23 December 2013

Improv Column: Wayne McConnell – Composing


I recently ran a composition weekend at Brighton Jazz School. We had a very productive and inspiring few days and the students came up with some wonderful ideas.  The article below came from that weekend and I hope it inspires you to get writing…


Starting the creative process

Since most of us are jazz musicians, it makes sense to liken composition to improvisation.  They are actually the same thing with one difference: time. Composition is the obsessive- compulsive version of improvisation.  We have the luxury of time to mull over the details of things.  In my opinion, every improvising jazz musician can write music.  There are many ways of doing this and you don’t have to have a PhD in composition from RAM to write interesting and complex things.  You don’t even have to know how to write music with notation as there are many ways to represent your ideas; recording, graphic scores, basic chord charts with descriptive words, etc.  The main and sole purpose is to create interesting and engaging music.  


Why Write?

Why do you need to write anything at all?  You don't.  But writing music can offer you up a lot of treasure.  Firstly, composition is an excellent tool for learning.  It is a great way to see (and hear) where you are as a musician.  It allows you to explore and expand on what you already know.  Initially, I used it mostly to develop a certain musical concept.  For example, when I discovered the #11 sound, I wrote a blues with the melody using the #11s.  I wrote a tune called “Diminishing Circles” that utilizes the diminished scale/concept.  I’ve written pieces that use the interval of the fourth, and I’ve also written tunes “in the style of” Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans etc.  I’m not comparing myself to those geniuses but I’ve dedicated an amount of time to each trying to understand what their signature sound is.  Of course, it is more than that because you quickly see that they evolve and so a Wayne Shorter composition from the 60s is very different to the things he writes now.  Seeing composition as a pathway into new worlds as a learning tool is a great way to get over the fear of writing something of your own.  If you are trying to re-create a particular sound or concept that you’ve heard, somehow it becomes more of an exercise than your own thing.  Usually we think exercises are not music but you only have to look to the classical world  (Chopin, Czerny, Hanon) to know that exercises can be beautiful.    


How to Start

This is the golden question, and is often thought of as the hardest point of the creative process.  I think it is the easiest stage.  Look for inspiration in absolutely everything and anything.  Look around your world, look at the beautiful, the ugly, the mundane, the exciting and everything in between. Imagine it like an engine, you need certain things to happen before it is up and running.  You need fuel/oil, oxygen and a spark.  The fuel is all of your musical understanding to date, the oxygen is the inspiration in the moment and the spark is your desire to write.  All three of those things NEED to be there in order to compose.  So, the fuel aspect is something that develops over time as we develop and become better musicians.  The oxygen aspect might need a little thought and massaging and the spark will come and go. So let’s look at the oxygen of your composition.  As I mentioned, one way is to start with a particular music concept/musician in mind.  For now, let’s assume you are not going down this route.  Lets assume you want to write something that is you, totally yours and inspired from something in  your life.  That’s pretty overwhelming so make a list of all the things in  your life that can inspire you.


Composing from One Idea

So, you have stumbled upon an idea that you think you can develop into something really amazing.  It’s an idea that keeps going round and round in your mind.  What do you do with it once you have figured out what it is?  First of all, do just that: Is the main bulk of the idea melodic, harmonic or rhythmic?  Once you know, write it down in some way.  


While we are looking at jazz composition rather than classical composition, there are a lot of similarities between techniques to sustain interest and develop compositional material.  Look at the idea below and ask yourself the relevant questions: 


Melodic Ideas

1) Is the idea the entire melody or just a fragment?

2) If it is a fragment which part is it?  I’ve had melodies going around in my mind only to realise it was the end phrase and I had to write the beginning part. 

3) Is the Melody finished?  

4) How many distinctive sections does it have?  It should have at least 2. 

5) Is there room for development?

6) What kind of chords am I hearing on the top?  Diatonic, Modal, II-V-I, Non-Functional? 

7) What kind of rhythmic feel does the melody lend itself to? Swing, Latin, Straight 8s, Waltz, 6/8, Odd Time, Clave?  

8) What happens if I play the melody backwards? 

9) Can I create a counter melody using the same rhythmic values? 



Harmonic Ideas 

1) Is the progression the entire composition or just a fragment? 

2) If it is a fragment, which part is it?  The A section? The bridge? 

3) Why does the progression make you feel you can squeeze a tune out of it? 

4) What happens if I play it in a different key? 

5) Can I create another related but contrasting section using a similar progression? 

6) Does it represent something that I’ve heard before–is it a Blues, Rhythm Changes, How High The Moon

7) Are there non-functional chords? 

8) Can I hear a melody when the chords are played? 

9) Can I hear the chords in a particular rhythmic fashion? i.e. the chords/voicings over a more contemporary vamp?


Rhythmic Ideas

1) Will this make up the main bulk of the piece? 

2) What time signature is it? 

3) What groove is it?

4) Contrasting rhythms?

5) Extended percussion section?

6) Can I hear a bass line with it?

7) Can I add chords to the rhythm? 

8) Can I add melody to the rhythm? 

9) Is the rhythm strong enough to carry the piece? 



Common Compositional Devices Used in Jazz


There are some common compositional devices that we can use when writing music in the modern jazz realm.  As with any art, there are techniques that become popular in different periods of time.  I’ll list the devices and explain them and where possible put in examples for you to listen to.  I will break these down into the roles of the jazz trio:



1. Ostinato Bass Figures

An ostinato is a repetitive bass line that runs through a section or all of the piece.  It is often a defining part of the composition itself.  This can create forward motion in a composition and rhythmic drive/energy.  Examples are tunes like Song For My Father by Horace Silver, Footprints by Wayne Shorter, and All Blues by Miles Davis. Sometimes these are doubled in the left hand of

2. Pedal Point 

A pedal point is there the bass and/or piano plays a static note that underlines a particular section of harmonic movement in the song.  This can create tension and a feeling of suspense. Examples of this are Black Narcissus by Joe Henderson (an Ab pedal), Naima by John Coltrane (Eb pedal) and Dolphin Dance by Herbie Hancock. 

