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Darrell Katz

The Same Thing, the new release by composer/musician Darrell Katz and the Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra utilizes Katz’s skills as a leader, a musician, and an educator. He explains how the music for the recording came together.

Jazzreview: What inspired the music for The Same Thing? Where did these songs come from?

Katz: The material on The Same Thing, except for the title track by Willie Dixon which was arranged by me, was all written and arranged by myself not the Jazz Composers Alliance, which is a collective group of composers. Each piece had it’s own inspiration. They were not written at the same time, or consecutively, but in fact, over a long period of time. ‘December 30, 1994’ was written in, I believe 1996. I was greatly moved by the poem, which is about the power and dangers of hateful rhetoric, and instantly felt that I could make it into a piece of music. The big inspiration was the last line itself, ‘Words do kill, and kill and kill again.’ I wanted to make it into a repetitive chant. It wound up instead as a simple melody that hopefully could be repeated. This piece was also one of the first times I worked with spoken text and improvisation. ’Everybody Loves Ray Charles’ was written in 2005, for a concert honoring the music of Ray Charles. I’d had the main ideas for the piece sitting around for years, never knowing what to do with them. Until I was working on music to honor Ray Charles, suddenly the old ideas came alive as there was a context for them. Hopefully, this music does celebrate the spirit of one of the great performers of our time. ’I’m Me and You’re Not’ was originally meant to be spoken only. Gradually the poem became more a part of the music. I first wrote it for a saxophone quartet, and the sax quartet recorded it as the title track of its one CD. It’s a commentary, I suppose, on the selfishness and narcissism that we see so much of these days and is, hopefully, very funny. However, as with all of these pieces, ultimately, the music takes over. But still, the title is a fun thing to say. If you listen carefully, during the alto sax duet, towards the end, you can hear the entire band screaming ‘I’m me and you’re not’. ’Like A Wind’ is my oldest usable composition. I wrote it in 1980. I’ve had multiple versions of it over the years. It’s quite different now than it used to be. The text comes from Sherwood Anderson’s brilliant and innovative early 20th century novel, Winesburg, Ohio and is the thoughts of a dying woman and what she would like to tell her son. ’The Same Thing’ is a blues classic by Willie Dixon, recorded several times by Muddy Waters. It speaks eloquently of the human condition, and was a perfect vehicle for Mike Finnigan. People seem to think that it’s a cynical look at love, but that’s not quite how I take it. I see it as an observation that the world is ruled by our basest emotions and instincts and that’s what drives us to war. It is not unlike what ‘makes a tom-cat fight all night. ’Lemmings’ is a poem more about word play than the content, and was a great vehicle for a structured but purely improvisational piece. It’s performed by a much smaller group than the rest of the music.

Jazzreview: How did the arrangements for The Same Thing come together?

Katz: I wrote all of the music and the arrangements, but with our ensemble there is still room left for collective process. We strive to make it so, in several different ways. The music is designed to include, as much as possible, improvisation in a collective fashion with both jazz and non-jazz improvisation part of the fabric of the composition. In addition to that, we work in a very open way: I write the music, but I am offered many suggestions by the players and many of these wind up in the music. Maybe not a democracy, I compose the music and bring it to the group, but I get a lot of valuable input from them.

Jazzreview: How was recording The Same Thing different from recording your album, The Death Of Simone Weil with the Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra?

Katz: The Same Thing is the sixth album by the Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra. For The Same Thing, we recorded 67 minutes of difficult music in one day, live in the studio session. This is different from his previous record with the JCA, The Death Of Simone Weil. The Death Of Simone Weil, that was recorded live, and therefore was a very different process.

Jazzreview: How does Paula Tatarunis’ poetry inspire you, and why did you want to incorporate her poetry into the recording of The Same Thing?

Katz: Paula’s poetry, she is, by the way, my wife, has great emotional, intellectual and spiritual content, as well as a having a great love of language. When I sit down to write a new piece of music, it’s always very hard. One has an infinite number of possibilities. When I have a text to work with, I am given some kind of shape and direction or mood, some kind of starting point. I use text that I really care about it, and my goal is to put whatever it says, and how it says it, across. This greatly affects how the music is written, both in the form and flow of the piece, and in the details. I want the music, as best I can, to reflect and enhance the text. Rhythms, durations, intervals are all affected by whether or not they fit the text, as are choice of harmonic colors, shifts in textures and form. Working with text gives me a problem to solve, and is a great inspiration to me. Each piece has it’s own message. As I said, eventually, the music takes over, but conveying the abstract, non-musical ideas is very important.

Jazzreview: Why did you also use Paula Tatarunis’ poetry for the recording, The Death Of Simone Weil?

Katz: I was moved by the poem, and recognized it as something that I could work with. Before I decided to pursue being a composer, my interest had been to be a fiction writer. So using music to tell a story, as in setting a long narrative poem, had great appeal to me. And the poem really spoke to me, as a story of a fascinating person, told in the midst of a turbulent history - the Nazis overrunning Europe, and as a collage of intense emotions and longings.

