Josh Green has made most of his name and fame through writing music for television, particularly as Music Supervisor for ITV America. Yet despite the financial rewards of composing backgrounds for reality television, he felt the need to return to composing more meaty music. Originally trained in jazz, Green moved on to contemporary classical music, studying at the University of Vienna in 2007 when he learned of the death of jazz great Michael Brecker. “I really looked up to Michael Brecker,” Green recalls, “and when I found out he’d died, it was a trigger for me to go back to my jazz roots. I wanted to write something that showcased the jazz language, bebop in particular, in a contemporary classical setting.” This initial idea took close to a decade to come to fruition, but it has done so here with this, his first album with the newly-formed “Cyborg Orchestra,” a group that includes a string section of two violins, two violas and a cello (four of these players members of the PUBLIQuartet), oboe, flute, various clarinets, Electronic Wind Instrument, accordion, trumpet, trombone and rhythm section.
I was so impressed by the album that I asked if I could do an e-mail interview with Green, and he was gracious enough to share some of his time with me. Here, then, is the interview as an introduction of sorts to the album review.
Art Music Lounge: I thought the music on this, your first CD as a group, was simply amazing, but what impressed me the most was the way you used classical principles without following any specific classical form. Are your pieces actually scored in notation? I ask because at least one such jazz-classical composer I know just sketches out a two-bar theme and then uses instructions like, “Bill and Jim play together for 8, followed by sax solo for 8. Others join in and play around him.”
Josh Green: Wow- thank you! Yes, all of the pieces are fully notated (with the exception of improvised solos, of course). Something that was ingrained in me early on as a student was not to rely on graphic notation if it wasn’t warranted in the piece. I remember, as a student, having to recompose all sorts of fancy graphics & performance directions in my music, in order to find a way to notate my intentions specifically. If those intentions went beyond traditional notation, only then could I reevaluate how I would approach the musical language.
In the case of Boy & Dog In A Johnnypump— I had originally notated all of the cartoonish squeaks and honks behind the solos, only to find that I wasn’t achieving the desired cartoon-style chaos that I was hoping for, and so in that instance, I actually removed all of the traditional counterpoint, and went with a splattering of graphic symbols to give the musicians more freedom to let loose.
AML: One of the few disappointments I had about the CD was the lack of liner notes, which I felt were important to understand some of your influences and the inspiration for various pieces. The only way I knew what was going on was because I also received the publicity blurb that went out to reviewers. Do you think you might repackage the CD with notes in the near future?
JG: I’m a strong believer in allowing the music to speak for itself, and to allow the listeners to uncover the music for themselves. For the majority of my concert works in fact, I write very little program notes, and instead, like to leave a grain of inspiration in the title to get the audience on the right track without influencing their perception of the work. That being said, I think I would take an opportunity to repackage the CD. While I may not use that to expound too much, I would love to highlight all of the fantastic musicians that have become such good friends and an integral part of this ensemble. Many of those musicians will be featured on the March 2 debut at National Sawdust as well!
AML: Some composers I know, both classical and jazz, start out with a short theme, perhaps two bars or four, and just let their imaginations taken them from there. Others work backwards from the last chorus, constructing the music in such a way that the preceding chorus relates to the last. I’m just curious as to how you approach composition. Do you start with a tune, or a rhythm, or both? Does the harmony lead the melodic line for you, or vice-versa?
JG: I have a tendency to impose challenges upon myself as a composer. When it came to Boy & Dog In A Jonnypump, I had written the opening motif as a standalone idea first, the legato theme & harmonies as another idea, and used those two contrasting elements as the impetus to: “how can I merge these ideas in to a cohesive statement?”
In the case of The Lauer Faceplant, I went in knowing what I wanted the ending of the work to be, and I had the klangfarbenmelodie-inspired orchestration mapped out in my head as well. So, once the end was written, I knew where the work needed to arrive, and had the challenge of deconstructing it, and finding a way to build to that moment.
