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Interviews

Tom Lawton: Co-Creating the Music

By Published: May 31, 2004
AAJ: The pieces on your CD strikingly come across as very coherent from beginning to end.

TL: Right- that is the goal, but that's partially because I try to present a structural basis for the freedom. But the most free ones are "The Norman D. Invasion," "Celestial Prism," and "Archetypal Archives," because those do not have any recurring harmonic structure that the soloists are playing over.

AAJ: So how do you guys all get together?

TL: Well, after the head, you just use other elements. You use melodic ideas, textural ideas, rhythmic motifs, group interactions.

AAJ: So, as before, there are other structuring elements than the chord progression.

TL: For instance, in "The Norman D. Invasion," we used motifs from the melody very loosely as the basis for the entire improvisation. It begins with pulse-making, where the pulse behind the improvisation is still referencing what happened during the melody. After a while, we leave pulse entirely, and it's more rubato. So, the piece is based on motifs from the melody.


VARIOUS INFLUENCES

AAJ: That reminds me of John Coltrane's "Meditations."

TL: Right, right. That kind of thing, yeah. Even though each player and composer will do it differently, it is that idea.

AAJ: Now, is there a relationship between "free jazz" and "Third Stream Jazz."

TL: I'm not sure what "Third Stream" is other than Gunther Schuller coined the term for combining jazz with various classical elements. They may have used some freedom in a certain way, for example, when collaborating with Ornette Coleman on some projects.

AAJ: Yes, a cohort of musicians seemed to call themselves "Third Stream..."

TL: You rarely hear that term any more, but I think it had to do with some people at the New England Conservatory. In truth, jazz from its inception has always been a hybrid of everything, from the African rhythms and melodies mixed with European harmonies that musicians took from hymns. It's always been a hybrid, but today it's more exciting than ever, especially in the hands of someone like Dave Douglas.

AAJ: We'll get to him a little later. I want to get to some of the classical influences. First, of all, while it's not directly relevant to your CD, perhaps you can speak to it. Two composers in particular are given a great deal of credit for impacting upon modern jazz, beginning say with bebop. Those are Debussy and Stravinsky. Musicians such as Charlie Parker, Gil Evans, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, and J.J. Johnson often have commented about the impact of one or both of these two composers. What's your sense of what Debussy and Stravinsky contributed to jazz?

TL: OK. In terms of mainstream jazz, Debussy is easier to peg. Debussy and Ravel used extended harmonies, but in "straight ahead" contexts. Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner—indeed many things that are now considered "stock" in jazz- originated in the impressionist composers. The harmonic elements, not the rhythmic elements.

AAJ: And Stravinsky?

TL: The "Rite of Spring" probably affected everyone. It's interesting that when you think of that, a lot of the "free jazz" that we play, comes out of improvising with that type of idea in mind, where we're not necessarily sticking to the same pulse or recurring structure. We're just sort of improvising in a "through-composed" way.

AAJ: Which is characteristic of the "Rite of Spring."

TL: Well, I don't purport to know what is the structure of "Rite of Spring," but we just hear that kind of idea, mutated through a jazz lens.

AAJ: In your CD, what classical composers could we catch glimpses of?

TL: Well, I didn't set out to officially imitate anyone, but- for instance- "Celestial Prism" is probably impressionistic- that and "Island." They have shades of Debussy, Ravel, and Messiaen. Actually Oliver Messiaen is one of my favorite modern composers. "Norman D. Invasion" and parts of "Archetypal Archives" may have more of... This is all very loose talk... but I would say Lutoslawski and Penderecki are there. They are MY references, but the other guys on the CD- they may be thinking of something else entirely.

AAJ: But someone might hear echoes of Lutoslawski and Penderecki there.

TL: In the big picture, I think of it more organically. We have these various influences, but when we're playing organically, it's just certain types of sounds, textures, or whatever may have been stimulated in us. It comes out differently than it went in.

AAJ: Now, are there particular jazz influences which impact on your composing and playing?

TL: To me, the pinnacle of jazz composition is Dave Douglas. He's one of the few musicians that I must listen to frequently. He's extremely prolific- I don't know how he ever sleeps! He has numerous ensembles that he writes for and plays with. They're all different, yet they all sound like his concept. Someone like Dave comes along very seldom.

AAJ: So Dave Douglas. Others?

TL: Uri Caine, Ben Schachter are great composers. Also, Norman David, Chris Speed, Ornette Coleman. Going back, Monk, Wayne Shorter, Mingus.


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