The Jazz Composers Collective on Creating and Performing

The Jazz Composers Collective on Creating and Performing

Jazz Composers Collective: Clip #2 FRANK J. OTERI: Hearing you guys play with each other and hearing all your albums, also reminds me of the scene in New York in the late 50s and early 60s when Mal Waldron would be playing on Eric Dolphy‘s record one week, and the following week Dolphy would be… Read more »

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

Jazz Composers Collective: Clip #2

FRANK J. OTERI: Hearing you guys play with each other and hearing all your albums, also reminds me of the scene in New York in the late 50s and early 60s when Mal Waldron would be playing on Eric Dolphy‘s record one week, and the following week Dolphy would be playing on his record and Ron Carter would be playing on both of their records and then they’d be playing on his record. It certainly wasn’t a unified collective as such, but they created a common language by working together which is something I believe you’ve done as well. You all have very different interests, but you’re able to bring out interests in each other’s music and expand on each other’s music, and I’m wondering for some of the other people in the collective, how you came to be part of this and how you feel it identifies you in terms of your role, as a composer, as a jazz musician, in the music world at large.

TED NASH: The reason why we’re all together is because we like the way each other plays. That’s the initial attraction that has brought us together. We like the way we play together… I love the way Frank plays the piano, the way Ben plays the bass, Michael plays the saxophone, Ron plays the trumpet. That is the reason why we are together. But we inspire each other. Our music is different, but we are different people, you know, we express different things. When we’re all together doing Ben’s music, we gravitate towards the sensibility that Ben has brought to our attention about music, and so we follow that. When some of these people are doing my music, then they want to sort of try to be true to what it is that I’m trying to express, and so there’s a lot of flexibility musically there, and that’s why we feel comfortable with each other. And that’s why we do play with each other very often, and why we can do that and still have a very diverse sound, you know, amongst us. And it’s one of the most incredible experiences to be able to do that. Not to always have to have different musicians to express different styles or different ways of playing the music.

BEN ALLISON: My fear was that after 8 or 9 years of doing the Collective that we would eventually homogenize into one soup where each band would sound the same and…

FRANK KIMBROUGH: It’s been just the opposite.

BEN ALLISON: Exactly the opposite. Every year we spread out, get almost even farther away from each other in terms of our sensibilities, I mean, Ted’s band at this point is completely different than my band and yet, if I think back even 4 or 5 years ago, we were kind of sounding a little more the same.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s so interesting for me, hearing these discs back to back, listening to Noumena back to back with hearing the double quartet live last night, I thought, wow, I was hearing stuff that Frank was doing with piano pedal and I was thinking, this is an idea that was coming out of his music but now it’s working for Ted’s music, and it’s another whole sound world and it’s going into a different place, but it’s clearly his voice responding to your voice, affecting his voice, and it goes back and forth that way.

TED NASH: It’d be a shame not to let that affect us, you know? That’d be a real shame.

FRANK J. OTERI: Michael, last night I also listened to your CD Drift which features 11 different people, so it’s way beyond this core group. It’s a whole bunch of other people. When did you first become part of the collective?

