Jazz is surely a music of improvisation. But its history of in-the-moment inspiration runs parallel with that of the songs that (usually) provide a runway for those flights of improvisation.
An ambitious event at Berklee College of Music, billed as a symposium and concert series, will take a look at the current state of jazz composition. A long list of guest artists will be on hand to explore the topic from all angles. Beginning on Tuesday and running for six days, it offers a generous series of panel discussions, musical demonstrations, lectures, and full-on concerts. Most events are free, though attendees are asked to register in advance on Berklee’s website.
Pianist/composer Eric Gould, who joined the Berklee faculty in 2012 as chair of its jazz composition department, conceived of and programmed the event. “Jazz and the rest of the music industry is in a period of rethinking. A lot of what we’re doing is basically taking the pulse right now of what is happening in jazz in America and beyond,” he says. “The music is evolving, the culture is evolving, the industry is evolving. How are we responding to it?”
It can be hard to separate improvisation from composition in jazz. There’s a whole category of swing and bebop classics built on “rhythm changes” — melodic improvisations played over the well-known chord changes of George and Ira Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.”
Nor is there only one way to be ambitious about jazz composition. Louis Armstrong’s greatest songs are admired for their concise emotional wallop; Duke Ellington took advantage of the LP format to write extensively detailed song suites. A younger artist like Darcy James Argue is busy these days updating a tightly choreographed big-band style with contemporary sounds, while Ambrose Akinmusire is exploring how to integrate string sections with the freewheeling openness of a small jazz combo — and taking cues from Chick Corea’s efforts in that direction decades ago.
Don Was, the bassist and producer who became president of Blue Note Records in 2012, will give the keynote address of the Berklee event on Thursday. He says he’s encouraged to see the school approaching jazz composition from such an inquisitive angle.
“The danger with what they do is that they could be teaching: This is how it’s done, this is what a jazz composition is. And that by definition is not a jazz composition, if you figure that improvisation and change are fundamental to the music,” Was says. “I love the fact that they basically have a symposium that makes the point that the rules are there to be broken, and that you must adapt to and reflect your times, and bring who you are to it.”
The State of Jazz Composition Symposium and Concert Series will drill down into specific areas — like incorporating strings into jazz, the future of large ensembles, and writing for film. The schedule runs the gamut from formal concerts by Terence Blanchard (April 27) and the Maria Schneider Orchestra (April 26) at Berklee Performance Center (among the few events with an admission fee), to a musical demonstration by pianist Geri Allen (April 24) in the intimate Cafe 939 and a lecture by rising pianist Vijay Iyer called “The Biological Foundations of Music: Embodied Cognition, Empathy, and Listening” (April 22).
The perspectives on jazz composition to be shared will likely be as varied as the experiences of the symposium’s many participants.
Pianist Billy Childs, who records with a 10-piece group (including string quartet) he calls the Jazz Chamber Ensemble, says there is ample room these days to explore the overlap between jazz and European classical styles. He’ll sit on a few panels, and give a quartet performance at the David Friend Recital Hall on Thursday.
“I think there are many more composers that are using string quartet in jazz situations. By the same token,” he says, “there are a lot more string players who can improvise like jazz musicians. And you have jazz musicians who can read anything too, like classical musicians. So it’s kind of going both ways.”
Childs says younger musicians today enter the professional world with a greater technical skill than was once the case. “I got my master’s degree learning on the bandstand. Now it’s shifted away from the mentor system to where the place you learn is in schools. As a result, it’s a very trained group of new jazz artists.”
Allen’s work has ranged from recordings with free-jazz icon Ornette Coleman to composition commissions from the likes of Jazz at Lincoln Center. She also notes the technical skill of young musicians coming through the ranks of music schools, and says they’re continuing to advance the global reach of jazz. “These young people have a very solid preparation but also an open-mindedness about collaboration. There’s a global accessibility, and openness to many ideas about music-making from different cultural perspectives,” she says.
For his part, Gould insists the state of jazz composition is strong.
“I think there are some extremely encouraging things happening out there. The music is very much alive and well.”
But that still leaves plenty to talk about — and listen to.