What constitutes jazz composition rarely gets talked about. There is rarely a need.

The basic difficulty is simple enough: what is and isn’t composed. Or what is and isn’t improvised might be another way of looking at the whole subject.

The latter distinction takes into consideration the acceptance that improvisation is a form of collective composition. Jamming tunes and calling the results composition is also sometimes a factor on some records.

Is this better or worse than other more formal forms of composition that combine written and spontaneous elements?

And how does studio composition (ie stitching together many different recordings, overdubs and remixed elements to suit the demands of a record) fit in? Surely this is composition even if it might be seen differently in terms of production or arranging.

Moving beyond what is and isn’t composed to the issue of whether a piece might have jazz sensibility, contain a basic reference to the form, issues like that, is critical too. That’s because if basic reference to a jazz flavour – ie the affinity with some notion of improvisation and a semblance of one or other of jazz-derived forms – isn’t to be discerned then it’s not jazz composition, simple as that. Instead it is another style of notated music or notated music learnt and reproduced even without sheet music in front of the player emanating from another tradition, quite often western classical music.

Memory is more of a factor than whether the music is notated or not. If it’s not sheet music on stands, musicians performing memorised parts of highly elaborate arrangements without deviation from the composed piece is basically the same approach. What is then produced is not an improvisation at all even if it might on the surface seem to be jazz. Highly arranged orchestrated music which more obviously is jazz because of its idiomatic phrasing and syncopated feel and so on actually risks ironing out all semblance of improvisation even with the presence of jazz language.

Even though most jazz listeners assume improvisation is high up the agenda in jazz performance there may well be less of a pure improvisation component than listeners might notice. Even free improv, which injects more spontaneous composition into the raw ingredients of a performance, isn’t completely immune from pre-digested unforgotten routines that are then elaborated on without the audience actually being aware of the process.

How random the music is from performance to performance also matters to some theorists. And this is an important consideration when thinking about how fresh an improvisation actually is. It’s rare (impossible?) for a piece to be completely reimagined from performance to performance even if nothing is quite the same twice and room is made for new treatments which are then delivered.

The whole subject of composition is a subject worth returning to but for now next time you see someone listed as, for instance a guitarist/composer or a pianist/composer think of this: what does composing really mean for a jazz player? And where does the composition end and the improvising really begin? SG

A model of jazz composition, top, from The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963, Impulse!) harnessing group improvisation, African American and Andalusian elements via Ellingtonia and intellectual freedom through discipline and the anarchy of unrivalled virtuosity and imagination

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