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The Jazz Composer – Moving Music off the Paper
Northway Publications. 345 pages
'Rubbish' cried Graham Collier at a 1995 ceremony in Copenhagen when the assistant British Consul, presenting the Jazzpar award to Tony Coe, said that like Denmark, Britain was a small country which valued its jazz musicians! On jazz matters, Collier will correct anyone, anywhere, anytime, if he believes them to be wrong.
Collier is well able to give reasons for his antipathies. In that respect his new book is a delight. After all, the managing of conflict and tension are essential ingredients in maintaining interest in any writing, and Collier is a master of disputation.
As befits his name, Collier digs deeply. Being a musician who cares about the contemporary jazz scene, he pays attention to what's happening, expresses plucky criticism about anything that doesn't meet his approval, and repeatedly invokes what he calls his ever-present cynicism. One readily admits that Collier provides stimulating views.
Almost every page broadcasts Collier's dissatisfaction with some aspect of jazz today. His list is long. He criticises Sammy Nestico and Thad Jones, expresses a dislike of most of the compositions written by Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra, Jim McNeely and George Russell, and traduces Wynton Marsalis. The latter's work, referred to as a 'jazz museum', is a particular target. Collier quotes Eric Nisenson: "Playing music that has been thoroughly explored decades in the past is like rediscovering New Jersey." Doubts are expressed about George Benson, David Sanborn and Maria Schneider. However, he finds the latter's work much more interesting than any of her contemporaries. Collier, sawing off the branch on which he sits, also believes that the rot in jazz arranging came in with the rise of jazz education. And beyond jazz he even pokes fun at the 'warbling and overstaffing' of opera!
"There is a lot in the current jazz scene that just doesn't appeal to me," he writes. Really? "For once I'm not talking about jazz-lite, or the latest jazz singer - although they're still in my bad books - but of much of the experimentation that is around. Turntablists, hip-hop artists, excessive use of electronics. All popular, all gaining new audiences for jazz, but I just don't like the end results."
Surprisingly, Collier praises Sidney Bechet ("how interesting it is compared to bebop"), and, no surprise, finds the gentleman critic the late Charles Fox a joy to read. He praises the way Eddie Sauter uses strings in Focus (Sauter's collaboration with Stan Getz), and lauds the legerdemain of Gerry Mulligan and Bill Holman in giving the loud, brash and heavy Kenton band a lightness which many thought could never be achieved.
A dozen musical examples are given. Here lies a puzzle in chord nomenclature, particularly in Three Simple Pieces: Part One. The example is written out in short score on three staves, being two treble clefs and one bass clef, as though for a piano reduction (page 275). In the fourth bar, written as semibreves, the left hand of the piano plays a chord containing the notes (reading upwards) bottom space Ab, with Eb and Gb above, in close position. The right hand contains the notes (reading from the bottom again) Bb below middle C, with Db and F above. Combining the two hands gives us a chord of Ab sus4, with a 9th and a 13th. Collier gives this the chord symbol Ebm9th. With such a strong Ab infrastructure in the left hand, I can't accept that as any sort of Eb chord. What can Collier mean?
Furthermore, in the ninth bar of the same piece he writes a similar structure, this time transposed up a tone, giving the notes (reading upwards again) Bb, F, Ab in the left hand, with Cb and Eb in the right hand. The symbol for this chord (which I would call a Bb something or other), is given as Fmin7b5. We have to conclude that the symbols are given as improvising guides, to steer the soloist through the chordal superstructure, not as complete harmonic analysis. But we are looking at a score in a book here, not improvising. Maybe it's interesting for the reader to see how this is presented to the players. But why give us only part of the picture? An explanation would have been welcome.
The Jazz Composer is not a book of instruction. Indeed, it's more a book of destruction! But what fun, how entertaining - and how welcome.
John Robert Brown
First published in Jazz Journal, June 2009. Used here by permission; reproduction forbidden.
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