AML: In listening to the various pieces on the album, I did note the use of sound clusters here and there that reminded me of György Ligeti, which I then learned from the publicity sheet was one of your inspirations, but I also noted in my review that some pieces had a definite Charles Mingus-like feel to them…the use of fluid tempos, contrasting sections in different keys and rhythms within an extended piece, letting the written parts lead the solos and then switching over so that the solos themselves became the composition. Am I right? Is there, perhaps subliminally, some Mingus influence in your work?
JG: It is certainly possible! I’m probably overdue for a Pithecanthropus Erectus listening session. Although, if anything of Mingus’s work influenced me, it was more the rhetoric and approach to jazz than the syntax necessarily.
AML: Reading your resume, you seem to have been rather successful in writing background music for television programs, but I can well imagine that someone of your high creativity would feel frustrated by this. Such jazz composers as the late Allyn Ferguson and Dr. Clare Fischer also did a LOT of commercial music arrangements but always came back to their real love, classically-influenced jazz, Do you see this as a possible pattern for your career as well?
JG: That’s really interesting! I actually enjoy working in commercial music quite a bit and find that the cinematic/narrative writing has greatly influenced my more avant-garde tendencies. Something that seems to come very naturally to me is that balance of writing avant-garde jazz that is both accessible and uncompromised in my intentions.
AML: I’m wondering how you found the right musicians to make your creative concept a reality. Did some of them play under you for your TV music? And, if not, how did you find them?
JG: The majority of the musicians were friends from various film, television, and musical theater projects. Working in that industry certainly gives you the opportunity to jam with some of the greatest musicians in this city, and get to know a lot of talented, enthusiastic individuals. Anyone that I maybe didn’t know at the outset of this ensemble, was recommended by one of the other musicians, and also quickly become a great friend!
AML: I’m curious about the one long, solo piano work on the album, Improvisation & Nebula. I wrote in my review that it sounded a bit to me like something by Erik Satie with hints of Thelonious Monk. Were either of those composers in your mind when writing it? And if not, what was the inspiration?
JG: Funny enough… my main inspiration here was Science Fiction. The title is inspired by the process— the work was initially sketched as an improvisation at the piano, where I imagined a dense, quiet cloud of nebulous motifs. Those motifs and themes are strung throughout— obscured, twisted, and unraveled as they travel through quietly buzzing, dense clusters of ambiguity.
AML: I was a little surprised, but happy, to see that you’re planning to make The Cyborg Orchestra a real, live, in-person band starting on March 4. The reason I was surprised wasn’t that I didn’t think the music lacked quality—on the contrary, it’s extremely creative—but, rather, that it just might be a little too complex for the “average” jazz audience to grasp. Are you planning to play the works presented on this album in your debut concert?
JG: Yes! We will be performing the majority of the album at the show on March 2. I’m pumped! While the music certainly is a bit complex, I like to think it’s quite accessible in it’s approach as well; and, it’s going to be a blast to have this music come to life in concert! The music is quite difficult to perform, but I’m lucky to have some of the best performers around, and it’s going to be really fun to see them take on these works in a live setting.
AML: Are you planning to keep the orchestra as a part-time or full-time endeavor in live performances?
JG: We’ll see what happens! I’ll keep on writing for the ensemble and would love to continue recording and performing.
AML: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers about upcoming pieces or projects?
JG: The album officially releases (physical copies and digital copies available everywhere) on February 24. And, I’m already in the early stages of working on the next batch of music for the future of the ensemble. So, I hope people will join us for the ride!
AML: Thank you so much for your time!
JG: It’s been a pleasure—thank you!
