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Interviews

Tom Lawton: Co-Creating the Music

By Published: May 31, 2004
AAJ: So that what you call a composition is a tune on which you elaborate a structure?

TL: In jazz, what you call a composition is that you write the structure upon which to improvise.

AAJ: OK, that would be very interesting to our readers.

TL: I think they may already know that. I mean, composition doesn't necessarily mean everything is written out- in jazz.

AAJ: I think everyone recognizes that most of it is improvised on the spot. But I think most people think that what is composed is the melody.

TL: Oh, there is a melody composed for every tune, and most have a harmonic scheme, as well.

AAJ: But you're also saying that a jazz composition could conceivably be a structure, not just a melody.

TL: In the CD, they all have melodies and harmonic progressions, both of which constitute the structures

AAJ: But, in principle, they don't have to.

TL: Right. I mean there are three "free" pieces on the CD, in the sense that there still are melodies to start with, but what makes them "free" is that the improvisation is not over a recurring form of chords.

AAJ: Can you tell us a little bit about how you go about creating a piece? Take it from the initial inspiration to what you put down on staff paper, to what you bring into the recording studio with the guys.

TL: In a general way, my method is what I call organic. I don't set out to write a certain number of bars. I often start out either with a mood, or a fragment of a melodic or rhythmic motif, occasionally a rhythmic groove, and then that generates some kind of germinal material that I then just play repetitively and try different ways to elaborate on it. For me, it takes a long time, because I keep playing it until the next bar, or- occasionally- the next ten bars at a time, becomes organic and feels right. I'm very unscientific. I do use my intuition and harmonic knowledge to generate degrees of tension and release.

AAJ: And what'll go on the staff paper? Melody and chords?

TL: Yeah. And rhythms.

AAJ: So then you'll take that into the studio with the guys. And what do you tell them? You don't just tell them, "Let's wail?"

TL: For this recording, we had a few rehearsals. They see the music. I tell them generally the tempo, the mood. We try a couple of things. They ask questions about it. Do we want this section to be a "chill out" from the preceding section? We play it a few times. At first it's a bit mechanical as we get it together. Then, gradually, as we do it more, the group's chemistry asserts itself because they absorb the material, and it generates a life of its own.

AAJ: When they're actually playing, do you give them any cues to try to generate a particular effect or emotion? In other words, are you, in a sense, composing as you're all performing?

TL: Only occasionally, on the "free" pieces, I may wave a particular instrument out or in, to get a particular orchestral mix.


MUSIC WITHOUT CATEGORY

AAJ: On the CD liner notes, you say something very intriguing, that you "embrace the idea of music without category." What could you mean by that statement?

TL: Well, at this point in my musical life, I'm not concerned with jazz per se, although if you had to name it, that's what I do. But most of what's really interesting in jazz of the last twenty years has happened because of people checking out wildly diverse music and bringing their own improvisational skills to it. For instance, there have been so many wonderful things happening in New York, like John Zorn, and his whole movement of radical Jewish jazz. There are dozens of CD's bringing in, say, klezmer music, mixing it with Ornette Coleman-like sensibilities, and classical music. And guitarist Bill Frisell mixes a country feel. Dave Douglas incorporates everything, and it still sounds unified.

AAJ: But your CD isn't like that. Isn't it more along the lines of mainstream jazz?

TL: Well, if it's mainstream, then I've done something wrong. Except for perhaps the first tune, I don't really think of it as mainstream at all.

AAJ: Well, let's get right to it, then. How is it NOT mainstream?

TL: For instance, most of the harmonic things that happen are not what you would hear in mainstream jazz at all. There's influence from twentieth century classical music...

AAJ: Quite frankly, isn't that happening in mainstream jazz on a regular basis?

TL: Oh, it's happening everywhere. It's happened since the fifties. But that type of thing has never become mainstream. Yes, there are some things in the record that are definitely more "inside" than others. These days, one can no longer really innovate. What happens is that each individual consolidates his or her diverse influences and then a unique sound hopefully emerges.

AAJ: A propos of that, you talk about "free" composition....

TL: Well, the composition isn't free. The improvisation is.

AAJ: I thought ALL improvisation is free.

TL: It's a term that goes back to the sixties. "Free jazz" is used to describe improvisation that is not over regular chord changes, like the later Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor. It's not a totally correct term because every one of those people has his own structure governing the so-called "free" improvisation.


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