A conversation with myself (about David Bowie & Maria Schneider)

“Hey! What’s doing?”

“Hey back! A lot of things doing actually.”

“I’m not surprised. You haven’t written anything new on the blog in 2 months.”

“Yeah. Sorry about that. But there’s still a lot of good stuff going up at JazzSpeaks! Keep your eyes peeled for a discursive interview with the amazing composer/drummer Tyshawn Sorey on Tuesday.”

“Cool. I know you’ve mentioned him before as someone doing really interesting/out-there/exciting stuff. But anyway, the thing that’s surprising me right now is that jazz seems to be having some kind of cultural moment.”

“What do you mean. We all know jazz is dead, right?”

“Haha. Very funny. What I mean is that jazz is popping up in some unexpected places, and without the influence of a neoclassicist like Wynton Marsalis. This new movie Whiplash about an aspiring jazz drummer and the relationship with this tyrannical teacher has gotten huge raves. And apparently another highly anticipated movie, Birdman, with Michael Keaton as a washed up action star trying to revitalize his career with a Broadway show, has a score that’s just some jazz drummer playing beats.”

“Yeah. That drummer is Antonio Sanchez, who’s best-known for playing with guitarist Pat Metheny for the past decade. Check out this solo!”

“Yikes. Those are some chops, man!”

“Oh yeah. Beats for days.”

“Jazz is also topping the charts right now for the first time in I don’t know when with that Tony Bennett-Lady Gaga record.”

“Yeah! I checked it out and though it’s very old-school traditional, it’s well done. Gaga knows this material, and though there are sometimes she goes too big and milks phrases unnecessarily, she doesn’t feel out of place. And the arrangements are all solid and the band is on point. I won’t complain if a lot of people want to buy it! I’d be interested in a Gaga solo effort though where she writes old-school-sounding material and tours with a big band.”

“That would be interesting to say the least. And beyond that record, there’s the new Flying Lotus record that everyone’s raving about. He’s related to Coltrane somehow, right?

“His aunt is Alice Coltrane, the great pianist & composer (and John’s wife), which also means his cousin is the great contemporary saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. But he really has his own distinct personality and the musicianship to back it up. I’ve been loving this track from the new album featuring Kendrick Lamar and a blistering solo by the bassist Thundercat.”

“Wow. This is pretty insane. And now I hear that David Bowie is releasing a new single with a jazz big band?”

“Yeah! It’s this tune called ‘Sue (or in a season of crime).’ He recorded it this past summer with the Maria Schneider Orchestra, one of my favorite groups, and one whose influence on my own writing is hard to discount.”

“So is he just trying to capitalize on this Gaga-Bennett craze for pop stars singing jazz standards?”

“I wouldn’t say so. While half of Schneider’s brass section did play on that Gaga-Bennett record, she’s not a traditionalist at all. Actually, she hasn’t written anything that swings in a traditional sense in like 15-20 years. And I don’t think Schneider would do something like this just for the money. She’s actually been quite successful as jazz artists go.”

“Oh wait. I just heard the song got released today on this BBC radio show, and now it’s posted on YouTube.”

“Sweet. Let’s check it out.”


“Woah. Right from the get-go this is a lot different than I thought it would be. It’s kind of hair-raising and creepy actually.”

“Yeah. There are a lot of unearthly timbres going on in here. That first thing that pops into frame is the big meaty sound of tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin. He’s like 6’4″ and moves a lot while playing, and you can really feel all that energy coming out of his horn.”

“I buy that.”

“Also guitarist Ben Monder is making some really sweet noises—like really quiet distortion, or taking a squeegee to wet paint, but in the form of sound.”

“What’s that ominous rumbling sound happening underneath everything?”

“I’d say that’s probably Scott Robinson playing some kind of contrabass something or other. He specializes in uncommon wind instruments, so to be honest, I don’t know specifically what he’s playing! It is a pretty gnarly sound though.”

“That’s something that you can recognize all these individual musicians.”