TELEPATHY & BOP / GREEN: Boy & Dog in a Johnnypump. The Lauer Faceplant: Based on a True Story. Telepathy & Bop: I; Interlude; II. La Victoire. Improvisation & Nebula*; Reverie Engine: The Ambiguous Rhumba. Soir Bleu: A Rag of Sorts / Josh Green & the Cyborg Orchestra: Charles Pillow, oboe/a-sax/t-sax; Todd Groves, EWI/Fl/a-sax/t-sax/E-flat cl/contrabass cl; Jay Hassler, B-flat cl/bs-cl; Nathan Schram, Nick Revel, vla; Curtis Stewart, Jannina Norpoth, vln; Amanda Gookin, Clarice Jenson cello; John Lake, tp; Chris Misch-Bloxdorf, tbn; Nathan Kochi, acc; Sungwon Kim, gtr; Michael Verselli, pn; Brian Courage, bs; Josh Bailey, dm; *Michael Verselli, perc / Private issue, available for sale at http://www.joshuagreenmusic.com
The music contained on this disc is cleverly written, almost disguising the fusion between jazz and classical music in its varied use of form, harmony and rhythm. Indeed, except for the use of classical instruments, the average jazz fan would probably not recognize the connection in most of the selections performed here. Particularly so on the opening track, Boy & Dog in a Johnnypump (apparently influenced by a painting of Jean-Michel Basquiat), an
almost ferocious-sounding number that begins in D minor/modal, later transposing to E minor among other keys. The rhythm is difficult to count without a score, but it is Green’s orchestration that intrigued me most. He uses the various classical instruments for color, as Claude Thornhill did with French horns in his 1940s big band, not to play the lead lines. The strings mostly play pizzicato here. Kim’s electric guitar solo dominates this track; after his first solo one hears the accordion playing with the bass, the other five instruments weaving around them. The full band plays a dramatic passage in rising chromatics in the break, which adds tension before the electric guitar returns. This was a little too much electric guitar for me, particularly since Kim plays here with that whiny, annoying heavy metal rock sound that has become an interloper, one might almost say an infection, in jazz performances over the past 30 or so years. Thankfully, this was not a trend continued throughout the album! Following the second guitar solo is another break, then a flute solo over a churning 4/4 broken up in an odd rhythm, which morphs as other instruments squawk and snort behind the flute.
The Lauer Faceplant: Basedon a True Story opens with a quirky contrabass clarinet and viola duo. The broken rhythms continue apace; eventually we get a tenor sax solo (not identified as being Pillow or Groves) which continues as the the rhythm dissipates; soft piano is heard in the background. The flute, with pizzicato strings, over the accordion create a funky rhumba-styled beat. Green’s music is wonderfully skewed in both form and structure,which apparently suits his personality. “I hate to take myself too seriously,” he says. “I’m a very lighthearted person.”
The three-piece suite Telepathy and Bop begins with crashing cymbals, followed by a tenor sax lick in E. Other horns then enter, immediately swaying the pitch up and down chromatically, almost in microtones, while clarinet and tenor play around them. Once again, Green uses his strings as a coloristic device, using their ability to slither chromatically to enhance the strangeness of the piece, moving from bowed playing to pizzicato and even striking the body of their instruments with their bows. Curiously, I found no real relationship of this music to bop as a musical form; it is much closer to modern classical music, particularly once the long intro is finished and the saxophone leads the band into a more tightly structured passage with stiff, almost Kurt Weill-ish rhythms. (But was Kurt Weill himself a classical composer? I’ve never really thought of him as such; to my mind, he was always a classically-trained composer of music that fell in that shadow-land between popular music and classical.) A rare string duet is then heard, not sure, it sounds like violin and viola but it could be two violins. The music is then developed (yes, developed) in a classical manner, though once again the untrained ear may mistake this for just being an arrangement. The strings then go back to wavering in pitch, sounding a bit drunk and woozy as they do so. One thing for sure, Green’s music is chock full of humor, much of it obvious but some of it subtle, what I would call musician’s jokes.
