Friday, May 7, 2010

Chamber Music America

In my opening post I mentioned a recent writing commission I received last year from Chamber Music America. This was a grant as part of their jazz commissioning and development program funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. I wrote an extended composition for the group "Different But the Same" a quartet that fellow saxophonist David Liebman instigated in which we explore the classic two tenor lineup. In this case the band includes bassist Tony Marino (who has played in David's band for many years) and drummer Jim Black (who has played in my band for many years). So it's a sort of combined forces approach in which each member of the group is contributing material.

Much of my compositional approach over the years has been about introducing composed elements into otherwise open improvisations. At least that's how I think of it. It's sort of the opposite of the more traditional approach of inserting improvisation (or solos) into a written composition. I'm interested in the effect of introducing these events into a process with inherent unknowns. And it creates a situation in which improvisors must be more compositionally minded than soloistically minded. Structure and balance become the overriding concerns for everyone. So with form itself being manipulated in real time performance we can arrive at musical points of interest that may not have been achievable in any more of a direct fashion. Subsequently I titled the piece "Non Sequiturs (for two tenor saxophones, bass and drums)". I love the idea of musical non sequiturs. In as much as there is no literal or narrative meaning involved in the arrangement of sounds in time the whole idea of structure (from individual phrasing to overall form) is really endlessly malleable and indestructible. The piece had it's premier in NYC at the Cornelia Street Cafe back in February of this year. We had a followup performance at the legendary "Blues Alley" club in Washington DC.

So in this case, I suppose that my blog functions as a self promotional vehicle, which gives me pause. Hopefully it's not seen as being only that. But the fact is, the fragmentation of the little infrastructure that may have once existed in this corner of the music business requires us to get the word out ourselves. And I'm happy to have the opportunity to provide what I feel is a necessary focus to my work. Commercial publications have their structural limitations and so it's nice not to have to depend totally upon them. Still, it was somewhat concerning to me that the little attention this grant program did receive was in a rather negative light, as in "should there even be such a thing as jazz grants?" And actually, much of that discussion took place in the blogosphere.

The short answer to that question is, YES! And I do think that most would agree. However I do understand some of the concerns that motivated those articles. I was able to take part in some of those on-line discussions and in the end I felt that the exchanges were thoughtful and positive. My purpose here is not to restart that conversation but to recognize that this is the world we live in. We cannot always depend upon traditional networks of publicity to recognize everything that may be taking place at any given time. Rather than complain about the situation (which is really no one's fault) I am free to pick up the slack and hopefully provide something worth reading in the process.

I'm very grateful to have received the support of CMA and I would hope that these types of programs will be able to expand past the idea of rewarding those of us fortunate enough to be recognized from time to time. I'm reminded that we would not be having much of a discussion at all if it were not for the support that so many American musicians have received by working abroad, particularly in Europe. This has been going on for many decades. There is a true network of support for the arts in general and jazz in particular that has resulted in opportunities for so many of us over the years as well as providing a comparatively more healthy environment for European musicians in which to work as compared to what most American musicians deal with here.

I'd actually like to see a shift in the US away from the emphasis on a handful of artists getting some type of recognition while the vast majority have many fewer opportunities. Perhaps due to the nature of our society there is something of a "winner take all" mentality that does not seem to serve us all that well. Personally, I feel fortunate to have received the degree of recognition that I have achieved over the years. But the health of the scene at large should concern us all. It takes the dedicated work of many people to create a scene or even make the most modest of productions happen, and most of those people will never get any real recognition. It's nice to get an award or win a poll but there is the risk that a "musician of the year" mentality risks portraying the scene as even smaller than it actually is and in some ways makes things more difficult for those many deserving musicians who for whatever reasons are not fortunate enough to have their work acknowledged.

Be that as it may, I am happy to have received the recognition from an organization that is working hard to support a music that gets far too little support in the US. And at the risk of blowing my own horn, I'm happy to have the opportunity to give my perspective on it. If I had to wait for someone else to talk about it I may be waiting a very long time. As an interesting side note, just this month I received my first ever live concert review (as a leader) in any NYC publication. I've been living here for twenty seven years now. Believe me when I say, that's not a complaint. For most of that time I've been touring and recording regularly and receiving much positive support for my work. I'm happy to be in the game. But like most things, you can't wait around for s**t to happen.

I guess that's why I took the time to write this down...

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