WWBW | Artist Interview - Michael Mossman

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Artist Interview: Michael Mossman

Michael Mossman

Michael Mossman

WWBW: What are you working on today?

MM: I’m working on some charts on a Bolivian style called “Afro Saya” for a band in Germany.

WWBW: Is this a project of yours or are you working with another artist?

MM: No, this is a commission. A band that I work with sometimes in Germany gave me a commission to write some…they’re doing a Bolivian project so they asked me to do a couple of charts.

WWBW: What are the particularities that characterize a Bolivian style? How would you articulate that?

MM: There are different kinds. One is the harmonics. There’s definitely a certainly kind of harmonic language. This particular rhythm is called Saya, Afro Saya, so it kind of celebrates some of the African roots and the music in the Andean region.

WWBW: You have a great love of Latin music and the details of less familiar subsets within Latin. Is that an on-going musical pursuit of yours?

MM: Well, I didn’t start out that way. I came to New York as a hard bop trumpet player who recorded with Blue Note. I did four albums with Blue Note with a group called, “Out of the Blue.” But back in those days, there was a lot of live Latin music. Latin bands have always been a very important part of the musical landscape in the New York area.

WWBW: Which provides opportunity for a trumpet player?

MM: If you’re a young kid and you want to make a living, you know, you need to make a living. If you have some chops you could always get work playing in those bands at that time. So I got to play a lot of that music from a young age.

WWBW: When did you make the leap from hard bop trumpeter to arranger and composer?

MM: It’s a pretty funny story actually. I was the lead trumpet player in the Machito Orchestra when Machito was still alive, which kind of inducted me into a family. In New York, the Latin music scene, a lot of the original guys like Machito and Mario Bauza and Tito Puente and Ray Barretto, all these guys were still alive and they shared a very close history here in New York City. When I started playing with Machito, it wasn’t just a gig. It seemed it had a family connection in it.

I started working with Mario Bauza as a trumpet player but at the same time, I got my first teaching job at Rutgers University. The band program there had gone downhill so they hired me to reform the jazz ensemble and I started by throwing half the band out of the band.

But that meant that I couldn’t use any of the music in the band library because I had this weird instrumentation. I had a band but there were no charts for that instrumentation, so I had to start to writing for the band.

And I hadn’t really been active as a band arranger up to that point. But suddenly I found myself having to write music all the time and lo and behold one day I was writing music everywhere. I was writing music on the bus. I was writing music on trains. I was writing music in bars. One day, I was writing music on the bus riding with Mario Bauza. He was very old at this point but he had had the opportunity to lead his own group and he sat next to me on the bus one day and he saw me writing this music and he said, “I like how you write for the bass. You’re my arranger now.” [laughter]

WWBW: How did you develop your background basic knowledge of harmony and orchestration? Did you study it in high school?

MM: I studied with a composer at Oberlin Conservatory, a guy named Wendell Logan, who was a classical composer. He was also a jazz musician. I had the opportunity to take composition lessons with him, which was great.

So I learned a lot about composition. Not as much about jazz orchestration but when I moved to New York, I started doing studio work when there still was studio work in New York and I did a bunch of sessions with Don Sebesky, who was very active on the jingle scene and I figured if I’m going to be making money playing jingles with this guy, I might as well spend some of the money taking some arranging lessons.

Don had a class I took and it was really a great class. His thinking was so clear. I learned a lot about arranging from Don. So I had the basics of how to arrange and some basics of film scoring as well but you never really know what you’re doing until you’re doing it. So when Mario appointed me his arranger, I understood how to write for a big band but I didn’t understand how to write for an Afro-Cuban band. But fortunately all the guys in that band, I mean there were some amazing original players, Hipolito Valdez and Victor Paz, lead trumpet player and of course, Mario and Bobby Sanabria, I’d say probably more than anybody, they were generous showing me things, teaching me about clave. They gave me some of the history.

WWBW: What components of the Latin jazz orchestra did you have to assimilate new knowledge for? You knew how to write for trumpets. You knew how to write for saxophones. So do you sketch out those Latin rhythms or do you leave it to the players?

MM: It’s different. If you’re writing for professionals and they really know what they’re doing, the best thing you can do is stay out of the way. I mean, if you’re doing an arrangement, the arrangement is going to have some specific things in it. You can’t be just generic otherwise.

