Dr Damian Evans on the utilisation of composition for improvisational purposes and the role of composition in improvisation.
This article performs a reading of the composition Rum by Greg Felton, an Irish pianist and composer. Felton teaches piano, rhythm studies, advanced harmony and composition in the Jazz and Contemporary Performance degree course at Dublin City University and is described by Barra Boydell in The Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland as"one of the leading jazz pianist-composers to have emerged in Ireland in recent years". 1 I examine how, in jazz performance, composition can serve the function of a focal point for group decisions regarding performance and interpretation. In this sense, compositions form part of the social and musical interaction customarily valued by improvising musicians.
In jazz performance, musicians typically place improvisation to the fore. That is not to say that composition and composers are not important in jazz, far from it, but the centrality of improvisation means that it is possible for a musician to have a career in jazz without ever having put their name to a composition. Composition is, nonetheless, an essential aspect of jazz practice. There exists a canon of iconic works that form the basis of the standard repertoire, primarily consisting of works that are over fifty years old. The convention of an artist's output consisting primarily of ‘standards’, (the name given to compositions that are well known by many if not most jazz musicians), has changed considerably in the last twenty to thirty years. Today, a release that contains no original compositions is likely to be viewed as a throwback to an earlier time and could lack cultural capital from that viewpoint.
The relationship of jazz to composition reflects the changing relationship that jazz has had with society and status throughout its history. The efforts of musicians and scholars to have jazz accepted as a serious music that is worthy of study have been well documented in papers such as Scott DeVeaux’s Constructing the Jazz Tradition, including the implications of such efforts and the resultant narrative and canon that were contributed to in the process.2 As ethnomusicologist Ingrid Monson states, "the concept of absolute music offered a way for jazz enthusiasts to prove to the unbelieving musical academy that jazz improvisation and composition warranted serious attention". 3 Paradoxically, as Monson points out, those same standards have sometimes allowed scholars to overlook elements of jazz that do not have equivalents in the Western art music tradition. This paper addresses one such element, the utilisation of composition for improvisational purposes and the role of composition in improvisation.
Vijay Iyer is an American pianist/composer/academic of Indian heritage. That heritage, including the Karnatak music of South India, has proven influential in his compositional and improvisational concepts, as have African-American musical elements and the African roots of African-American music. 4 Of particular interest to this article is Iyer’s rendering of a 1970s soul-jazz classic Mystic Brew, by Ronnie Foster. In it, Iyer makes use of the Fibonacci sequence, and in his writing about the piece, connects the mathematical with "embodied human action in a structured environment", a "sustained interaction between ourselves and the world around us" that he wishes to make audible through music.5 Iyer has no issue with introducing the topic of using mathematical concepts in his compositions, then going on to discuss a radical reworking of someone else’s composition.
As Monson has made clear, the borrowing from, and cross-fertilisation of ideas from one musical setting to another has always been an important part of jazz performance. It is part of what Monson calls intermusicality, a way of thinking about the particular ways in which music and sound itself can refer to the past and offer social commentary. For Monson, the term intermusical "is best reserved for aurally perceptible musical relationships that are heard in the context of particular musical traditions". 6 The title of Felton’s composition, Rum, can be viewed from an intertextual perspective, that is the word ‘rum’ immediately brings to mind the origin and associations of rum. Felton’s melodies and rhythms, through intermusicality, achieve a similar function, bringing to mind Caribbean melodies, rhythmic motifs and an individual's relationship with the musical past. Monson is interested in how "music functions in a relational or discursive rather than an absolute manner", in this sense, Rum, rather than simply being a ‘signifier’ of another musical style,allows for improvising musicians to bring something from their past to the musical present. 7
To return to and summarise Iyer’s rendition of Mystic Brew, he uses the harmonic rhythmic motif of a grouping of three eighth notes, followed by a grouping of five eighth notes. 8 The sort of rhythm found, as Iyer mentioned in an article in The Guardian on the piece, in the opening chords to Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. This harmonic rhythm gives, in a bar of 4/4, the ratio of 3:5. After a period of time, the group use a tempo modulation to change to a 13/8 time signature in a faster tempo. The 13/8 bar is grouped in 5 and 8, giving the ratio 5:8 followed by a modulation into 21/8, grouped in 8 and 13, giving the ratio 8:13.
