Saxophonist John O'Gallagher and Modern Jazz Composition

Franz A. Matzner By

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For me, visually, the sense of space, color, line and density, the architecture of music and painting are really very close together.
Following his well-received debut album Axiom with the equally intricate, experimental, and explorative Arabesque release Abacus , alto saxophonist and composer John O’Gallagher is rapidly establishing himself as not only a deft soloist, but also a formidable composer striving to expand the boundaries of jazz form.

It was my distinct pleasure to speak with Mr. O’Gallagher about his new release, his compositional approach, and his upcoming plans.

All About Jazz: I want to start off with Abacus. This is your second release to date, correct?

John O’Gallagher: This is my second record, right. My first one for Arabesque.

AAJ: It’s a somewhat different sound from Axiom. A little cleaner, crisper, a little bit of a lighter touch.

JO: The instrumentation is different and with this group [so] I was exploring other things. For me, when I write music I take into account who I’m writing for. It’s the old thing, you know, Duke Ellington always wrote the music in his head which was custom for the band.

AAJ: That’s become a jazz approach that really distinguishes it from other styles of composition.

JO: That’s right. So that’s probably why this record is different. These are different musicians and I was hearing different things for this group.

AAJ: Both albums have a very distinctive compositional style though. That’s what really interested me. Even though the instrumentation is different, and the resulting sound is different, there’s this underlying similarity to the compositions.

JO: I’m glad to hear that because that’s what I strive for. I think that as a composer you want to try and have a discernable writing style. If you think about all the great composers, each of them does. It’s a hard thing to work on, but I think eventually, as you keep writing and working on the sounds and things that interest you in music, that like with playing, you’ll find your voice. At least hopefully you will.


AAJ: I want to dig into the compositions a little because they’re very intriguing...What struck me is that on first listen the sound is very dense, somewhat discordant, and sometimes quite frenetic, so that it can sound almost free. But when you listen again, there’s a lot of structure there that provides a very solid bass. I was wondering how you approach that underlying structure.

JO: Number one, I’m very interested in having every piece say something, having a continuity within it, an underlying logic or meaning in it. But the pieces are really vehicles for improvising. What I try to do when I’m composing...is set up things that give food for thought, that create structures that people can branch out on. Each piece is slightly different, but they all have that same thread of serving the improvisation, of trying to come up with something that is slightly different from your normal, standard jazz form.

AAJ: That’s what I’m driving at. The forms. Just judging from the song titles alone, there’s something different going on here. Your employing a different set of imagery. Very mechanistic and scientific.

JO: The music is definitely inspired by a lot of different things. Some of it can be inspired by works of art, some of it might be inspired by things in science or mathematics that I might be reading or studying. As an artist, you try to find those common links and ground between arts and, well, all the different things that interest you. Like the title track. With that piece I was exploring a couple things that had to do with symmetry and a 15 and 1/2 beat cycle that could be broken up in various different ways... I was exploring adding and subtracting in different ways.

AAJ: There seems to be a consistent interest in mathematics, or a sense of mathematical balance and structure. Looking at the very next track, “Song.” Somewhat unusual for a jazz musician to take on a Schoenberg piece.

JO: I’d have to say I’m very influenced by modern classical music. I love that piece. When I first heard that piece—it’s a very small excerpt from “Serenade for Octet”—and when I heard it for the first time I was like ‘Oh my gosh’ this is the vocabulary of modern jazz. This is it. So I took a short segment from that piece and worked it into the composition we played. It seemed a natural fit musically, emotionally, structurally. Everything about it. I think that these days it’s become more common that classical—its always influenced jazz—but you see many artists out there very influenced by it.


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