3. Bass Melody

It seems to be quite fashionable at the moment for the bass to carry complex melodies over complex melodies played either by the piano or by a horn. Counter melodies, too.   For examples of this listen to trios like EST, Geoffrey Keezer/Joe Locke Group and Bobo Stenson. 

4. Arco/Eastern 

This is another device that seems to be popular at the moment.  This is where the bass creates texture on its own using the bow and playing sounds that are reminiscent of Eastern Europe or Arabic cultures.  For examples listen to recent works by Avishai Cohen, Miroslav Vitous and Omer Vital. 

5. Intervallic Playing 

5ths and 10ths are popular with bassists as it makes them feel powerful and sound like guitarists.  It produces a fat sound that can give a piece a rock feel.  

6. Double Stops 

Double stopping is playing two notes at once.  Jazz players use this method, in particular: David Wong, Christian McBride, Kiyoshi Kitagawa and Carlos Henriquez



1. Melodies in Right Hand, Voicings in Left 

This makes up 99% of all beginner jazz pianists.  They learn to play melodies (written or improvised) in the right hand with idiosyncratic chord voicings in the left. The voicings were made popular by Bill Evans in the 50s and have become the standard go-to voicings.  They leave out the root (and assume a bass player).  This allows more upper extensions in the chord. 


2. Chords in the Right, Melody in the Left

It is now the requirement of the modern jazz pianist to be able to reverse the role of the hands and play in a more orchestral or classical way.  Players such as Brad Mehldau, Geoffrey Keezer, Mulgrew Miller, Eric Lewis and others are able to play chordal accompaniment in the right hand while playing intricate melodies in the left.  This means melody is played in the register that is usually reserved for chords giving a rich and lower tone.  


3. Parallel Voicings 

These are chords that move diatonically through a particular scale or mode. The sound of the voicings is usually distinctive, one can shift the voicings around and “dip” in and out of the harmony by shifting them up or down a semitone. This is an arranging technique that Oliver Nelson and Gil Evans use a lot to create interest and structure on static chord changes.  Melodies that are modal and move in step-wise movements are good for parallel voicings.  Little Sunflower, Impressions and Stolen Moments are good examples of compositions that utilize this technique.  


4. Upper Structure Voicings 

An upper structure voicing is simply a triad over a tritone.  Triadic shapes are great for composition and harmony because they create structure. Everybody knows what a triad sounds like.  But try playing them over a bass note or a tritone interval.  For example, a common way of voicing C7#11 is to play E and Bb in the left hand (tritone) and then a D major triad in the right hand. You can shift the triad around in its various inversions.  Try writing a melody then harmonise it using triads. 


5. Double Octaves 

This technique was pioneered by Phineas Newborn Jr and adds body to the melodic line.  You take a melody, either written or improvised and you play it in both hands one or two octaves apart.  The result is a thicker, articulate the left hand as the right but it is a wonderful sound and technique that can be used in your compositions. 


6.  Bass Part and Left Hand Piano Doubled

If there is a written bass part, try doubling the part in the left hand on piano. The timbre of the bass and piano together in unison works really well. This is a common device used at the moment among contemporary composers and pianists.  


7. Melody in Unison or Harmonised

Most jazz pianists are good readers and so why not try the piano in unison with the main melody (with horns) or try a third below the melody for added texture.  If you are feeling modern and hip, try a fourth.  Whether this works is dependent on the melody itself.  


8. Write Specific Voicings 

It is important to have an understanding of popular piano voicings so that you can direct the pianist to the type of sound you want.  You can either notate them in piano score or write words.  I’ve played on big-band charts that say ‘chords in style of McCoy Tyner or Herbie Hancock’.  Experienced pianists will know what that is, but to be safe, write it out too. 



1. Not Just Time Keepers

Drummers have come a long way since beating their hands on stretched animal skin (well, some have anyway). Treat the drums as a melodic instrument.  Be really specific with tones.  Listen to drummers like Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette and Ari Hoenig.  They play melodies on the drums too! 


2. Groove

It is not the drummer’s job to keep time, we are all responsible for that.  The drums should sharpen and add colour to the groove.  Be as specific as you can with what the feel of your piece is.  Write it down or suggest similar grooves to check out.  If it doesn’t all lock in then no matter how good your melody and chords are, it won’t reach the potential.  


3.  Tempo Changes 

If you imagine an orchestra playing a suite of works non-stop, there will be many tempo changes.  It is OK to use this in jazz too.  Why not try having a section that slows down or speeds up incrementally or metronomically; be rhythmically adventurous.  


4. Odd Time Signatures 

Jazz has often stepped into the world of odd metre and you should experiment with it.  Check out the iconic album Time Out by Dave Brubeck. Listen to some of the modern trios of today: Brad Mehldau with his All the Things You Are in 7, Vijay Iyer and Robert Glasper. 


5. Orchestral Percussion 

The role of the drums doesn’t always have to be playing a swing, latin or rock groove.  You can write music that uses the drums in a more orchestral role.  Using mallets, brushes and even hands to gain a wide variety of textures.  Drummer Brian Blade is the perfect example of a drummer that can incorporate many different textures and colours on the drumset.  Listen to some of his work with Wayne Shorter for inspiration.



Go on, give it a try.

Writing music is like anything else, it gets better the more you do it.

Start now…!

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