Compositional Process, Lyle Mays

1993 by Gil Goldstein for The Jazz Composer's Companion, Advance Music
[English traslation, original is German]


see also: Compositional Process, Pat Metheny by the same author


Jazz composition is a tricky phrase. There is a jazz compositional tradition - a way of writing that's strictly a vehicle for soloing. But for me the composing tradition is predominantly a Western European tradition. I'm wresteling with a way to reconcile these two traditions - how to allow room for the improviser and how to explore the material in a written way as well. It's fertile territory and I don't think that I've been that successful at it so far. But I don't think there are many examples of anyone being that successful at it. These two arenas seem to be like oil and water. It may be that it's possible to join them but that's the task I've set before myself.

I want to deal in longer forms. What I've tried to do in the Pat Metheny group is introduce further exploration of the material in the context of a blowing jazz group. One of the things I like to put in the music is a kind of condensed development section or some additional piece of music that takes the material and looks at it from a slightly different angle. On my first record there is a piece called "Highland Aire", which contains a fairly conventional exposition of three themes and then a solo, but after the solo rather than just going back to the head it goes to another section based on different changes and the melodic motifs seem to be leading the way. I haven't been content for the solo to be the only way in which the material is developed.

So often the way jazz composition is taught implies that 50 or 60 percent of the music will be invented by the rhythm section and we just focus on this little part writing. Tune writing is approached like that - there's melody and chords, as if that alone defines music. Even more elaborate study of jazz counterpoint deals with the sections of the big band as if the music is defined by the horns and the rhythm section exists somewhere else. The biggest lacking I hear in most jazz composers is this blind spot where all the elements of music are not dealt with. I've tried to build up the music from every perspective possible, rhythmic as well as melodic, and to get completely away from the notion of "Chord". It's a possibly useful reduction of music after the fact and enables jazz musicians to play on a song, but it has to be understood as what it is - a reduction of the music, a shorthand, and doesn't really describe the music and to start out writing a piece of music with a chord I think is a huge mistake and people who still think of music in terms of chords have kind of missed the point.

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