed the traditions more than they mixed them, using one to set up the appearance of the other. In T. J. Anderson’s Ragged Edge: A Rag Time Reflection, the jazz elements were like a radioactive tracer, revealing in outline the music’s essentially modernist process of deconstruction. The chamber symphony (four winds, four brass, piano, strings, and a drum set, the latter worked with wry exactitude by Craig McNutt) seemed to be continually falling apart into fragments—but each fragment had an exact, fully formed profile. The ideas in Ragged Edge run a gamut, from New Orleans nostalgia to oblique atonality to aleatoric rustling; but there does seem to be a progression, from the duple syncopations of classic rag tropes to the triplet-based swing of ragtime’s novelty imitations to the hard-backbeat, sixteenth-note funk that, perhaps, the piece proposes as the genre’s true descendant.

David Sanford’s 1992 Prayer: in memoriam Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began with a swirl of modernism not unlike Lewis’s, but after a couple minutes in the wilderness, a sharp series of triadic knife chords kicked the music into an insistent, tight modern jazz reproach, eventually reaching a Nelson-worthy place of big band power and new music angles. The music was confident enough to pull off a Haydnesque farewell, everyone leaving the stage except for trumpet (Terry Everson) and piano (Linda Osborn-Blaschke), tying off the wound with eloquent resignation. (Conductor Gil Rose and the group were at their best here, showing off burnished sound and estimably solid swing.)

The second half brought Anthony Davis’s You have the right to remain silent, a 2007 concerto for clarinets (J. D. Parran), electronics (Earl Howard), and fifteen players. Three of its four movements followed a similar pattern: a somewhat disconnected, fragmentary opening, with Parran ruminating in free jazz, extended technique territory, the ensemble occasionally chanting parts of the Miranda warning that provided the work’s title while playing; a cadenza-like section, with Howard manipulating the sampled sounds of Parran and Robert Schulz’s drum set into skittering waves; then a coalescence into full big band drive.

My favorite was the second movement, the orchestra sinuously lush under Parran’s wounded animal multiphonic cries, the cadenza a crescendo into a romantic ballad culmination. The finale, in turn, strikes out into post-modernist territory, a grove of minimalistic ostinati that abruptly dissolves into nothing. I mean it as at least something of a compliment that I wasn’t quite sure what to make of You have the right to remain silent, expansive in scope but more intriguing on a section-by-section basis than taken as a whole.

You have the right to remain silent seemed to have something of Mingus’s elusiveness, though in this case, it was a full marriage of jazz and modernism that was regarded warily. To use an image from that other historically fraught arena of race and artistry, the boxing ring: the jazz and avant-garde threads were always sizing each other up, circling each other, waiting for an opening. It was a bout memorable for its footwork instead of its punch.