“Well many of the musicians in Schneider’s group have been playing with her since the band started in the late 1980s. They have really distinct individual personalities as performers and improvisers, and Schneider writes specifically for those personalities. She knows what they can do and allows them to do it. That’s been true for most big bands throughout jazz history. Like Duke Ellington didn’t write for 5 saxophones. He wrote for Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney and Ben Webster, and all the different personalities that came through his band. That’s why each line has such character, both in Ellington’s band and in Schneider’s.”

“Hey shut up for a second. Here come Bowie’s vocals. Is it just me, or does this somehow seem a little off?”

“I wouldn’t say that. He’s certainly not trying to sing in a jazz style at least, which usually has some sense of tossed-off casualness. Bowie is singing with a ton of vibrato here. It has this sense of artifice.”

“Ok. It kinda makes sense. It reminds me a bit of his more theatrical Ziggy Stardust kind of stuff in that way, even though his voice has changed so much since then. It takes a little getting used to.”

“Yeah. It actually reminds me a bit of how Richard Harris sounds in his surprise  1968 chart-topping hit ‘MacArthur Park.'”

“You mean Dumbledore Richard Harris?”

“Yeah. He was in the film version of Camelot you know. He’s got pipes. But enough of that. What I like here is that while some instruments are following Bowie’s melody, there are others playing a counter-line against it. It’s kind of a small point, but this push and pull with the main melody helps integrate Bowie’s voice into the overall texture of the band.”

“Woah! What’s that weird kind of buzzy sound coming up from the background?”

“That’s definitely a trumpet, probably with a harmon mute with the stem out—Miles Davis used that all the time. What I like about the big band writing here is that Schneider mixes unlike instruments together—muted trumpet will play with a trombone and a tenor saxophone and create a new texture that sounds like none of those instruments. It’s a trick she learned from the great arranger (and Miles Davis collaborator) Gil Evans. Schneider worked as his copyist at the end of his life. While building textures like that is an idea that dates back to composers like Debussy and Ravel, and honed for a jazz context by Evans, it can have a really modern affect by mimicking the complex, warbling sound of a synthesizer.”

“Yeah. I was noticing how not-jazzy this all sounds. It actually doesn’t feel all that much of a stretch for Bowie. But hold on a second—what’s that sound swooping up right here? It kind of sounds like a saxophone, but it feels too high and flute-y.”

“That’s Donny McCaslin again playing another solo break. He’s playing in what’s called the altissimo register of the tenor sax. It’s a way of getting higher notes, but with a change in the overall sound of the instrument. Guys like McCaslin and fellow tenor player Chris Potter have turned playing that range into a very sophisticated science. You should ask my buddy Kevin Sun more about how it works.”

“Huh. Interesting. Is it just me or is the piece building in some way? It doesn’t feel any louder than when it started, but it just feels bigger somehow.”

“Yeah. Schneider’s building tension through texture and density, rather than volume. You hear those fluttering notes going across the band?”

“Yeah. More creepy stuff.”

“Those are tremolos—each player alternates between 2 notes as quickly as possible. It definitely builds tension in a visceral way. Some scientist would probably try to explain that effect in evolutionary terms, like it sounds like there’s an animal in the bushes behind you, so it activates some primal emotion, yadda yadda yadda… But anyway, she’s also just using more instruments playing in meatier registers now. Like, you can really hear the trumpets now as trumpets, which didn’t happen earlier.”

“It’s starting to feel a bit more majestic now, but still a bit eerie. This could work as a soundtrack for a movie set in outer space.”

“I guess. But what’s interesting to me here is that this really dense orchestral writing feels like an organic part of the piece. One of the challenges of doing an arrangement like this for a vocal piece is making sure not to get in the way of what the voice is doing. It might be interesting to you the orchestrator, and to the two members of the audience who like background textures, but it just muddies the piece for everyone else. But in this case, the declamatory nature of Bowie’s melody—he only sings a few notes in a restricted range—motivates the dense writing beneath it. This is actually a technique that dates back to Italian opera of the 19th century. In a texture called parlando (or parlante), characters declaim their text on only a few notes, while the real melodic material is in the orchestra. Orchestrators like working with parlando-like melodies.”

