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Jazz & Tzaz interview (Greek magazine)

1. Why do you think there are not many guitarists who lead big bands?

(CJ) I hadn’t really thought about it that way, but I guess you’re right. It could have something to do with the customs associated with the instrument. Some of our contemporary guitar players learned music sort of outside normal structures (not in school bands). Also, in the last fifty years or so, guitar has become associated with rock music, a style traditionally learned by ear. For example, I didn’t begin playing guitar until age 17, so as a beginning rock guitarist I missed the whole band experience in middle and high school. Accordingly, some guitarists with a similar background might be dealing with a music reading deficiency that may result in a disinclination to formally write music for a large ensemble. To take your observation one step further, it seems that a composer for big bands is rarely something other than a pianist. Probably all large ensemble composers use the piano to some extent (I certainly do), but a keyboard orientation obviously facilitates a wider range of musical thinking. Quickly thinking of any jazz composers associated with a non-keyboard main instrument: Kenny Wheeler, Sam Rivers, and Mingus come to mind. Each of them played or play piano pretty well, though. My colleague John Hollenbeck is notable as being particularly interesting as a composer and percussionist. Other drummer bandleaders: Mel Lewis, Buddy Rich, Phil Collins, Charlie Watts…though bandleaders don’t necessarily write the music it seems relevant to say (Mel being the serious writer in that list). Zappa is the only guitarist I can think of at the moment who regularly dealt with large numbers of musicians…except now for Brian Setzer in his mature period, of course, with his Orchestra (but I don’t think he does much of the writing either). Pat Metheny and Terje Rypdal both have written some orchestral things.

2. Your previous two albums were about living in two US big cities, whereas the new one concerns the circle of life. Please write some thoughts about your tendency to work with a concept in each of the albums with your large ensemble.

When presenting music in the context of a live set or on a CD, I’ve been interested in working with ways to unify the whole listening experience. The process of thinking about music in larger chunks comes from some of my small group’s concerts, and before that, certainly from my formative live music experiences, checking out concerts by artists like Zappa, Oregon, Miles Davis, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, all of whom sometimes presented music in long chunks blending the end of one piece with the start of another. Even the Grateful Dead were famous for this, though I never got around to hearing them in person. A lot of classical music also uses the large canvas approach. In developing tunes for my various small groups, something in my aesthetic felt comfortable skipping the big, obvious applause-inducing ending in favor of an improvised sort of space where anything can happen while the band collectively steers itself toward the next tune. It’s a question of form and how you feel you want to sonically decorate, say, 60 minutes. One sort of extreme way is to start playing and never repeat anything, but when approaching symphonic lengths, I usually prefer to organize the music with various recapitulations that provide a unifying sense, referring back to themes heard before or to forecast others. The opening of Sgt. Pepper… and its “Reprise” was a really simple example that made an impression early on. With my last two large ensemble suites (Brooklyn and Cycles) it seems also relevant to mention that in being commissioned works, the compositions were proposed with substantial lengths in mind, so thought went into imagining various unifying devices for each from their very inception. Having a concept for each suite facilitates this thinking.