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About the Compositions on the album BAIL!

Below I discuss some of my compositional ideas and approaches to improvisation, outlining the types of scales I employ and examining my use of rapid harmonic movement. I discuss compositional use of musical problems to spark an improviser's creativity, freedom for players to voice their own musical identities via interpretation, the unique capabilities of guitar as a compositional and ensemble instrument, and jazz style as a reflection of personal idiosyncrasy.

Use of Scales and Frequent Tonal Modulation

I wrote the compositions on this recording between 1995 and 1999. Most of my compositions are nondiatonic, and are derived from other scales and modes such as those of the "jazz melodic minor scale," where both the ascending and descending halves of the scale are identical: 1, 2, ­3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8; the symmetrical dominant scale: 1, ­2(-9), ­3(+9), 3, +11, 5, 6(13), ­7, 8; and the harmonic minor scale. Most are characterized by frequent modulations to unrelated tonal centers and liberal use of chromatic alteration in chord and melody tones. As a result I've ceased writing with a key signature, but generally let each bar speak for itself, writing in accidentals as needed.

As a child it used to fascinate me to lie flat on the grass and peer under the blades at the teeming, hidden world of insects. Rapid harmonic movement reminds me of the microcosmic world of insects just under the deceptively placid surface of lawns. The chords and tonal centers for compositions which feature this sort of movement may not have readily identifiable relationships in the traditional sense (such as a ii V I), but they still bear interesting intervallic relationships. Like bugs weaving through grass stems the shifting meanings of individual notes against a backdrop of rapidly changing harmony is fascinating to observe and plot.

As in most jazz lead sheets, in my pieces chords are written above the melody line, giving the improviser cues as to the scale used for that portion of the composition. Almost invariably I write the entire melody line in an organic, non-analytical process then I go back and analyze it for what scales I used or what chords are implied, creating a harmonic structure for the piece based on what I observe going on in it. This system is more complicated (and grueling) than the more common practice of creating a harmonic progression and then writing a melody for it, or fitting a melody over a "traveling" form, such as "Rhythm Changes." But the results of writing the melody first are often unusual and unexpected. The composer doesn't have to force melody into a possibly restricting form, but allows it to go where it will, like water carving out a streambed.

Musical Problems as Means of Sparking Improviser's Creativity

Frequently I use my compositions to pose musical problems which then must be dealt with by both the listener and the performer of the piece, who ultimately also improvises over the structure. The general problem is how to move quickly from one tonal center to another. But I also pose more specific musical problems. For example, in the 12 bar composition "Bail," the first 8 bars are in 4/4, bars 9 and 10 are in 5/4, and then it returns to 4/4 for the last two bars. In "Kindergarten," I wrote something akin to a modified blues in G which quickly substitutes an excursion into the D harmonic minor scale for the IV7 chord in bars five and six. It then picks up again with modified blues changes from the 7th bar to the end. It's not a blues at all, but uses the concept of the blues as a jumping off point for a new idea. Departures from the expected heighten tension and increase harmonic interest. They also give the improviser challenging sections to pass through prior to resolution. In this way, the music is served because it makes the performance more edgy and electric.

"Lazybones" is a polytonal piece. The first 9 bars are over Eb harmonic structures: Eb+7, Ebmi7 and Eb7, but the melody is basically in Ab minor pentatonic. The improviser can use Ab or Eb as a tonal center during these passages ­ or both. In the middle portion, some challenging dominant 7th cycles occur and still later the piece becomes a vehicle for the whole tone scale. I wrote it so that players would have the opportunity for a sustained excursion into melodic ideas generated by the whole tone scale. Usually our opportunities for use of this scale are somewhat fleeting.

Sometimes the problems I pose for myself and others are in the form of musical practical jokes: in "Gargantua" I open with a short motif which starts as a pick-up note on beat 4. After a slight development, the same motif reenters on beat 1 of bar 3. Later in the tune, this same motif and the opening developments are recapped starting on beat 2 of bar 16 and then repeat at beat 3 of bar 18. The motif is rhythmically displaced each time so that it's never played in the same place twice.

Gargantua, has a 22 bar form. Instead of always using set 24 bar or 32 bar forms typical of jazz compositions, if I feel the composition warrants it, I'll sometimes write a piece with a less usual number of bars. Interestingly, just prior to recording I changed the solo form for Gargantua from being an exact mirror of the compositional form, with 22 bars and unexpected places of resolution, to an easier 24 bar solo form and more conventional points of chordal resolution. For years, bassist Bruce Grafrath and I tried to improvise over Gargantua's more difficult compositional form, usually with errors and confusion. I recently concluded that while it's one thing to impose a problem like this on a player who is at liberty to memorize a melody and then execute it, it's unconducive to the process of zoning out that helps an improviser reach the musical version of automatic writing.

Freedom of Interpretation

This brings me to some other philosophical points of consideration regarding improvisation. I do specify the melody of the composition and which chords I want played in which bar, but the musicians are free to interpret my pieces to a degree that would probably be unacceptable in music other than jazz. For instance, I don't usually write out bass lines, although I will occasionally request that the bassist or the drummer throw in a particular effect or end on a certain note. I want each player to bring something of him or herself to the piece. In that way an element of chance and also personal idiosyncrasy enters into the execution. Naturally this is exemplified best by the improvisational or solo section, but like most jazz performance personal freedom is part of the written portion as well. I have written some arrangements for horns (not heard on this trio recording) in which all the parts are written out. But I do expect some slight deviation even from written parts, especially in phrasing, in order to accommodate the musical personality and wisdom of the player.

Guitar As a Unique Compositional and Ensemble Instrument

To begin with, the instrument is capable of an astounding range, from the E on the first ledger line below the bass clef to the A on the first ledger line above the treble clef - over three octaves. Guitar brings out interesting compositional elements because like any instrument it naturally lends itself better to some ideas than others. Pieces written on a guitar add something fresh to the jazz repertoire and force other instrumentalists to think along different lines. Again, the timbre of chords played on guitar and perhaps the restriction of, at the most, six notes per chord, but more usually four, gives the guitar trio a distinctively open quality. In the bass this open quality is even more pronounced. The openess of both guitar and bass gives a soloist room to deviate from the written structure, because chordal clashes are less apparent than with the piano, for example. One of my favorite improvisational techniques is to move from one scale to another that it shares many scale tones with. For example over a Cmi7, I might move from C Dorian scale into the Bb altered dominant scale, which hints at the V7 via its tritone substitution B7, adding colors ­9, +9, -5 and +5. The bassist may fleetingly play a ­7, or Bb while I'm playing a B, but it's less apparent than it would be if a pianist played a B. This approach to harmony heightens tension by challenging the structure and forces me as an improviser into both a predicament and the search for a solution.

Personal Aesthetic and Self Expression

The pieces on BAIL! were written using "swing 8ths" as opposed to "straight 8ths." This is a reflection of my personal aesthetic, not because I believe in adhering rigidly to one idea or another. Jazz has developed like a tree with many branches and includes a rich and broad spectrum of musical concepts, reflecting both the interior and the experiences of the people who play it and compose it. For that reason I think that jazz compositions should be just as idiosyncratic as the people who write them and not purposely locked into an interminable rehashing of yesteryear's ideas or tendencies. While my compositions challenge the status quo, at the same time they stem from the jazz tradition and are part of the living tree of jazz.

-Kim Reith

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