MICHAEL BLAKE: Well, Ben and I met in like ’89. He played in my early groups, and we were just going out and playing gigs for $15 around New York. But, I think, around then, actually when he started the collective, I would get the newsletters and come to concerts when I could, and eventually we started playing together even more and more, and my group got more active, and I started doing his MOMA stuff, and that gradually became an incredible outlet for the collective if MOMA’s not on strike [laughs] and we’ve been playing there every year, I mean, I think all our groups have played there now every year for the last few years pretty well… But I was always sort of doing my own thing and I didn’t actually really get involved in the collective until I think about 3 or 4 years ago, in terms of participating more in the groups like Herbie thing, and we did this Lenny Tristano tribute last year, and so it’s been good for me, because I wasn’t really in any scene, I was just sort of doing my own thing, and basically playing at the Knitting Factory, and playing in The Lounge Lizards, which was kind of a different world than these guys were playing with. The Lounge Lizards are a different world from everything! But I learned a lot doing that, aesthetically, about different kinds of music, world music, and African music, and I think, when I started doing Free Association and gradually d
id this record Kingdom of Chompa, I realized ideas of using different techniques, people using different techniques on instruments and using musicians like Marcus Rojas, who plays the tuba in all sorts of sort of unorthodox ways, and gets all these great sounds. And of course, all of us, I think, aim to do that on our instruments. I was developing all these sounds, and think that, like anything involved in the Collective, it’s really helped me, it’s gotten me to feel really positive about writing jazz things. Things that might be drawn from the history of the music but not be contrived, because we can arrange these things, orchestrate them in a way that sounds exciting and fresh. That’s what it’s really all about. I like to think I may have turned Ben on to some ideas, that you know, like 4 or 5 years ago, I remember when you did Seven Arrows you said “Wow, you know, your records got all these interesting sounds and things, and I want to start utilizing that.” And he did! And I was checking out Ben’s compositional approach, and obviously, his sound, which is such a vital thing for him, and using that after playing together for so long. And on Drift I got to use Frank and Ron and I’m sure eventually I’ll get Ted involved in something, too. And use these guys within the group, so that, you know, that the music sounds the best it possibly can, and that’s why I want these guys to play. It’s great that we’re friends and we’ve played gigs together but the really great thing is that it’s exactly what I want. I don’t have to look further. I know when I write something for Ron, or I write something for Frank, or so often for Ben, I’m going to get exactly what I’m hearing in my head. And, you know, that’s what I aim for on all my records. I always write for the people. It’s like, if I can put a name on the chart, I would, because that’s how I feel about writing. It’s very personal, and I think that we’re all doing that for each other but, I heard this thing recently where someone was saying it’s not about what you give, it’s about what you give up. And I think that having that kind of maturity, which these guys all have, different talents and different ways, it’s like, you learn from that, and it’s very humbling… And it’s a really beautiful thing, you give so much when you’re playing for people, and you’re playing your music, it’s like you’re just giving and giving but sometimes you realize that without the people around you, you wouldn’t have the strength to do it. You know, it’s taxing, and I think last night was like that. I was just so down yesterday, and by the time we finished the set with the Herbie Project I was like, man, this is the greatest life in the world. I can’t even believe that life stuff can get to me like that, ’cause I realize wow, this is a blessing, you know? It’s like a sanctuary, that’s how I think about it.

FRANK J. OTERI: There were few things that were as exciting to me musically as hearing that four horn thing last night…

BEN ALLISON: He didn’t want to do it. I insisted.

MICHAEL BLAKE: Yeah, it was fun. I think I really got across what I wanted to say, but, actually, my music is a really emotional thing. I don’t feel like I’m a very cerebral writer, and I don’t even think of myself as a composer, really, ’cause I kind of write songs and tunes and stuff, and I don’t see myself as somebody who can write this really… stuff, but, I realize that I’ve gotten a lot out of hearing these guys’ music, and putting on their CD’s, and one morning, listening to one of Ron’s tunes, and hearing something in it I didn’t hear before… it’d make me laugh, you know. Like Ted’s string writing yesterday, where it was, the strings were actively moving around, and playing lines. It’s not just whole notes. He doesn’t cop out.

FRANK J. OTERI: Everybody gets a solo, too… It was great hearing Mark Feldman‘s go off on his solo last night. It was fantastic.

TED NASH: It was.

FRANK J. OTERI: But, so, it’s been the five of you in the Collective now for how long?

BEN ALLISON: Well, we call ourselves the Composers In Residence. That’s our official title.

FRANK J. OTERI: You have other composers as well…

BEN ALLISON: Right. Let me just say a few words about how we structure the Collective, just to make that apparent. Our initial main focus, as I said, was our concert series, which we still do, about 5 concerts a year. And each concert we focus on the music of one of the five Composers in Residence, and a guest artist, so the concerts are split in half. And the idea behind that was that the Composers in Residence form the core directive of what we’re doing, and to survive as an organization you need to have a core group of people who are going to do what needs to be done. At the same time, we always want to broaden the circle, invite more people into the mix. So that’s where the guest composers come in. So we’ve had, I don’t know how many guest composers at this point, I didn’t check my fact sheet, but it’s probably less than forty, but something like that over the years, and probably about 160-some-odd musicians involved. And we’ve done over 80 concerts, so it’s really grown. Out of that, a number of ongoing projects like Free Association and Medicine Wheel, and Noumena, and the Double Quartet, and Ron’s Genius Envy. So, but that’s how we kind of keep a focus and also broaden our horizons.