The personal storm


By Harry Newman

Jazz composer Rob Reddy presents his most ambitious work yet

Since the early 1990s, Rob Reddy has been forging a way uniquely his own as a jazz composer, saxophone player and bandleader in New York. Where other Downtown jazz artists were turning to the exotic sounds of Central Europe, the Balkans or Asia for inspiration, Reddy was digging deeper into the American vernacular of gospel, spirituals, blues and folk music. Where small groups, trios and quartets were the norm, Reddy was writing for sextets, octets and ten-piece ensembles. Where most composers were using standard jazz instruments and typical improvised variations on melody lines, he was exploring new ways of composing with improvisation and using instruments not common to jazz such as the viola, cello, French horn, and even the mandolin.

Now, Reddy is about to launch his most ambitious work yet, “The Book of the Storm,” an hour-length jazz symphony for nineteen musicians premiering March 14 and 15 at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, where he has been part of the Artists-in-Residence program since the fall. “The Book of the Storm” will open the program’s “Work & Show Festival,” the annual presentation of works-in-progress by its resident artists that takes place the last two weeks in March. It’s the largest, most complex, most compositional piece of music he’s written.

Started three years ago with commissions from the Jerome Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts, “The Book of the Storm” takes its name from a line of a poem by Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. “I just liked how the words sounded to me,” Reddy said about the title. “The poem is about personal storms. It’s about a guy in a house in the evening in an actual storm [and what he hears and thinks during it]. And it started me thinking. As well as rains and floods and hurricanes and the things we’ve seen in the last couple of years, the idea of a storm could relate to storms I’ve seen friends and artists I know go through [in their own lives].”

The new piece continues the musical direction he’s been moving in for more than a decade, away from song as the basis for solo improvisations to denser ensemble pieces where improvisations are incorporated into the texture of the whole. “I’m moving towards a lot more composed material in my music,” he said, “But improvisation is very much a part of that. I give direction for the improvisation, an aesthetic direction, a mood or feeling I’m trying to evoke.” He works regularly with the same musicians, all experienced improvisers, and imagines the choices they’d make musically with the ideas he has as he composes. He then takes those sounds and uses them as the palette he draws from in writing.

But Reddy goes even further and turns the usual use of improvisation on its head. Traditionally in jazz, a composition serves as a framework for improvising. A melody is mainly the jumping off point for soloists to do what they want with it and the focus is on the musicians’ spontaneous musical invention. In Reddy’s work, improvisation is used instead as a kind of accompaniment to the fully composed passages. “I use those improvisations to support a melody or some other written material. In most jazz, it’s the other way around. Jazz composers have written material and chord changes and a structure to support an improviser. I still do some of that. But the other way is actually more interesting.”

Reddy grew up in Kings Park, a small town on the north shore of Long Island, and came to New York in the mid-1980s to study at the New School University’s Jazz Program. He started his professional career playing soprano sax with bassist Reggie Workman, who had been his mentor at the New School, and later spent two and a half years playing alto as part of the drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society. He quickly became known for the quality of his playing, his passion and commitment, and his talent for improvisation. In 1996, he released his first album as a leader, “Post War Euphoria,” with his first sextet, Rob Reddy’s Honor System. In October, he released his fifth album (and the first under his own label, Reddy Music), “A Hundred Jumping Devils” with his latest sextet, Gift Horse.

Though they share many of the same personnel, Reddy gives a different name to each of his ensembles. “I really see them as distinct, very different groups,” explained Reddy, “The instrumentation and personality of each ensemble dictate something to me. I don’t know what it is. When I compose a melody or a rhythm, I instantly know it’s going to work with this ensemble or that ensemble.” He’s usually working on pieces for two or three of the groups at the same time.

The ensemble for “The Book of the Storm” is called Small Town and it certainly seemed like one last month as musicians started setting up for the first rehearsal at the Tribeca PAC. More and more chairs and music stands were brought out for the saxophone players and clarinetist, for the trumpets, trombone, and French horns, for the string quartet, then the two guitarists, two drummers and the double bassist until the entire stage was full. In front of it all was Reddy, next to a music stand with his alto hanging from his neck. This will be the first time he’s just conducting one of his pieces and not playing in it.

“I’m curious to see what it feels like to play the role of conductor and not hiding behind a saxophone. If the intent I want can still be as strong without my musical voice in it. That’s going to be interesting to see.”

The piece is in four movements and once everyone was settled he started working through it from the very beginning. The first movement has a dark, roiling quality to it, as of something threatening gathering strength. It starts with a kind of down tempo march for the ensemble as a whole led by an insistent, repeated melody on strings, clarinet, French horn and baritone saxophone, and supported by a martial tattoo on the drums that gradually builds in volume until the music breaks into a kind of high energy, off-kilter funk. There’s something deep and elemental about it, like the currents of the sea moving apart and coming together, building in intensity before a storm comes in.

Musically, it’s characterized by an intricate interplay between solo instruments and passages played in unison by several instruments.

Though the musicians had received their parts days in advance, it was slow going at first. In addition to Reddy’s usual blending of improvised and non-improvised playing, the work frequently includes passages written in strict tempos played at the same time as ones written without time signatures or bar lines at all — so-called rubato tempos that allow for more natural, emotional phrasing. Even for players who have worked with him regularly it took some getting used to and several times, Reddy played a section on the alto to give an idea of how he wanted it. But as the rehearsal ended a few hours later, the movement had begun to come together and sounded the way he imagined it would be.

“It’s a step for me in a different direction,” said Reddy, “composing for larger forces like this and seeing if I can still keep the balance I demand of musicians, the balance [between] putting music on someone’s music stand and having something very specific in mind for it and their being free to improvise and interpret my material as they wish.” Then he stopped and thought about it a moment longer.

“It’s a really fine line,” he conceded.