This series of metric modulations are following the Fibonacci sequence. The Fibonacci sequence are a series of numbers, named after a 13th-century Italian mathematician of the same name. The sequence begins: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144 and continues ad infinitum. As the sequence progresses, the relationship between neighbouring notes in the sequence moves closer to the number called the ‘golden ratio’ of 1.6180339887. For a more detailed explanation of Iyer’s Mystic Brew, see his article in The Guardian here. Iyer explains in it that although the progression from 4/4 to 13/8 to 21/8 could be incongruous, the brain perceives the “short-long” groupings as the same in each time signature, and the ‘forgiving ear’, in conjunction with our brains, smooths things out, so that there is a sense of regular pulse throughout the entire piece.
I became interested in the idea of ‘the forgiving ear’ at the beginning of my PhD studies. My trio of the time, with Johnny Taylor on piano and Dominic Mullan on drums, developed a number of metric modulations that didn’t quite resolve mathematically – that is to say, a particular note value in one tempo may be approximately equal to another note value in another tempo, but not exactly equal – but nonetheless worked, because of 'the forgiving ear'. The main clave we focused upon moved between 5/4 and a 7/4 meter. (See figures 1 & 2)
Figure 1: 5/4 Clave
Figure 2: 7/4 Clave
The concept occurred to me during a tour of Ireland with New York guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and Northern Irish drummer David Lyttle. We were rehearsing the introduction to Stella by Starlight, which Jonathan plays as a fast 7/4, when he stopped the band and said, "Somebody’s playing in five". That got me thinking about how close the two claves above are when played without the context of subdivisions, and later I connected that with Vijay Iyer’s work. My trio with Taylor and Mullan played Stella by Starlight with this modulation many times.
Below is a video demonstrating the change. Note that a bar of the 5/4 rhythm is 1.818 seconds in duration, while a bar of 7/4 is 1.909 seconds. This is because the modulation is based upon the duration of a dotted quarter in the 5/4 rhythm being equal length to a half note in the 7/4.
I brought the same ideas to a new trio with Gonzalo del Val and Greg Felton and we also performed it at the Bray Jazz Festival in May 2017. In 2018, we attempted the modulation in Felton’s Rum. Rum (see Figure 3) is a composition by Felton from 2007, written specifically to contrast with a collection of darker, more polytonal compositions within his repertoire at that time.
It was really just a throwaway tune, one that I only spent an hour or so composing, and one that I never thought would be played very often. Clichéd but fun, its simplicity has actually been the reason that it has survived. As there are always constraints on jazz musicians’ time it’s a quick piece to rehearse and to put into a set. It now forms part of the curriculum of the Jazz and Contemporary Music Performance degree course at DCU in the module entitled Irish Composers Workshop. 9
Figure 3: Felton’s Rum
The form of the piece is ABC while the solo section is open, based upon the A section and usually followed by ABC again. The A section, C section and solo sections are in 7/4 while the B section consists of a bar of 7/4 followed by a bar of 3/4. The polyrhythms of four over three in bars one and two of the A section and bar two of the B section are integral to the composition. As Felton states:
Certain manifestations of the time signature 7/4 can feel a little stiff or restrained. This can happen when the rhythmic definition is felt as three long beats followed by one short beat (three half-notes or minims followed by one quarter-note or crotchet). This shorter beat resolving back to the first downbeat every bar can sometimes inhibit the flow music by restricting the time-frame to these obvious blocks. I’ve used the polyrhythm four over thee which essentially smooths out the potentially blocky time-feel. The rhythmic definition here is felt as two half-notes or minims followed by two dotted quarter-notes or crotchets. This ‘evening out’ of the last three beats of the bar makes it less obvious where the start of the bar is and helps to allow the music to flow. 10
The rhythmic pattern of two half-notes followed by two dotted quarter-notes matches the pattern we had previously used in Stella by Starlight.(See Figure 4)
Figure 4: Matching pattern to Stella by Starlight (Figure 2)
Below is a performance of the piece by Felton’s band F-JoB (Felton – piano, Cormac O Brien – double bass, Matthew Jacobson – drums), with guest saxophonist Matthew Berrill. After a bass introduction, melody and piano solo, the ensemble use the C section as a group improvisation, particularly as a vehicle to allow rhythmic experimentation for the drummer. From 3:50 in the video the ensemble start to experiment rhythmically. Felton describes rehearsing the piece:
I love the flexibility that a relatively straightforward tune like this can afford the creative habits of jazz musicians. During one rehearsal with F-JoB we played this tune for over an hour experimenting with different ways to subdivide the rhythm. At one point the drummer was playing an even 15 beats over the pianist and bass player’s 7/4 which was also subdivided into 3 over 7, essentially playing the stacked polyrhythm 15 over 7 over 3. 11
Rum performed by F-JoB:
Our own treatment of Rum differs from that of F-JoB. This treatment of Rum uses the rhythmic concept that we experimented with in Stella by Starlight. This presented a number of issues. Primarily, when and where to change from 7/4 to 5/4 and back again. At the time of the first recording below, the group had only tried a few different methods, eventually settling on the following reasonably complex structure:
A section in 7/4 X 4
A section in 5/4 X 2
B section in 5/4 (with an extra bar of 2/4) X 4
B section in 7/4 (with an extra bar of 3/4) X 2
Solo section in 5/4 until cue then 7/4
A section in 7/4 X 4
A section in 5/4 X 2
B section in 5/4 (with an extra bar of 2/4) X 4
Drum solo over B section in 7/4 until cue.
