The musical form of an étude, or study, usually has a didactic quality to it, and for good reason: the first so-called études written in the early 19th century were designed to teach students various techniques at the piano. However, in the years since then, many composers have found deeper inspirations in the form—just check out the poetic piano works of Chopin and Debussy. In the 20th century, composers like John Cage and Györgi Ligeti pushed the form in even further directions, exploring the whole range of the piano’s sonic capabilities.
Saxophonist and composer Ohad Talmor has now put his own contemporary stamp on the étude repertoire. In between running the Brooklyn club SEEDS, playing in a wide range of small groups, and doing big band arrangements for a host of today’s biggest jazz names, Talmor has composed his own set of big band études, patiently exploring the instrumentation’s technical range. Talmor has never had the chance to present this music in the United States, and so The Jazz Gallery is proud to present the US debut of this music on Friday and Saturday, May 22nd and 23rd. The pieces will be performed by Talmor’s so-called Grand Ensemble, named for the “grandeur of the musicians who play in it,” says Talmor. We caught up with the composer and saxophonist to talk about the pieces’ musical influences and the challenges of bridging the gap between jazz and classical forms.
The Jazz Gallery: You’ve done large ensemble arrangements for different projects led by Kurt Rosenwinkel, Joshua Redman, and Lee Konitz in Europe. When you’re in this situation, what do you feel your role is? Are you just thickening or coloring what’s already there in the music, or are you there to add your own personality and push the material in a new direction?
Ohard Talmor: It would definitely be the second option. I’m not a stock arranger by training—I never really learned the conventional way of writing for big band. I just learned by doing. I started pretty early in my early twenties in Europe. I associated with an excellent big band, the Big Band de Lausanne in Switzerland, and started writing for them. When I’m writing for these soloists, I make a point of telling them that I can’t be Lennie Niehaus or someone like that, but I try to get to their music and infuse with my kind of work, my own background.
Working with Rosenwinkel was interesting because Kurt has such a strong personality, and is accustomed to doing things his way, so it wasn’t necessarily all smooth sailing. It was always respectful, but I had to tinker with things so that he would agree to it. When he first played it, he did a bit of a double take. I took his music and deconstructed it a little bit, put my own voice in it. He relented at first, then went back to it and played it in concert, and then recorded some of the stuff that I wrote and added his own touches. It was great. It became this new thing, his own thing, two degrees removed from the music originally.
But just in general, whomever I’m working with, I just try to integrate what they do into my own musical universe.
TJG: You’re presenting a series of what you call big band études at The Jazz Gallery this weekend. What kind of musical concepts do these pieces “study?”
(Étude no. 2 by Ohad Talmor, performed by the Orquesta Jazz de Matosinhos)
OT: An étude focuses on a particular area of music, a specific set of problems or constraints. But I had never heard something like that done for so-called big band or large ensemble, where you take these musical problems and grind them down into something. So that’s what I’ve done—I’ve focused on one or two aspects of music in each étude, and try to carry them as far as I can and explore all the facets that they evoke.
The first deals with my fascination with the composer György Ligeti, especially his sense of counterpoint. I’m exploring different types of counterpoint within complex harmonies without ever deviating from that abstract world. The second one is much more urban and reflects my love of A Tribe Called Quest and groups like that, so I messed with that aspect.
The third one reflects many nights of conversation with Steve Coleman. I run the venue SEEDS in Brooklyn, and we’ve hosted Steve here and worked with him. Both of us share this love of the composer Per Nørgård, and so this piece focuses on Nørgård and the naturalistic ideals of music—sound for sound’s sake.
The challenge for all of these pieces is two-fold: you can write all this complicated stuff for the sake of writing complicated stuff and it has no real meaning. Everything is written for jazz musicians who have a jazz vocabulary, and today’s musician is a very educated beast, playing many different things, echoing the world they live in. So it’s jazz and it’s Indian music and it’s hip-hop, and so it’s all part of the same package of all of us playing the music. So the challenge is to incorporate that vocabulary of improvisation into the pieces, because how can you craft something out of what’s just a constraint? And then there’s the rhythmic formula that doesn’t fall into a simple groove or a straight swing feel. These two things are the big hurdles that I’m trying to go around with these pieces.
So we’ll play these three études that really dig into very different areas, and then we’ll play this 30-minute piece I wrote that was originally a three-part suite for Joshua Redman, Mark Turner, and Chris Cheek. One movement focuses on Hindustani music, which I’ve played for a long time, like with Dan Weiss—I play the bansuri flute. The second one has to do more with the modern classical world, and the third one is my take on the blues and all the different things you can do with it. The piece is sort of my early foray into writing études without actually calling them that.
TJG: This approach to writing for big band seems a bit removed from what a lot of people of doing today with that instrumentation. It seems that a lot of arrangers like to use those resources in an imagistic or programmatic way—like Maria Schneider’s depictions of nature, or JC Sanford’s depictions of New York, or Darcy James Argue’s large-scale dramatic suites. Why do you think this is such a common approach to writing for big band, and why do tend to live in this more abstract and formal world?
OT: That’s a great question! I don’t know why they do this—everyone has their own journey. I was always a composer coming from a more classical background, so I’m not a conventional jazz composer in that sense. But then I’m still a saxophonist by trade and studied with Lee Konitz, and I play Indian music every day, and I have two kids and hip-hop is on at all times in the house and my wife used to be a dancer… So it makes little sense for me to go into what these other writers are doing because that doesn’t reflect my reality. I understand where they’re coming from, and it’s a holistic vision.