“Ok ok ok. Enough with the jargon. I get that you think this is well-crafted. Now that Bowie has just sang ‘goodbye; to his love interest, everything seems to be falling apart. The backbeat is gone, and everything’s getting weird.”

“I’d say. What I find interesting is that all of the horn parts are becoming unmoored from the tempo that the drums are setting. Everything is just kind of floating in space. Stuff is happening at the same time, but not together. This is a real trademark of Schneider’s recent work, and it’s really cool to hear it in this context. A lot of times it has this affect of reverie and nostalgia; faded images of childhood floating through your mind. But it feels much more psychologically unstable here, with the more abstract harmonies and insistent clattering of percussion.”

“It definitely seems to fit the lyrics. The farewell that Bowie just sang of puts the character in a tailspin, which I think the music expresses very well.”

“I’d agree. It’s one of those moments where craft helps magnify the emotional impact of a piece.”

“Ok, ok, ok. So understanding craft and technique can help explain why a piece has a certain emotional impact. Anyway, what I notice now is that the looseness of the band parts allows Bowie to sing even more loosely now. He’s dragging out the melody in a different way than before.”

“Yeah. I think it shows how well Schneider and Bowie collaborated on this. It wasn’t like Bowie had this song idea and just wanted a big band to back him up. You can tell he’s embracing Schneider’s world as well, both in terms of letting the band stretch out in that middle section, and in terms of getting comfortable with the band’s sense of rhythm and phrasing.”

“I do like now how the band is all playing together in unison, as opposed to different sections playing different things at once. It’s like a big musical tidal wave.”

“And here comes Donny McCaslin again, surfing on it!”

“It’s pretty impressive that he’s been improvising a solo basically the whole time and it seems to fit so well.”

“Definitely. In a way, he’s the common thread that ties all the varied sections together. No small feat.”

“So now that I’ve listened through the whole thing, I find it interesting overall, and exciting at some points, but it doesn’t hit me the same way that ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Heroes’ do.”

“I definitely buy that. I think that because of the declamatory aspect and the small range of the melody, Bowie’s character feels a bit emotionally unavailable. He’s not quite able to express the full range of emotions that the story brings up. The band attempts to express them, but by the nature of being instrumental rather than vocal, they express them in a more abstract way. I think the piece requires a several listenings to understand that particular emotional vocabulary.”

“Ok. I can buy that. I think there’s enough stuff going on that I’d be game for listening again. I’d say then the jury’s still out for me in terms of whether this a really good Bowie track, or just a late-period, idiosyncratic oddity. Any parting thoughts from you?”

“I guess the last thing for me is how because of the overall groove and tempo, the piece bears a strong resemblance to Darcy James Argue’s ‘Phobos,’ one of my favorite tracks off of his first album.”

“Right! I remember you playing this for me once.”

“I’m wondering if Schneider drew from this when working on her arrangement, or whether that really matters. Argue actually studied with Schneider for a time, and comes from the same lineage of post-swing big band composers. His sense of texture definitely comes from Schneider and Evans. I think then that if ‘Phobos’ did not exist, Schneider’s arrangement would sound the same as it does now. If she did consult ‘Phobos’ for ideas, it would just confirm what her trained instincts were already telling her. And regardless, that section in the middle where everything breaks down is trademark Schneider, something no other big band composer really does.”

“So do you think lots of other pop stars will be clamoring to work with big bands now?”

“I wish. I’d love to see tUnE-yArDs work with John Hollenbeck’s big band, and Sam Smith could do some great stuff with a funky Ray Charles-type backing. And I think Darcy James Argue could write some great charts to complement to the moody languor of Lorde.”

“Call up the record execs!”

“If only.”

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