Ben Ratliff - NY Times, Part 2
7/5/2015 7:14:35 PM - In the 1960's Mr. Brookmeyer began to struggle against the conventions of jazz, the aspects he has come to call, with derision, "rituals." Increasingly he turned to composing. "Playing is easy for me," he said. "It's a nice hobby. I can pretty well turn it on and off. I can't do that with writing. A blank piece of paper is a great leveler."

What interested him most was overturning the consensual hierarchies in jazz. His work in the mid-60's for the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band like his own "ABC Blues," which used 12-tone sequences over blues changes was intellectually challenging. But when he returned to the band as musical director after a decade in Los Angeles, which ended in two hospital rehabs, he really started pushing the band to its limits.

He had quit drinking for good and was studying composition with Earle Brown, the modern classical composer. He became interested in the most aggressive kinds of modern music "music to make your teeth hurt," as he puts it. And he set about creating pieces for the fairly mainstream Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra (Thad Jones had left by then) in which, as he explained, "solos became the background to the background."

This was an idea first hatched while he was arranging and composing for Gerry Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band in the early 60's. He wanted to integrate solos fully with ensemble passages, at times even making them secondary, an idea dating back to Count Basie, which through his sensibilities would influence Maria Schneider and Jim McNeely, two current composers for large-ensemble jazz who owe a great debt to Mr. Brookmeyer.

Back in New York in the early 80's which was also when he started his teaching career in earnest he began to question the entire established language of jazz performance, but especially solos, which he had come to regard as "ritual gone mad."

"My first rule became: The first solo only happens when absolutely nothing else can happen," he explained. "You don't write in a solo until you've completely exhausted what you have to say. If you give a soloist an open solo for 30 seconds, he plays like he's coming from the piece that you wrote. Then he says, 'What the hell was that piece that I was playing from?' And the next 30 seconds is, 'Oh, I guess I'll play what I learned last night.' And bang! Minute 2 is whoever he likes, which is probably Coltrane."

One of his heroes at the time was Witold Lutoslawski, the Polish composer. We listened to Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto, a nearly 25-minute piece finished in 1970, as performed by Mstislav Rostropovich. It begins with a series of short D's played by the cello soloist; after some side roads, confrontations between the cello and the orchestra, the repeated note comes back.

"Interested?" Mr. Brookmeyer said, grinning. At the beginning of the second movement, the woodwinds go up and down, in thirds. "It's so lovely, and so subtle," he said enthusiastically. "It's like a rainbow shooting up. He uses material that's so beautiful, and makes it happen again, so he raises expectations."

Mr. Brookmeyer talked about the qualities of music that are important to him. "How do you begin to speak to the listener?" he began. "The listener doesn't have to like the process, but he needs to be in the process, to make the trip with you.

"In the 80's," he continued, "I began to wonder how long I could extend my musical thought and still not break the relationship with the listener, not put the listener to sleep. When I became a teacher, I realized that everybody writes too short. You've got to finish your thought."

His new large-ensemble pieces can be decently long, but they don't make anyone's teeth hurt. (He gives Jan, his fourth wife, some of the credit for cooling him out.) But he still has a problem with solos, even in his own band, his pride and joy.

"I never think about a soloist when I'm writing a piece," Mr. Brookmeyer said. "I just think about the piece and say, O.K., maybe it would be a good place to have a little release." His advice to jazz composers: "Keep your hand on the soloist, somehow, with long tones, chords, punches. Keep your hand on him, because he needs it."

A Playlist of Big Sounds for Big Ears

Recordings that Bob Brookmeyer chose to listen to for this article:

COUNT BASIE ORCHESTRA "9:20 Special," from "America's No. 1 Band!: The Columbia Years" (Sony Legacy, $44.98)

BILL HARRIS from "Live at Birdland 1952" (Baldwin Street Music, $18.98)

WITOLD LUTOSLAWSKI Cello Concerto, from "Dutilleux, Lutoslawski: Cello Concertos," featuring Mstislav Rostropovich and the Orchestra de Paris (EMI Classics, $11.98)

Recordings featuring Mr. Brookmeyer recommended by Ben Ratliff:

BOB BROOKMEYER "Traditionalism Revisited" (Blue Note). Recorded in 1957, a fresh, modernized look at the Dixieland repertory, sonically compact and emotionally rich.

JIMMY GIUFFRE TRIO WITH JIM HALL AND BOB BROOKMEYER "Western Suite" (WEA International). From 1958, a lovely, quietly radical record, half through-composed and half freely improvised, based loosely on cowboyish folk-music themes.

STAN GETZ-BOB BROOKMEYER "Recorded Fall 1961" (Verve). A casually virtuosic reunion of two improvisers who played together a great deal in the mid-1950's, in a quintet including the drummer Roy Haynes.

GERRY MULLIGAN "The Complete Verve Gerry Mulligan Concert Band Sessions" (Mosaic, four-disc set). A brilliant big-band project of the early 60's, well received at the time but overshadowed in history by the contemporaneous free jazz movement. Mr. Brookmeyer was co-founder, principal arranger and, next to Mulligan, the prime soloist.

CLARK TERRY-BOB BROOKMEYER QUINTET "Complete Studio Recordings" (Lonehill). A warm, terrifically smart band from the mid-60's, with some of the best rhythm-section players of the day, including the pianist Hank Jones and the drummer Osie Johnson.

BOB BROOKMEYER NEW ART ORCHESTRA "Spirit Music" (ArtistShare). Mr. Brookmeyer's largely European 18-piece band, with the American drummer John Hollenbeck, in a program of new music, rich in color and harmony: the latest step in the evolution of modern, large-ensemble jazz writing that wound through Count Basie's 1950's music and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra of the 1960's.
NEW YORK TIMES - Ben Ratliff
"Only a few of the acknowledged giants of orchestral writing still toil in the recording studio, and Brookmeyer stands among the best of them."

-- LOS ANGELES TIMES -- Howard Reich
"When the entire audience stood and responded with people cheering, shouting and clapping, I realized that this was a moment that will forever live in my memory as an artistic triumph for a great artist. I've experienced it with Miles, Sonny, Trane and now with the compositions and orchestrations of Bob Brookmeyer." [In response to Bob's performance at the IAJE Conference in Jan. 2004]

-- Benny Maupin
"This painterly material is played by not just a big band, but a real orchestra in every sense of the word."

-- JAZZ NOW -- Lawrence Brazier
"This is a musician who finds magic in the spaces, the phrasing, the pauses. For me, it just doesn't get any better than this."

-- 52nd STREET JAZZ -- J. Robert Bragonier
"The captivating New Work (Celebration) is remarkable evidence of the intricate musical language Bob Brookmeyer has crafted as a composer. In the realm of his own inner logic - informed by Sauter and Stravinsky as much as George Russell and even Boulez - Brookmeyer has conceived something that is as warm and passionate as it is cerebral and sometimes startling."

-- ALL ABOUT JAZZ - Douglas Payne
"As a writer, Brookmeyer calls to mind Bill Holman and Gil Evans, among others, singular artists who use the entire orchestra as a canvas on which to paint their elaborate and expressive musical portraits."

-- ALL ABOUT JAZZ -- Jack Bowers
Brookmeyer Celebration Concert
Ben Ratliff - NY Times, Part 1
Ben Ratliff - NY Times, Part 2
Terry Teachout Review
Spirit Music - Ben Ratliff's Top 10 of 2006
Bob Brookmeyer: Spirit Music
Spirit Music Review from
The Irish Times Review
Brookmeyer's Big Band: Hugely Rewarding
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Photo by Wolfgang Gonaus
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