The Interlude is a ruminating saxophone over churning strings and drums; and although the scoring here is not really as dense, the music put me in mind of a jazz version of György Ligeti (reading the promo sheet that accompanies this, I discovered that I was not incorrect, that Ligeti is one of Green’s primary classical influences). In Telepathy and Bop II, Green uses a sort of skewed tango rhythm, which tosses the instruments pall-mall into the fray of a piece that sounds like a Bizarro-world version of Paul Schoenfield’s Café Music. Could he have inadvertently had that on his mind when he wrote it? Eventually, however, the skewed tango rhythm returns and the strings’ interplay becomes quite angular, eventually leading to an eerie, rising chromatic crescendo (similar to the “water rising” motif from the final scene of Wozzeck) before the whole piece comes to a crashing finish.
La Victoire, named after René Magritte’s painting of a cloud floating through an isolated door by the seashore, has almost no rhythm to speak of, at least nothing very definable to hang on to. It begins with piano accompanied by background strings or saxophone, playing in and around it, before moving into a lovely melodic line that sounds like one of Charles Mingus’ Jazzical Moods. Indeed, the unusual scoring here, pitting the trumpet and strings against bass and bass clarinet, even has a sort of Mingus-like feel to it. A tenor sax solo eventually leads into a funkier, more rhythmically aggressive passage, just as Mingus used to do. Most unusual, however, is the counterpoint to the sax played by the accordion, a highly unusual touch. The evolving nature of the music is both engaging and very colorful in Green’s writing and orchestration.
The fairly long Improvisation & Nebula was also inspired, so the publicity sheet tells us, by Ligeti, but to my ears this is a more tonal and romantic piece than Telepathy & Bop. Indeed, it’s a slow, ruminating piano solo that sounds to my ears like a modernistic Erik Satie with hints of Thelonious Monk (and a few crushed chords near the end). Reverie Engine: the Ambiguous Rhumba is also a rather slow piece, starting with piano, soon joined by accordion and strings before we hear castanets and move into the pseudo-rhumba beat. Once the flute enters over the piano, the beat shifts and becomes more definite if not quite a traditional rhumba…it’s more like an impressionistic rhumba, in which EWI, contrabass clarinet and accordion are heard. Eventually the EWI dominates with a solo of its own as the key suddenly shifts upward chromatically to D major—but the key remains fluid and never really ever settles on the tonic. At the 5:50 mark, the pace suddenly slackens and the rhythm temporarily moves into either a 3/4 or 5/4 beat before the brief ride-out.
Soir Bleu: A Rag of Sorts opens with an audio joke, the beginning of a scratchy old LP playing before the piano sets the pace (keep this in mind, boys and girls, when you decide to go back to collecting music on “vinyl”). Once the full rhythm section enters, however, we get no rag at all, but more of a stoic march beat stomping on down. This is the one piece on the album that sounds the most surreal, often shifting into almost circus or calliope music in a quirky 3, later overlaid over 4. Suddenly a jolly-sounding tuba underpins an accordion solo with piano chords coming out of the left speaker and drumsticks coming out of the right. The melodic and rhythmic madness continues apace, until one almost feels as if one is caught in a Tilt-A-Whirl (remember those?) or a funhouse in an amusement park that one can’t get out of. At one point, the pianist plays a lick from the old ‘30s song Goodnight, My Love (recorded by Ella Fitzgerald with the Benny Goodman band), and the clarinet actually picks up on that lick as the impetus for his own solo, which then veers off in the direction of klezmer. The 3/4 circus-type beat returns for a piano solo, which then fades down and out in another bit of LP snap, crackle and pop.
The promo blurb says that Green is planning to make the Cyborg Orchestra an in-person band on March 2 of this year, when it will play its first gig at National Sawdust, an artist-led, non-profit club at 80 North 6th Street in Brooklyn, New York. I wish I could be there! This is a stupendous album, one of the most auspicious record debuts of any new band in recent memory.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley