Inspiration can be found anywhere, Liberty Ellman believes, from hearing a fragment of intriguing music, the sounds on a subway platform, or the echoes of urban landscapes. Photo by Alan Nahigian
Talk about your compositional process on the album.
A big part of it is who I work with—who I get along with, not just the instrumentation. So when I set out to start writing the music, I definitely think about the players I’ll be working with and what they will sound like together.
Then it’s a matter of coming up with the actual music, which happens in a lot of different ways. Anything can serve as a launching pad for a piece, from picking up on a strange rhythm in some really inspiring music or standing on a subway platform and hearing some kind of polyrhythm or melodic fragment as the train pulls into the station. I try to remember an idea like that, or sing it into my iPhone, and then notate it in Sibelius when I get home.
Sometimes I have what seems like a really fresh idea and then I’ll sit and labor over it, only to find that it’s not something that I can flesh out into a composition, so I have to throw it away. Other times, I’ll start flowing on an idea, and whatever emerges from that becomes the piece, and not the original idea. You never know what will happen.
Other times I’m more pragmatic. I might sit down with a blank page and just think about what I’m trying to accomplish. If I’m writing new music for an outdoor festival with a lot of people attending, I won’t go for something that’s super moody and delicate, since more robust music will be needed to fill that kind of space. If I’m going for a studio project with a couple of horns, I’ll be in a different headspace entirely and will probably write something sparser.
How do you create an identity as a composer and improviser?
I think it’s important to push yourself and figure out how to give yourself a new platform for improvising—and then write music that doesn’t sound just like everyone else’s band. What I’m trying to do is not be strange or difficult, but to create a unique world in my band. People talk about being able to instantly identify a guitarist, from just two notes, because of their phrasing. It’s the same way with my work as a composer. I’m always thinking about how I can write a chord structure that’s not going to sound like the string of ii–V progressions that have been in American popular music forever.
How do you avoid these structures and convey nonstandard approaches in an ensemble setting?
I learned from people who’ve been doing it for a long time. Henry Threadgill has been at it for 50 years, so he’s got a lot of experience with trying to come up with something novel. He’s steeped in contemporary classical music and nonstandard notation, like graphic scores—things that shake up preconceived ideas about what makes a good improvisational vehicle.
You end up collecting all of these different concepts, and then they make it into your subconscious, so when you’re writing you draw from this base of knowledge without it seeming like an exercise. In other words, when I’m writing, I never think, “I’m gonna make this a tone row”—even though I’ve used tone rows before.
I want my pieces to sound good and to feel good and for my band to be able to learn them quickly enough, even if it’s something complicated. I pick players knowing that they have the tool set to get right in there, without it sounding like we’re on a construction site. Sometimes jazz composers can get so ambitious with their ideas, but it’s impossible to manifest them in a real-time situation.
With subdued grace and some cool chord choices, Liberty Ellman leads his quintet into this performance at New York City’s Cornelia Street Café from September 2015. But just past the 50-second mark, he bursts out with fluid, unpredictable legato soloing on his Collings I-35 LC that illustrates his unconventional ear and burnished technique.
You’ve played with Henry Threadgill for many years. What’s it like to work with him?
It’s tremendously inspiring on a number of different levels. Henry’s in his early 70s now, but he’s more energetic and prolific than a lot of musicians I know who are in their 30s. Working with him, I’ve learned so much about composition. He really has an unusual way of working with forms and has always been especially interested in the music of composers like Stravinsky and Elliott Carter. He’s not just into the music because they’re modernists, but is fascinated my how their music works and what motivated it.
If you pay attention to Henry’s forms, they’re never AABA. It’s not like he’s writing pop songs that need to be planted in somebody’s head, fast. He’s got all kinds of interesting long forms, and that’s had a direct impact on my music and on the way I hear music. Within those frameworks he creates his own harmonic strategies, with a system of intervals that you have to learn to play his music. That’s not only had an effect on the way I hear melodies, it’s made me more diverse in listening to my own voice.
Henry’s a very good bandleader and knows how to inspire loyalty. He’ll write music for your strengths and also your weaknesses. I’ve always had a hard time reading in the highest register of the guitar and so he’s written pieces that have me playing way up there. He even made himself a paper neck with frets drawn on it so he would know what works. He goes to great lengths, and I think he really cares about what my experiences are. And he makes rehearsals fun. A lot of time folks in New York are too busy to do six rehearsals, but when Henry calls, you look at your calendar and think, “I can be at home watching Netflix—or playing jazz with one of the greatest living composers.”