In the case of Mario Bauza and Tito Puente later and Ray Barretto and Eddie Palmieri, those guys didn’t hire me to write things that they were already doing. They didn’t hire me to do that. They wanted me to do what I did which was pretty much a mixture of hard bop and Afro-Cuban music.

They wanted something different and I think they understood where I was coming from and they also understood that I could write for their band and not trip up. You know, you have a band like that, you have these guys that have an amazing amount of expertise. If you don’t create an environment where they’re able to exercise what they can do, you really waste the best part of what’s there. But at the same time, you have to write an arrangement that says something so you have to add something original to it; otherwise it just becomes generic.

WWBW: It must be a part of where the joy and satisfaction comes is threading that needle, like giving enough influence with the right amount of freedom to really take advantage of the brilliant players that you have.

MM: Absolutely. But that rule changes completely when you start writing for school bands because in that case your role is different because now you have to be a teacher.

WWBW: There’s more of a leadership component to it.

MM: It is leadership and management and teaching. A lot of the time, the directors of these bands are the ones who buy these charts and they are really interested. They want to know. They’re exploring. They want to know what to do, but they don’t know what to do yet, so your job in writing the chart is to have the information in it.

That’s another funny story. I was invited to Jazz at Lincoln Center. They were doing a workshop on teaching kids how to swing. We were working with this ‘guinea pig’ band of all stars, kids from the New York area — very good band. They were playing these charts and we were asking ‘when we tell you do to this, does it initially make sense or does this sound like a lot of hot air?’

So we were going back and forth, a bunch of band directors had come in and we were having this back and forth with these kids. The last chart they played, they decided to play a “Latin chart.” And they hired some of my friends, you know some of these percussionists, really good percussionists from New York City to play. So they were playing and it just sounded awful and it’s not because the band was bad and it’s not because the percussionists were bad but it was because the chart was written wrong. The chart was out of clave, which is kind of like telling your kids to run the mile but first take your shoes and put them on the wrong feet. You can do it, but it feels awful.

So I stopped the band and I said, “Look, you know, this chart’s wrong. The chart’s out of clave. It’s hard to get in on a swing when the chart won’t let them swing.” So one of the guys says, “No, we get this music. We just have to make it sound good.” I said, “No. We have to get the publisher to raise the bar and write charts that are better.” These guys said, “Well, you do it.” And I said, “Okay. I will.”

I don’t know why I picked Hal Leonard but I called them up. I got a hold of Mike Sweeney and I said, “Look you know, these charts, the Latin charts in the publishing world need to be better. This information is out there. We need to do a better job.” So he says, “Sure. Let’s give it a shot.” So I started writing charts for them.

WWBW: Wow. That’s a great gig.

MM: Plus they’re all arrangers and they really do care about this stuff. So we started writing some things and we found that as we started raising the bar, the other publishers also started raising the bar and it really has made a difference, I think.

WWBW: Speaking of learning new things, what adjustments did you have to make in scoring for a philharmonic orchestra as opposed to for a jazz orchestra? Is there a totally different knack writing for strings?

MM: Oh, absolutely. String players play lines. A lot of arrangers make the mistake of thinking writing for strings is like writing for a string patch on your synthesizer.

WWBW: Yeah, just make that clubby chord shape and lay it in there.

MM: Strings are not a sound. Just like when you’re writing for percussionists, you have to take into account what they’re able to do. I mean it’s the same thing with any instrument. Like it’s a bassoon player or a horn player or string players or percussion players, you have to know, first of all, what music makes them happy.

WWBW: If you listen to a string quartet, it’s four individual lines running against each other.

MM: Plus that’s how people really start to hate when jazz musicians show up in the philharmonic. They hate it because they know they’re going to play nothing but “footballs.” And that’s not fun.

WWBW: Footballs. Is that whole notes? That’s good. I have to remember that one.

MM: Usually, these guys are used to being the stars. They’re playing live. They're playing Mozart and Beethoven. You know, this great heavy music and you turn them into guys who are playing background stuff. That’s terrible. That’s disrespectful, too.

WWBW: How about film scoring? Does that require a different kind of discipline? I mean of course when the door opens, you have a certain sound and when somebody drops the fork, you reflect that or whatever. That’s got be to an entirely different approach as well.

MM: I think a lot of people make the mistake when they go to school, they go to school for “film scoring.” I’ve had a number of composers early on fortunately tell me that you don’t. The film scoring part is not the most difficult part. The most difficult part is the music. If you have no music in you, then you’re either going to wind up — well first of all, you’re going to wind up standing in the back of a really long line of people that are giving their film scores away for free or doing anything to get in the door but then they wind up doing this kind of generic film score sounding stuff. Nobody ever called me to do a film score because I knew film scoring. They called to film score because they liked my music. And they figured — perhaps unwisely in the beginning — that I could work. The first time I did a film score, I had nothing but a TV set like a DX7 and a stopwatch.

MM: And that was a Tri-Star Film called “Bossa Nova.” I was with Tri-Star and I knew nothing more than how to write music and how to count [laughs] and that turned out to be enough.

WWBW: How much playing are you doing these days?

MM: Lots. I just finished a week at Blue Note with Michel Camilo. He’s quite an amazing musician. He’s also taught me so much about music. We’re getting ready to do a big band album over in Germany together.

WWBW: Are you a full-time professor/teacher at Aaron Copeland School?

MM: Yeah, I’m the director of Jazz Studies. We only have a graduate jazz program, which is fun because number one, we don’t compete with any of our feeder schools. Number two, especially with the arranging students I get to talk about some pretty advanced stuff. As much as I love writing and as much as I love playing, I really, really love teaching. Plus I have a debt because I wouldn’t be doing any of this if it weren’t for all the people who taught me.

Some of the teaching was in school and some of it was outside of school. Guys like Jimmy Heath and Slide Hampton that really showed me so much about how to write just by playing their music.

WWBW: Now totally apart from arranging, when did you begin composing?

MM: I was writing music before I knew how to read music. I think that’s pretty common these days. I’m not sure it was common in those days, but I started writing songs as soon as I started getting interested in music.

WWBW: There’s a great tenor player, Bob Reynolds, I interviewed him a couple of months ago. He said the exact same thing. He said he got an alto saxophone when he was a little boy and would make up note sequences and see which ones sounded good together before he starting reading, before he started studying, before anything. Just a love of the sound and a curiosity as to how note relationships work.

MM: I did the same thing with transcribing songs. I didn’t even know that they called that transcribing. I learned how to play the trumpet by ear, I didn’t know how to read music until I was about 15. But I played along with the radio. That’s how I learned how to play trumpet. I grew up outside of Philly and there was Temple University’s radio station and they played jazz and I just was looking for anything that had a trumpet in it and whatever I heard I would play along with it. Sometimes I would record it. I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder back then.

WWBW: It sounds like you came up in the days of pencils and erasers and manuscript paper. Have you embraced virtual instruments and sequencing?

MM: Absolutely. I mean those of us who did use manuscript paper and pencils and had to edit recordings with razor blades, I think no one appreciates it more than we do. It doesn’t make the music, though. People say all this stuff is great but the most important part is the music.

WWBW: You can get obsessed in the tools and that’s dangerous. Do you prefer one notation platform over another?

MM: I started on Finale 3.0, so once you learn one there's really not a whole lot of reason to do anything else. It has everything I need to do. It's really fast and compared to the original version it's really quite incredible. All of them have drawbacks. I mean some people get into this rah-rah thing over Finale versus Sibelius. The only thing that I can say is that I hope there remains to be at least two very viable platforms because the competition keeps the others on their toes.

WWBW: Precisely. It's kind of like the dynamic you described when you started working with Hal Leonard and the Latin component of their catalog, started to get a little more authentic and then all the other publishers say, hey, we really have to come up to speed. It is the nature of competition to improve all the products across the line.

MM: I also represent music retailers and there is a sense of competition between the publishers, between the instrument manufacturers, between the retailers, the schools, but, at the same time, while they're competing they also recognize that they're a community and represent an art form. We also represent something that's happening in education. So we all have common interests. We compete within that, but we all have common interests and that's kind of a bigger picture.

WWBW: Nobody's interested in burning it all down. I go to a lot of the conventions and meet a lot of the vendors and they're in cutthroat competition with each other, but there's great love between one another.

MM: They all come from bands. They all realize that without this economic activity, if there wasn't some sort of a profit motive, people would drop it. A lot of people, even the professionals in the business, they don't realize the great infrastructure that's required just to keep music happening at all. There wouldn't be any music if it weren’t for all these people out there.

WWBW: I look back at my early education — I'm 56 years old, I grew up in a little town in Vermont — and our little town, we had, in elementary school we had a freaking, teeny little goofy band and it's just amazing that somebody put some energy into making something happen, squirreled away in this little town in Vermont. I look back on it with tremendous gratitude.

MM: Concerning these workshops and residencies all around the country and other countries as well, and I always find that if there's a good program it always goes back to some guy. Some woman, some guy, or some community group, some bunch of parents, and they say, we're having this. We're doing this. And that's it, and they make it happen.

WWBW: Yes. Over the course of looking into your bio, I noticed pretty early on in your trajectory you were working with Anthony Braxton. That's pretty far outside to get started on.

MM: Well, I was in college. I was at the Oberlin Conservatory and Anthony came through the workshop. I participated in the workshop and I could play. It's really wicked, crazy, hard music and I could play it. So he was putting together a big band to go to Europe. That's what cost me my spot on the baseball team, that's for sure. Because he wanted me to go on the road, like just before the end of the school year in the Spring semester. I asked my professors if I could take off and they said make up the work and you can do it. Everyone but the baseball coach [laughter].

So I went on the road. I was 18 years old and here I was playing in a session with Kenny Wheeler playing trumpet. I couldn't believe it, but it was a great education.

WWBW: I am wondering if I saw you back in those days. I went to college with Jane Ira Bloom. You've probably heard of here.

MM: Yeah, sure.

WWBW: She was there and a killer trombone player named George Lewis, maybe?

MM: Yes, George Lewis. George was in that band, too.

WWBW: Really? Anthony Davis was the great avant-garde piano player at that time. I got turned onto the scene that they were doing. We used to go to New York all the time and see Henry Threadgill and Anthony Braxton and just anybody who wasn't playing by the rules. So I don't know, I might have seen you back in those days. I graduated in 1980, so…

MM: That would have been about — my first trip with Anthony was 1978. Then I did some playing with Roscoe Mitchell. He had a group called the Sound Ensemble. I went on the road with Roscoe and Anthony, but when I was in Chicago I was studying to be an orchestral trumpet player and I was also learning. I was playing with Von Freeman doing jam sessions. I [even] got a chance to play one gig with Sonny Stitt, believe it or not. Just a couple of months before he passed away.

But I was really learning. I was learning everything at the same time. I was still learning to be an orchestral trumpet player. I was learning tunes and how to be a traditional trumpet player and at the same time I would go on the road with these avant-garde bands. It's really kind of like graduate school before graduate school.

WWBW: When you're doing an arrangement for like a known piece — I watched a clip of your arrangement of Night in Tunisia, how do you approach that? Do you pressure yourself to do something different?

MM: That arrangement was done for Mario Bauza and Mario's band had a sound. I was trying to use that sound of the band, but also a song like Night in Tunisia has got a lot of history in it, so you try to find what it is, what are some of the elements that need to be in there and then what are some of the elements that the band you're writing for, which of those need to be in there?

I like to put together a recipe. Like at the end of the chart I need to have this happen, I need to have this happen, I need to have this happen. Plus that was like my second big band chart [laughter]. I was just learning as I went, learning how to write montuno, the bass line. Actually that was really funny. The bass line was not the traditional bass line, but Mario wanted that bass line [sings bass line]. He wanted something with a lot of space in it.

MM: It's important, I think, when you're doing a song that everybody knows; it's not just the song. The art kids make that mistake when they just learn songs from lead sheets by rote. You can't learn songs from lead sheets. You've got to find out who played it, which recordings are there, where's the good stuff. There's usually so much good stuff already out there that you can find ways to get that into your arrangement and it kind of binds your chart to history, which, to me, that makes it — you know, connecting your music to other people's music, I think that's something that's very important.

WWBW: I see Dizzy as maybe holding a particular attraction to you. He's a hard bop player who developed a great love of Afro-Caribbean and Latin jazz. Your trajectories seem to align in some way.

MM: It's interesting, because Dizzy and Mario were really good friends. Mario helped get Dizzy started.

WWBW: Really?

MM: Oh, yeah. Mario was the lead trumpet player in the Chick Webb band when Dizzy was a kid and they became friends. Mario also got Dizzy into Cab Calloway's band. A lot of Dizzy — I mean I played in Dizzy's band, so I played with Mario and I played with Dizzy. A lot of people don't realize how much of Dizzy came from Mario. They were very close and Dizzy actually had a lot of Mario's mannerisms.

