“Be more creative!”

January 14, 2010 By Russell Scarbrough

Today I attended a rehearsal of a local high school jazz band, which is preparing a new piece I wrote for them. The piece, called “Flex Time”, is all in odd meters, and I must say that it is technically pretty challenging for a young band. Yet the toughest part of playing the piece is that it is not clearly in any traditional jazz style. The standard publications for developing musicians avoid anything that is not directly derivative of something concrete – funk, which goes like this… swing, which goes like this…, latin, which goes etc. What style is “Flex Time”? I suppose among professionals we’d say “ECM feel”, but that’s still pretty ambiguous. There are significant shades of minimalism in it. The rhythm section, especially the drums, is very free, and kind of floats along throughout the whole piece. On the other hand, they are critical in telegraphing energy, and requires a great deal of musical intuition and creativity – not things an inexperienced band has usually developed from playing the published stuff. I often shout at the drummer while he’s playing: “Be more creative!”

Yet they are doing a commendable job with it. The rhythm section is jelling. The horns, while struggling a bit with the “fast but relaxed and quiet” feel, are executing some details and getting into the subtleties. An overall shape is emerging, and the “story” of the piece is starting to come through. In some ways, I feel compositionally that it’s one of the most successful things I’ve written, that I really met my goals and purpose for writing the piece. And I’m really enjoying hearing this high school band playing it… something I frankly never thought I’d ever say.

And the band director who commissioned it (actually directors, there are two) ought to be commended for asking for it, because they really aren’t getting something they could have just ordered out of a catalog, if I may say so. Certainly they wanted something technically challenging but not out-of-reach for their bands, which “Flex Time” seems to deliver on. But I think what they will really take away from this piece is the understanding of how musical intuition and creative logic fit into playing a through-composed piece. There’s a lot written out for them, yet there is so much that’s not on the page that the piece really needs. It requires the musicians to be responsible for the overall character of the work, and to do so with authority – not just executing their parts properly.

I can tell by the way they interact with me at rehearsal that I’m very different from their band director, since I don’t talk about technique so much or really rehearse parts. I talk about energy, shapes, sound, emotion. What this music is about. “Cover up the seams between these sections, flow more organically; telegraph the energy coming up here; much less intense, less urgent, relax.” I hear the change in their playing as they begin to think about these things. Hopefully they’ll take that intuition and creativity into other music they play. If they do, this music will have really contributed something valuable to their lives.