Basically, you need a thread in a piece of music, and that’s the hardest thing to do. Composing is about making choices, and managing absolute freedom. You start with a blank page and then what? That’s a problem and so different people have different ways of getting that thread. I understand what Darcy is doing and I understand what JC is doing, but I have to go my own way.
TJG: You have this background in both classical and jazz, and you’ve written a fair bit for ensembles that feature musicians from both backgrounds—whether the string arrangements you wrote with Konitz or the concerto for Jason Moran, Dan Weiss, and orchestra you composed. How do you manage your musical ideas and vocabulary when you have very different kinds of players working together?
OT: It’s definitely a confluence of a couple of things. The first thing is of course to know who you’re writing for. If I write for Jason Moran, he plays the way he plays, and I’ve known him since I moved to New York twenty years ago, same thing with Dan Weiss. I know what they can do and how they sound. So that’s an important thing to have inside your vocabulary toolbox. The second thing, which I’ll give you a metaphor for, is like someone coming to a music teacher and asking, “Hey! I’d like to learn to play the guitar!” Well the answer isn’t really playing the guitar, but it’s what music you like to make. The guitar is just a tool to serve the music. The same applies to these pieces that you mentioned. You need to have a projection of an idea and then use the tools you have at your disposal to make it happen. You know the guys you’re writing for and you know the orchestra, and how those different instruments work—basically you need to do your homework so you can have those tools available to you. But the important thing is to have that main idea—a musical identity—and then the tools help open it up to you. Without that idea, everything is just a bunch of notes and sounds.
TJG: That whole concept of making up a good musical idea can seem so simple, but be so elusive.
OT: Oh yeah. I teach composition, mostly in Europe, and I don’t just teach normal harmony by the book. I encourage my students to just listen to a lot of music and learn from there. But it always comes down to the simple answer. A lot of times when they show me something, or ask me a question, I’m like, “Yes. But what do you want?” Nine times out of ten it’s an issue of not being clear with that, with what you’re projecting.
For me, within a piece’s first gesture lies the whole universe, lies the seeds of the whole tree, whatever metaphor you want to use. And that’s really the genesis of these études and of most of the stuff that I write. It’s always a very simple gesture at the beginning, and out of that you can grow a whole piece.
TJG: It’s funny, but I haven’t spoken to a lot of jazz musicians right now that write in that systematic way. For a lot of people who are primarily improvisers, the writing process is much more intuitive. How do you balance a systematic approach with an intuitive one?
OT: I don’t think they’re incompatible. For many years, I struggled with this idea. I tend to write very precisely, with a lot of information on the page, because I have an idea that I really want to hear. But I’m also wedded to the possibilities of improvisation in jazz. Eventually I realized that I didn’t need to struggle as much, because I didn’t need to come up with an absolute, bible truth that a piece has to be both this and that. I just trust that they will meet, and not necessarily through the parameters that I set out with.
I’m very much influenced by the guys who live around me—people like Miles Okazaki and Dan Weiss who play extraordinarily complex base material in small groups. I’m able to see what they’re able to do with this complex material as improvisers, so that’s been a huge influence for me. I’m trying to apply some of these ideas to a larger ensemble.
TJG: So how do these ideas work in your études? How do you think about integrating improvisations where the players can really be themselves within your rigorously constructed compositions?
OT: Since all of the players here do have strong personalities, they will imbue each piece with those personalities. If I were to take studio musicians, like from Los Angeles, the band would have that bright saxophone sound and that bland brass sound, and the pieces wouldn’t work. But overall, there’s still a more limited degree of freedom in these pieces than if it was just a duo of me and a drummer. When there is open space, the important thing is connect that section organically with the written material that comes before it. You can’t necessarily expect the section players to understand all of the little wheels and cogs that you’ve put in that’s resulted in this big clockwork in the music. You have to give enough information on the paper and trust that the players will be listening for everything that’s going on, and help point them to what’s important in the piece, so when they’re on their own, they’ll both serve the ideas of the piece, and let their personality come out.
TJG: Yeah. Different composers seem to have different approaches in terms of communicating that information about the music to the soloists, or setting up certain constraints. Like some composers will create this big dramatic moment where the piece explodes and the soloist organically comes out of that gesture. And then there’s the Bob Brookmeyer approach where the background figures are really active and force the soloist to listen closely and navigate those roadblocks, so to speak.
OT: Yeah. The constraint is the springboard to musical creativity. In musical terms, a barline is a constraint. Playing in 4/4 time is a constraint. Having the rhythm section play in a mixed meter underneath the soloist—that’s a constraint. The soloist or whomever’s improvising has to relate to these constraints. This has always been a fascination for me, especially as I get further into the Nørgård and Ligeti that I’ve liked listening to. In the end, these pieces just boil down to how to put all these different things I like together. It’s probably impossible, but who knows!
The Ohad Talmor Grand Ensemble plays Talmor’s “Book of Etudes” at The Jazz Gallery on May 22nd and 23rd, 2015. The group is led by Mr. Talmor as saxophonist and conductor, and features Shane Endsley, Russ Johnson, Justin Mullens, and Sam Hoyt on trumpets/French Horn; Alan Ferber, Jacob Garchik, Brian Drye, and Max Seigel on trombones; Oscar Noriega, Christof Knoche, Anna Webber, Chet Doxas, and Josh Sinton on woodwinds; as well as Matt Mitchell on piano, Miles Okazaki on guitar, Matt Pavolka on bass, and Dan Weiss on drums. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. each night. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.