WWBW: That's absolutely a thing I did not know. So the vein of love of Latin music is in Dizzy from his teenage years?

MM: Oh, yeah. And when Dizzy was putting together his bebop thing, if you look at a lot of those bebop songs there's a lot of clave in them. It's just the way that the rhythms line up. A lot of them just fit naturally into Afro-Cuban music.

WWBW: How about hardware - what horn do you play?

MM: I play a Yamaha trumpet and I also play Yamaha trombones. When I play with Paquito Rivera I play valve 'bone, but I also play slide.

WWBW: You play the Xeno, or which one?

MM: I have two. I have a Xeno and I also have a Z.

WWBW: Do you use them for different environments?

MM: Yes, absolutely.

WWBW: How would you articulate that? Is one more lead-oriented?

MM: Yes, the Z is great when I have to play very powerfully, but light. Michel Camilo's band is a really good example. If you try to hammer your way through that band you're going to die an awful death.

But when I want to play something with a bigger sound or some sort of orchestral music, which I don't do as much as I used to, or just a straight ahead jazz gig, I prefer the Xeno. The air passes through a little easier and it just is more satisfying as far as just blowing through.

WWBW: So what exactly is your deal with Hal Leonard? Are you commissioned? Do you have an ongoing assignment to do orchestrations?

MM: As soon as I'm finished with this Bolivian project, I'm going to send it over to see if they can use it. Most of the time we go back and forth. Sometimes they need something and they'll ask me for it. Sometimes I'm already doing stuff and I'll send it over there and they'll look it over and if it seems like something for what they want to do then they use it.

WWBW: How elaborate are those orchestrations? Are they generally written for small ensemble?

MM: No, most of the time they're big band charts, although we have been doing some little big band charts, which have proved to be really popular. Some programs aren't able to field a full big band, but they do have enough to put together a little big band, so that's kind of a challenge, using less resources to try to put together something that has that full sound. That's something that I learned a lot about working with Slide Hampton.

WWBW: Are they a mix of arrangements of existing compositions along with originals of yours or are they exclusively one or the other?

MM: I'm always doing things, doing workshops or working with groups or doing projects and it's always different. So I try to always come up with music for what I'm doing rather than just trying to use something I already have. But sometimes I'll even write a chart for the occasion, like one of the charts I did called Trouble in Taipei was for a particular band that I was working with in Taipei. They had certain things that they didn't have and certain things that they did have, so rather than trying to use something I already had I just wrote something quick there to take advantage of what I was seeing in front of me. I find that that really works best, if you can manage it. You have to work fast.

WWBW: So just out of curiosity — going to pull a tip off of you for myself — what is your practice routine? You're playing every day these days, I would bet.

MM: The first thing is keeping the fundamentals really strong, just making sure that tone production is there. Making sure intonation, making sure just your basic strength, making sure your lightness and accuracy, and then just being able to get around the instrument with the full sound and lightness and play really complicated harmonic passages so that you can do what you're thinking you can do.

It's one thing to know something. It's another thing to be able to do it. So there are certain things I know that tend to be the more difficult aspects, sort of the more basic aspects. But the other thing I'd say that's something I have learned that I've embraced probably in the past ten years is really just playing music, really playing beautiful music and not just playing exercises. Really basing my playing off of some music, even coming up with exercises based on some music I'm [working] rather than just playing generic exercises all the time.

I mean sometimes if you feel like playing an Arban’s studies, you just crack it open and it's fun, but a lot of times with students rather than just saying OK, turn to page 67 and do this, I'll try to create some things for them that addresses their specific thing. So you wind up coming up with your own stuff all the time and that's useful, I think.

WWBW: Speaking of Bobby Sanabria, that Afro-Latin suite for Ellington, that's a magnificent piece of work. That's just breathtaking. I heard a good bit of it on public radio not too long ago, before I got the assignment to talk to you. Congratulations on that. It's just a marvelous piece of music.

MM: That was a lot of fun. That was done for the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival down in D.C. It was a commission also. They gave me a list of songs they wanted and just put them together in a suite. That was a lot of fun.

MM: I hope that people recognize all that goes into making sure that music happens in the schools. The professionals wouldn't have people to play for if there weren't more and more people coming up listening and enjoying this music. So it's really a group effort. I'm pleased to be part of it after all these years. I sure love it.

WWBW: Great talking to you, Michael.

MM: Nice talking to you.


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