Friday, June 02, 2006


I vividly remember my second lesson with Bob Brookmeyer. (The first one was the day after 9/11, so that one is a little hazy.) Bob’s first assignment for most of his students is to write two or three (large, as in 11x17) pages of melodies, using only one octave of the C Major scale. I knew a lot of Bob’s big band music pretty well at this point, and has played with Bob at various school and festival projects, so this took me a little by surprise. The guy who wrote “Hello and Goodbye” and “King Porter ‘94”, which I thought were two of the most progressive, modern charts ever, wants me to drone on forever in C Major? But, he was the teacher, and it sounded pretty simple, right?

I came in two weeks later with almost a page that I thought was decent. (Try it, it’s not quite so simple.) He proceeded to tear it to shreds for almost an hour. The gist of his complaint was that I didn’t develop anything nearly enough. One time, for a couple of my students, I wrote two versions of first twenty bars or so of what I wrote for him, the first mine, the second with his revisions. (will post soon) As he said recently to the NY Times:

"In the 80's," he continued, "I began to wonder how long I could extend my musical thought and still not break the relationship with the listener, not put the listener to sleep. When I became a teacher, I realized that everybody writes too short. You've got to finish your thought."

And, as usual in my case, he was right. It sounded much better his way.

(For more of Bob’s wisdom on the subject, he now has for sale online composition lessons as part of the composer’s membership on his website. I’m sure he goes further into detail there.)

Or, for what it can sound like, you can hear Spirit Music, his latest album with his New Art Orchestra, and his first having followed Maria Schneider to the very exciting ArtistShare project. In many ways, this record crystallizes the ideas he’s been teaching for the last several years into one discernable, and for the most part excellent product.

In my time studying with him (in addition to kicking my ass on the craft of writing for a large ensemble, something it turned out I badly needed), I remember two ideas shining through vividly. The first is you can almost never overdevelop an idea. His writing over the past ten years has often been an exercise in how far he can take a single idea (usually one of those diatonic C Major cells) and repeat, stretch, twist, and bend it without boring the listener. And he’s become the master at it. On track 2, “New Love”, he opens with a cute (too cute, if you ask me), seven note idea, and bounces it across the band, until an English horn takes it for a while. I was just about ready to give up on the tune as way too cute, when the tenor player turns it inside out into a gorgeous ballad melody. All the cuteness of the intro melts away, and he sings through the next two minutes, until that same idea I was ready toss away is both still present and unrecognizable. His, and the listener’s patience is usually rewarded.

The other reason this works is less obvious; Bob is such a master craftsman, another point I didn’t immediately appreciate in his music. While I was studying with him, he had to miss a school concert, so Matt Tutor and I each conducted one of his tunes in his stead. Poring over the scores to prepare, and hearing the band send everything at you (literally) gives you a great appreciation for how well he does all the little things. Nothing is haphazard, and he often finds ingenious solutions for typical problems in a voicing, or by holding back for a beat, or, or… The mastery of the craft is one of the things that allows him to play with the bigger ideas he loves.

The second big talking point Bob drives home here is integrating any improvisation into the fabric of the composition, rather than allowing it to be its own entity. Again, from the Times:

"My first rule became: The first solo only happens when absolutely nothing else can happen," he explained. "You don't write in a solo until you've completely exhausted what you have to say. If you give a soloist an open solo for 30 seconds, he plays like he's coming from the piece that you wrote. Then he says, 'What the hell was that piece that I was playing from?' And the next 30 seconds is, 'Oh, I guess I'll play what I learned last night.' And bang! Minute 2 is whoever he likes, which is probably Coltrane."

Darcy commented at length about this one in parsing this interview, and I agree completely. Here, though, Bob really , really doesn’t seem to trust his soloists- for the most part, he keeps them on a tremendously short leash, either by providing lots of written material to buttress any improvisation (“Alone”, “Happy Song”), or by making the solos very short and contained (“The Door”). On one level I understand why he does it- he’s probably heard one (or ten) too many radio and college band players eviscerate “Ding Dong Ding” or “Skylark”, and wants to avoid that. But the flip side is that either because of the players themselves or the restraints on them, the improvisation is not at nearly same level as the compositions or the fantastic, hard swinging ensemble playing. It tends towards the stiff and leans heavily on bebop formula. (which ironically Bob rails against if you play with him) At the end of “The Door” in particular, I wanted the alto solo, set up so beautifully, to break the shell and really push it to another intensity level, and it never does.

(There are a couple of notable exceptions- drummer John Hollenbeck, who has internalized Bob’s sizable demands on a drummer without losing the intelligent recklessness that characterizes his own work, is typically brilliant. The clarinet solo on “Silver Linings”, the one song form on the record, is fun, and I’m not generally a big fan of clarinet solos. And of course there’s Bob himself, appearing on only two tunes, as brilliant as ever.)

Despite that caveat, the disc is great, a mature statement from an artist whose wisdom most of us will be aspiring to for a long time yet. As with the mature work of so many great artists, it gets better with multiple listenings. It continues to grow on me, and I continue to discover more each time I hear it. It reminds me in some ways of the late Beethoven string quartets, or late Picasso, at once distilled to an essence and teeming with life in all the little crevices. In some ways, especially harmonically, it’s much more conservative than earlier works. He has almost codified a tonal and rhythmic language that suits him, and keeps going further and further inside it, and pulling more and more out of seemingly less and less.

The last track is a ballad he calls “The End”, complete with a tender brass fanfare near its close. The end? God let’s hope not.

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