To comp or not to comp: Jazz’s curious paradox

New York-based singer/songwriter Elaine Romanelli stays original by remaining true to herself, with a few tricks of the trade. CREDIT: Corie Howell
“Sometimes you just have to stop screwing around, and play music.” –Ryan Saranich

In jazz, it’s all about the comp. The comp’s all about variation and reinvention, not something new. The very nature of this art form lends itself well to stealing, or borrowing, or does it even matter?

Duke Ellington’s the guy every musician seems to quote when referencing jazz as just rearranging since nothing’s original anymore. But Ellington was well-known for comping the hell out of his musicians, just enough to get by with these fantastic big band pieces. He’d listen carefully to the bits and pieces of melodic play in the various solos at any given gig, write down notes, then incorporated them into his “original” compositions. In Terry Teachout’s biography, “Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington,” inspiration often took this form: “Some of his most popular songs were spun out of melodic fragments that he gleaned from his close listening on the bandstand each night. [“Compiling as a Creative Act: What Duke Ellington’s Remixing Reveals about Plagiarism and Innovation” by Maria Popova]”

Paul McCartney nearly took a pass writing his famous Beatles pop anthem, “Yesterday,” because he thought he was inadvertently picking up a beautiful, but familiar melody from a song already out there. He was.

He asked trusted friends to hear him out. Only after they reassured him of its originality did he go ahead and make a hit record out of it. Even so, Spencer Leigh of The Independent hears Nat King Cole’s “Answer Me, My Love.” Leigh wrote in “When it comes to songwriting, there’s a fine line between inspiration and plagiarism [July 8, 2010]”: “The mood and the tempo are similar and Nat even sings, ‘You were mine yesterday, I believed that love was here to stay.’” Sigh.

Steely Dan has done it, more than once. On the title track to Gaucho, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker got flippant when a Musician reporter in 1980 asked about the similarity between theirs and Keith Jarrett’s jazz song, “Long As You Know You’re Living Yours.” They said, “We’re the robber-barons of rock ‘n roll.” Jarrett responded by suing for and receiving proper writing credit.

“He could hear a guy play something and take a pencil and scribble a little thing. The next night there would be an arrangement of that thing the guy played. And nobody knew where it came from.” –Jimmy Rowles, “Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington by Terry Teachout

Associate Professor of African American Literature-Texas Tech University, and author of “Swinging the Vernacular: Jazz and African American Modernist Literature,” Michael Borshuk pointed to jazz as the song-theft exception. Jazz is all about improvisation, borrowing from other well-known songs, a snippet here, a sample there, so the lines are harder to draw. “While a borrowing in rock and roll may be cause for litigation, jazz musicians frequently reference other works of music in moments of improvisation,” Borshuk wrote in “A History of Plagiarism in Songs.” “Quoting is all part of the jazz musician’s bag, and if, say, the estate of Jerome Kern sued every time a saxophone player snuck in a melodic snippet from ‘All the Things You Are,’ there’d be an endless series of copyright infringement suits showing up on dockets.”

One of Hawaii’s favorite straight-ahead musicians, John Kolivas finds songwriting wherever he goes. CREDIT: Photo courtesy of John Kolivas, used with permission

Most jazz and jazz-fusion musicians go about the business of songwriting by simply doing it. The ones who overthink and agonize over every note, are few and far between. They tend to be rare, preferring to play well with others than lead the way.

Every songwriting musician, however, forges ahead, putting inspiration, desire, and personality into his/her own particular composition, somehow making peace with the jazz paradox. The result: originality irrespective of the many songs that came before.

Some, like Elaine Romanelli, go with the method of writing the melody and lyrics together. There’s less chance of any musical overlap, she said. “It’s definitely easier to come up with an original turn of phrase than an original chord sequence!” she explained. “There is no new chord sequence under the sun, and trying to find one gets tricky. Plus, the more unusual a chord sequence, the more it feels like it belongs to one particular song. (‘There’s a place for us…’) But common sequences have been used so many times, in so many songs, they sort of become the canvas for the lyrics, rhythm, and melody you create. And those can be unique to you/your song. To un-stick yourself from ‘that’s-been-done’ thinking about harmony, a common songwriting exercise is to take a chord sequence you like from a song you admire, and write new music over it. (New music = melody/rhythm/lyrics.) I’d bet many songwriters have done that. Even Bach! (He stole from himself a lot as well. You would, too, if you had to write a big work every week!)”

Writing a song just for the sake of bragging rights will only make the process harder. New York-based singer/songwriter Romanelli vouched for the personal touch. As with all writing, write what you know, what moves you, what really burns you up inside right this minute. “…it helps if you have to have something to say. Easier to write if you are trying to work through a problem, or express an opinion, or feeling, or encapsulate an event in your life or in history, or something — rather than ‘I want to write a song.’ I suspect even the most jaded pro songwriters started out writing because there was something personal they were burning to express. And then over time they developed the songwriting skills to be able to write work-for-hire.”

Romanelli, who tours all over the U.S., playing her quirky but deeply impressionable cross-section of music, said she also benefits by not knowing as much music that’s out there as, say, the average serious jazz pianist. “Ignorance may not be bliss, but it does make it easier to bypass the internal judges that say ‘That’s been done before,’ and just write something down.”

With songwriting, Ryan Saranich prefers to get right down to it. “Sometimes you just have to stop screwing around, and play music,” which this L.A. multi-instrumental musician does every chance he gets. No matter what’s on the schedule or what the mood, Saranich approaches songwriting pragmatically. “I can go both ways on this one. Compositions should be ever-evolving. I get pissed at people that take six years to write. However sometimes that common theme should never evolve…”

The bassist for the Grammy-winning jazz-fusion band, The Rippingtons, relies on a little help from his musician friends and a lot of self-confidence. A solid sideman and session player, Rico Belled — who’s recently been on tour internationally with smooth jazz artist Keiko Matsui — branched out a few years ago with two outstanding solo albums, “The Pursuit Of Comfort [2010]” and “XR7 [2012].” Both contain all original material, purely aesthetic, without much thought to what would sell to a mass market. “The point was to make an album with no commercial considerations, no intended ‘radio-format.’ Just a group of the best musicians I knew getting together to play some tunes,” Belled explained. For him, songwriting is about staying true to who he is, not playing the comparison game. “You have to be brutally honest with yourself: is this really new, different? Listen to it with fresh ears, hopefully have some honest friends… but most of all, be yourself, because nobody is like you. Boldly go where only you can go!”

Hawaii straight-ahead bassist John Kolivas finds inspiration everywhere. He uses his experienced judgment to determine the melody’s originality. “Melodies come to my mind, especially when I’m taking a walk or waking up in the morning,” he said. “If it sounds original to me, I write it down. The book, ‘The Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron has excellent exercises to help trigger the creative process. A must read!”

Kolivas must be doing something right, because his two critically acclaimed albums with the Honolulu Jazz Quartet hit the mark between deeply personalized stories, and endless inventive variation that floats above familiar straight-ahead territory. “Speed Trap,” from “Sounds Of The City [2003],” captures a moment on the crazy streets of Honolulu before and after rush hour in the familiar casual local style, punched up with horn-drenched straight-ahead detours. “The Indians,” from “Tenacity [2007],” immediately sparks memories of his childhood in laidback Hawaii and a kind, doting relative, in Kolivas’ case, his late baseball-loving grandfather. Through the gentle prompts of the grounded piano and the wistful wandering of the horn, Kolivas manages to sound heartfelt, genuine, and deeply original.

That’s the point, after all.

Article first appeared in Examiner April 10, 2014.