Post-millennial swing

By JIM MACNIE  |  August 4, 2010

DO YOU KNOW THE END OF THE PIECE BEFORE YOU START WRITING THE PARTICULARS? I've never been good at creating a frame and then pouring notes into it. One thing Bob tried to instill in his students is the importance of pre-composition work, and I wish that I was better at it. I've tried and it's never good. I always chaff against that predetermined structure. That happened with this piece. I had a very Brookmeyer-esque phrasing, a low register thing, ba ba ba, then I tried coming at it from as many different angles as possible — explode this germ of an idea in a million directions, look at it inside out and upside down, and turn it into a menu of possibilities. That's typical for me. But when I go to write a piece, I don't always refer to the menu, I'll just kind of wing it. [Those initial ideas] are percolating in the back of my mind, they're close at hand. I don't consciously refer to it as I'm writing, but bits and pieces start suggesting themselves because of the direction the music is going. That happens quite a lot. The ideas suggest a direction, which is why I have trouble coming up with a frame before I start to write. The music takes on a life of its own, and I feel I ignore that at my peril. But it's also a challenge to then step back and look at the big picture. Where is the focal point? Do I need more or less of something? How long is too long? There's an ongoing editing process. By the time I get to the end of this piece, I'll probably check the structure and move some things around.

WHICH BROOKMEYER RECORD STILL GIVES YOU GOOSE PIMPLES? My favorite is Make Me Smile. There's a great arc to each piece and great arc to the album overall. Especially Mel Lewis's playing on the "The Nasty Dance," which is a culmination of everything he played in his career, exploding at once. Along with the young Joe Lovano soloing on it, it opened up some new territory for what a big band could do. It still feels so dynamic and fresh and swaggering and bad-ass. Bob brings in this gritty, ultra-modern approach to swing, draws back into the roots, and drops in a plunger-muted trumpet — boo wop, boo wop — that's coming out of nowhere at the climax of the tune. From 1982 he reaches back to Kansas City 1937 in a way that doesn't sound contrived. It's seems like it's the only thing that could actually happen there — a perfect moment. I would love someday to have a piece where someone thinks, "Yes, that's the perfect gesture for that moment in time."

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