In 1968, composer-trumpeter Michael Mantler recorded The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra. Originally released by the orchestra’s own imprint and reissued later by ECM, this classic, ground-breaking album featured Mantler conducting a large jazz orchestra that included some of the era’s iconic improvisers as soloists: pianist Cecil Taylor, cornetist Don Cherry, trombonist Roswell Rudd, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, guitarist Larry Coryell, saxophonist Gato Barbieri. In the process of digitizing his catalog, Mantler reacquainted himself with early scores, eventually envisioning fresh performances of not only this vintage material, but also including new versions of material from that period never previously recorded. With The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Update, Mantler has re-imagined his 1960s music for the 21st century, with the amplified radio.string.quartet.vienna added to the instrumentation along with the prominent electric guitar of Bjarne Roupé. They and the Nouvelle Cuisine Big Band of energized young Europeans, conducted by Christoph Cech, were recorded in these updated scores live at Vienna’s Porgy & Bess club in 2013. Just as the original did in 1968, the result sounds stirringly contemporary, brimming with dark majesty and a bright sense of sonic possibility.
An interview with Michael Mantler:
What visions for the future did you “hear” in your mind as you looked over the old scores for “The Jazz Composer's Orchestra” album?
After having not listened to this music for a long time, I was impressed by how fresh and exciting it still sounded after all these years. It seemed that the music should be allowed to have another life perhaps, reaching a new audience that would probably never have known it. A recording would be the most logical outlet, and to perform it live would be interesting, of course; but given the commercial considerations of today’s music business, these ventures are generally impossible. The exception was the support from Christoph Huber at Porgy & Bess in Vienna, who did make it possible to rehearse, perform and record the project.
Regarding the idea of an “update,” for me that implied an adding to and an improving of the original material. Sonically, I wanted to retain the original instrumentation, except for reducing the inordinate number of bassists originally used, seemingly no longer necessary. Musically, I strove to retain as much as possible of what still seemed agreeable to me about the notated elements of the scores, but in the end without any restriction imposed on myself as to changes that I felt necessary to make. Certain of the compositions ended up being almost unchanged, while some were so extensively revised that one could consider them almost as new compositions that nevertheless grew from the original materials.
Sonically, another element that has of course changed drastically is that the new recording is vastly superior technically to the original, which was – although recorded at RCA Studios, one of the most advanced studios at the time – done on just eight tracks by engineers who had never heard anything like this music before.
Is there anything in particular that has changed about large-ensemble jazz (and free improvisation) today that necessitated this album sounding different than the original? Or is it just a question of the times and the musical personalities?
I don’t think today’s large-ensemble jazz, or free improvisation, has much to do with it – I’m not all that familiar with the scene. I will say that on this Update album the performances are of a much higher technical and interpretative level as far as the musicians in the orchestra, with much more exact playing than in the original versions. As for the soloists, I deliberately chose mostly other solo instruments and personalities, in order to avoid a “re-do” and to achieve an “update.”
Has the ratio of composition to improvisation changed from the original album to the new one?
Very much so. Even though the original idea was, even then, to control and somewhat limit what were, in my opinion, the “excesses” of free improvisation, I came to find that there was still too much of it. Over the years, I have generally come to favour integrating improvisation ever more with notated compositional elements by providing more specific materials and “surroundings” for the improviser, as well as the room to interpret written solo melodies in a fairly free manner. I hope that creates a continuity that melds improvisation and composition into one homogeneous work.
Did anything specific spur the prominent use of electric guitar and amplified string quartet on “Update”? And which of the musicians had you worked with before?
I used the electric guitar as early as the original JCO with Larry Coryell and then ever since – for its power, its variety of sonic possibilities and its ability to “sing.” Bjarne Roupé, an exceptional guitarist, has been playing my music with me for two decades. A prime appeal of the new “amplified” string quartets, of which the r.s.q.v. is a prime example, is their versatility; this quartet consists of musicians who can play notated music of all kinds perfectly while also having the ability to play freely and creatively. As for other musicians, I’ve worked with alto saxophonist Wolfgang Puschnig for many years, although mostly in the context of Carla Bley’s music. I found tenor saxophonist Harry Sokal and pianist David Helbock specifically for this new project, and they’re both wonderfully creative players, who immediately understood and interpreted the music without necessarily being influenced by the original versions.
What was the original aim of the Jazz Composer's Orchestra, and what feelings hit you when you listen to that original album? And what were your impressions when you heard this new group perform your updated scores?
The original idea was to create an orchestra that would concern itself with presenting free jazz within a larger, more controlled orchestral environment. It was also a political and social institution created to enable creative artists to work unencumbered of commercial constraints. I still love the original album for its power and excitement and the absolutely exceptional improvising – to me some of the best playing ever by those original soloists. As for the updated versions of these scores, they made it possible for me to give the compositions a new life – and the recording expresses ideally how I feel that music should sound now.