B section in 7/4 (with an extra bar of 3/4) X 2
Rum performed by Del Val Trio:
Following that recording, the way we approached the metric modulation changed after discussions I had with Irish drummer Sean Carpio who performed with Iyer. He explained that in the Mystic Brew modulations for example, the length of the bar should theoretically remain the same, allowing for a half-way point that almost acted as a backbeat within the music, that would stay the same, regardless of the modulation. In a MIDI rendering of this conception below, the bars of 5/4 and 7/4 are of the exact same duration, 2 seconds each, (5/4 = 150bpm, 7/4 = 210bpm). In addition, the 5/4 bar incorporates a swung eighth note feel, which has the effect of delaying by milliseconds the second pulse of the clave. The two claves are now nearly imperceptibly close when played without a reference pulse, though the difference can still be detected if the listener is paying close attention:
This realisation changed the performance of Rum considerably, resulting in a smoother and freer flow between sections. In the video below free movements between the modulations can be seen in the introduction, finally settling in 5/4 for the beginning of the A section. We then modulate to 7/4 for a repeat of the A section before continuing the composition as it was originally composed until the piano solo. We had planned to go back into 5/4 for the piano solo but instead spontaneously went into an out of time free improvisation section first. The piano solo modulated from 5/4 to 7/4 before continuing as it was originally composed.
Alternative performance of Rum:
I find myself searching for legitimacy when including jazz within a composition journal, something jazz scholars have had a habit of doing when venturing into spaces they have not traditionally occupied. Again, I will draw on Iyer’s established place in both academia and improvisation and refer to his article for the American Composers Orchestra. 12 In it he argues that composition in jazz functions as a kind of structural architecture. He focuses on how improvisation takes place ‘in time’ while composition takes place ‘over time’, and asks the question ‘How might one compose music that makes full use of improvisation?’ His answer draws upon the notion of navigation through form, borrowed from composer, improviser, multi-instrumentalist and author Anthony Braxton. While Felton has composed other pieces that might be more suitable for analytical readings, I focus on a composition that demonstrates how improvisation can be imagined as Iyer proposes, "an active path through a space of possibilities". Improvisation in this context, takes place in dialogue with composition, and emphasises such notions as adaptability, negotiation and compromise in both musical and social settings.
Like Iyer’s embodied human action in a structured environment, we are attempting to make something that appears incongruent when viewed intellectually, instead feel natural and joyful. An optical illusion of sound where it does not matter if the listener is aware of the shift from seven to five, but nonetheless they will feel the change viscerally. Negotiating the possibilities this presents means adjusting our treatment of the composition from performance to performance, sometimes during rehearsals, and sometimes spontaneously during performance, in turn creating musical, social and cultural interactions which give meaning to the performance.
1Barra Boydell,‘Greg Felton’. Edited by Harry White and Barra Boydell, The Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland. (University College Dublin Press, 2013), 374.
2 Scott DeVeaux, 1998. Constructing the Jazz Tradition, in: O’Meally, R.G. (Ed.), The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, Columbia University Press, New York.
3 Ingrid Monson, 1996. Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 4.
4 Vijay Iyer, 15 October 2009. Strength in numbers: How Fibonacci taught us how to swing. The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/oct/15/fibonacci-golden-ratio/print 5 ibid.
6 Monson, 127-128.
12 Vijay Iyer, 2004. Navigation Through Form – Composing for Improvisers http://www.americancomposers.org/. http://www.americancomposers.org/improvise/iyer_essay.htm (accessed 8.16.13).