Jazzreview: How did you meet vocalist, Rebecca Shrimpton and why did you want her to read Tatarunis’ poetry on the recording for The Same Thing?

Katz: I was trying to get Dominique Eade, a wonderful Boston-based singer, who teaches at New England Conservatory, to sing the first movement of The Death Of Simone Weil at one of our concerts. She was unable to, and recommended Rebecca, who, at that time, was one of her students. Rebecca now teaches there. Rebecca was exactly NOT the kind of singer I was looking for, and yet, it worked perfectly. She has a beautiful, clear voice, a great range, and a skillful command of it, but what she really brings is great musicality. She really understands the musical concepts, as well as the content of the text in a very deep way. I am very concerned about the meanings of the text used in my music, and she has great insight and skill at bringing these out in an emotional way. She is a great musician as well as a great singer. Over the years that I’ve working with her, I have learned much about writing for her, and much of my music is centered around her skills. She does one of the most important things any singer can do, and that is to make the words believable. She’s very good at singing what I’ve written accurately, while making it sound fresh and spontaneous. She has also become a very skilled and inventive improviser.

Jazzreview: Why did you want to work with singer/keyboardist Mike Finnigan and have him involved in the recording of The Same Thing?

Katz: When I was in high school, in Topeka, Kansas, graduated in 1969 and just becoming a musician, the most revered musician working in Kansas was Mike Finnigan. In the early 70’s, I heard him perform many times with several groups that he was with, and he made a huge impression on me. Over the years since, I always sought out recording that he’s made. He’s still best known, maybe, for being on the Jimi Hendrix album, Electric Ladyland, but he has an enormous resume. He is a marvelous singer, and one very capable of bridging together different styles. Prior to recording The Same Thing, and not having heard of him for a while, I Googled his name, and found a recent album with him and the Phantom Blues Band, the backup band for Taj Mahal, and was once again in awe of him. I thought he would be the perfect singer for my arrangement of The Same Thing, which take very straight-ahead blues and puts it into a different context. I sent him an email; he liked the idea, and flew in for the session. I needed a powerful blues singer with the flexibility to be at home in unfamiliar surroundings, and he did it easily.

Jazzreview: Have you tested the material on The Same Thing in front of a live audience?

Katz: All of this music has been performed before being recorded. Sometimes only once or twice, sometimes more. The Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra doesn’t perform a lot, it simply isn’t practical, and we’re constantly trying to include new music, so a lot of the music that we play doesn’t get played as often as it deserves. Our focus is on NEW music. ‘December 30, 1994,’ was written and first performed in 1996, I think, and has been played a handful of times since. ‘Lemmings’ has only been played once, and ‘I’m Me and You’re Not’ and ‘Like A Wind,’ quite a few times by our standards. This is music that I’d written over a long period, and not necessarily to be put together on an album. I have a lot of music that’s never been recorded: I don’t write as much, perhaps, as I aspire to, but I’ve written a lot more than I’ve been able to record. I hope to record as much of my music as possible, and to keep writing new pieces. But every track from that session is on this album. Keep in mind that we recorded it in a long, live in the studio, one day session. We were lucky to record this much music in one sitting. It’s much easier to play that amount of music live than it is in a studio. Ideally, it would be better to have more days to record on album, but budget constraints and the difficulty of scheduling the number of people involved keep recording time limited. I was considering including a track or two that I do have left over from a sax quartet recording, but there wasn’t enough room left on the disc. I have compositions that go back as far as 1987 that I’d still like to record, and hope to manage to someday do so. Like A Wind’ is my oldest useable composition, written when I was a student in 1980. I had extensively revised it a few years before this recording. There’s a very different trio version of it on The Death Of Simone Weil, and a sax quartet recording of it as well. But it’s not just re-orchestrating it for a larger ensemble. The music was drastically changed. The passage that of Sherwood Anderson’s, from his great novel, Winesburg, Ohio is something that I’d be very curious to hear what other composers would do with, and I’ve been happy to revise the music a number of times. All of our music is intended to be played live, and unlike rock groups, when we go into a studio to record, we’re trying, as much as possible, to duplicate a live performance. We sacrifice some of sounds you can get in a studio by trying to get more of a live feel. Each instrument isn’t isolated. The players don’t record wearing headphones. Our music generally always goes over well with our audience, the problem is that the audience is smaller than it should be.

Jazzreview: Is there a tour planned to support The Same Thing? Any countries or cities that you would like to play?

Katz: We’re not a touring group, though in the future, we are going to try to get to some more jazz festivals.

Jazzreview: What made you co-found the Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra, and what goals have you set for the group?

Katz: I’d started a big band so as to have a group that would play my music. A hard thing to do with limited opportunities to play anywhere. I knew several other composers in the same situation, so we formed a collective group, put together the ensemble, and began producing our own concerts. Our goal in becoming a non-profit corporation enabled us to seek local, regional and national funding to do so. When the group was founded, the emphasis was on orchestration and form. Over the years, it’s become more concerned with collective improvisation. But our music is quite stylistically varied, we’re very eclectic. A large free-lance group such as this, 19 players, always has a large turn over, but still, we have many players who’ve worked with us for 10, 15 and more years. The group has evolved greatly as an entity and has a unique way of approaching whatever is placed in front of it. We’ve also learned a lot from guest performer/composers we’ve had, such as Oliver Lake. The Jazz Composers&&& Alliance (JCA) was founded in 1985 to support, develop and promote the art of music composition in the jazz idiom. The JCA&&&s mission and goals include, but are not limited to: The initiation and support of an active public forum for the presentation of new jazz works through public concerts in the Boston area and the commercial release of recordings of the JCA&&&s repertoire; the maintenance of the JCA Orchestra and auxiliary ensembles such as the JCA saxophone quartet and JCA winds; providing opportunities for visiting composers and guest artists, often of national or international stature, to collaborate and interact with local composers and performers, through the ‘Signature Concert Series’; supporting innovation and quality in jazz composition worldwide through the annual Julius Hemphill Composition Awards, which we ran for about ten years. We’ve also had a community outreach program. It’s not practical for the JCA Orchestra to perform a lot. It is made to promote both the group and myself. I see it, hopefully, as more helping along towards whatever comes next as something that will do a lot on it’s on. These are difficult times, I think, to market any music. CD’s are becoming a thing of the past, and it’s making it even harder to promote and distribute Independent releases like this one, which is on Cadence Jazz Records.

Jazzreview: Has the Internet changed the music industry?

Katz: The Internet and the technologies that have come with it, of course, have changed everything. Like many, I’m still sorting it all out. I seriously miss the big record/CD stores that Boston USED to have. I sometimes buy tracks on iTunes, but I really prefer owning a whole album. I embraced technology very early on, but lately, I am becoming a luddite. As a composer, I’d really rather NOT worry about dealing with marketing, leading a band, running an organization, or all of the other things that aren’t simply sitting in a room writing music, but one has to deal with all of these and more things.

Jazzreview: Who are some musicians that you are listening to today?

Katz: I’ve listened to music a lot throughout my life. At this stage, I listen to more than ever, and yet, spend less time at it. What I’m listening to ‘today’ changes day to day. There’s so much to hear and so little time to hear it all in. I like many kinds of great music. I’ve loved music ever since I was a child. My earliest musical memories are listening to my father’s records of Tom Lehrer, and of him taking me to big band concerts of the Topeka Jazz Workshop. I mostly listen, of course, to jazz and classical music, but many other things as well, particularly gospel music and blues. Of jazz and classical music, I try to be at least familiar with as much of the history as possible of both, as well as what’s going on today. I try to hear as many different things as I can. Lately, I have been listening to a lot of music, revisiting perhaps by people I’ve listened to a lot: George Russell, Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, Cecil Taylor, Mingus, Ellington. who may well have always been my favorite, Ornette Coleman, Coltrane. I’m interested in Tim Berne and Matthew Ship and Jelly Roll Morton and much of what’s in between. I pay a lot of attention to Stravinsky, Bartok, Messiaen, Lutoslawski, Ligeti. Of living composers, two of my favorites are Louis Andriessen and Frederick Rzewski. The lists I could make of the above would be way too long. I’ve always listened a lot to blues, particularly Kokomo Arnold, Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, Elmore James, and B.B. King. And I’m really passionate about gospel music. The gospel quartets of the early 50’s - Soul Stirrers, Dixie Hummingbirds, etc., gospel divas like Marion Williams and Bessie Griffin, and large modern choirs like Kurt Carr’s. Some music is a real influence, some an inspiration, some a pleasure to listen to, some I study, and some I just put on.

Jazzreview: How has being a teacher at the Berklee College of Music made it possible for you to be a live performer? What connects the two?

Katz: It’s not practical for the JCA Orchestra to perform a lot, so it’s easy to do both, even though it does sometimes get hectic. What I teach at Berklee, being very specific in nature, is not directly connected to how I go about writing music, but still: it is the same things that I learned from and that enabled me to be where I am now. And it’s a great environment to be in: one is always around many creative and hard working students and faculty, all focused on making music.

Jazzreview: Do you think that you have you grown as a musician?

Katz: I certainly hope so. I’ve been composing music specifically for the Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra for 23 years now, but I keep trying to grow and to learn new things. I don’t wish to repeat myself. I think that I’ve been able to learn from mistakes. Composing is about the big ideas and concepts, but it’s about the details and execution, too. I try to work on both. One of my great strengths, I think, is my ability to work with and set text. I think I do a good job of unifying the two and allowing the meaning to come across. Text is both spoken and sung, and sometimes even sung in an improvised fashion. I write solid melodies and interesting textures, orchestrations and formal constructions. I do wish I could get the kind of orchestral clarity that say, Gil Evans has. And although I think that I’m very good at handling long forms with a great variety of different events, much of the music I admire tends to focus on one concise thing, unlike mine, which does go on episodic journeys. I would like to write some more focused, more concise compositions that deal with one compositional idea, instead of several or many.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Darrell Katz
  • Subtitle: Composing Music That Tells People’s Stories
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