© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
The great jazz master Gil Evans called Pierson " the best unknown composer I know ".
The Los Angeles Times wrote " highest praise for Tom Pierson's haunting music ".
The Philadelphia Daily News called Pierson's music " brilliant".
Columnist Matthew Lippman wrote " a performance I shall never forget... an exhaustingly beautiful experience ".
Dr. George Butler of CBS Sony said about Pierson's jazz orchestra," From my vantage point, this is the most exciting, original, and creative big band in the world."
Producer John Snyder called Pierson " world-class ".
Critic Jeff Levenson said he was “the best-kept secret in town ".
Ted Drozdowski in The Boston Phoenix described him as "possibly inimitable".
Richmond Shepard in The Wall Street Transcript referred to Pierson's
"exciting, moving, profound compositions ... the best, most original jazz I've heard in a long time ... he's a brilliant artist... a treat to be remembered and treasured ".
Nihon Keizai Shimbun called Pierson " a genius ".
In explaining his approach to big-band composing, Tom Pierson has been quoted as saying that he is “interested in a more creative form. Traditional form uses choruses — the cyclical repetition of a harmonic pattern — to organize the composition.
I often use a kind of rondo idea, alternating the written themes with open- ended solos. . . .Sometimes ‘style’ starts to limit the feelings you can put into the music. That’s why music that imitates older styles is often so weak emotionally. You have to unlock those stylistic limitations to make room for the complete honesty of your feeling.”
[Excerpted from Jack Bowers All About Jazz review of Planet of Tears 1989, Auteur CD 1229, Japan]
The alternating of “the written theme with open-ended solos …” is certainly on display Tom Pierson Orchestra - Last Works a double CD released by the Japanese label Auteur 3491/3492. Order information can be located via this link.
Interestingly, I received a preview copy of this music while I was deeply into researching the features about the Don Ellis Orchestra which have recently been appearing on these pages and I found the coincidence of music by another very original orchestrator coming into my life at the same time as my postings about the innovative Ellis big band were coming to fruition to be ironically interesting, to say the least. [It’s also coincidentally interesting because Tom later wrote in a message - “For me, the Don Ellis Orchestra was the last truly creative big band”!].
Tom also said in an early email: “I hope my music speaks to you.” Given the expansive state of mind I was in after trying to digest all that the Ellis music had to offer in the way of creativity and innovation, how could Tom’s efforts not reach through to me?
Irony upon irony, Tom’s message also indicated that he was in Los Angeles “from 1978 to 1984;” Don Ellis died in 1978!!
But at this point, the coincidental parallels with Don Ellis end and we move onto an examination of Tom work’s as a composer-arranger in which, stylistically, he is very much his own man, although one about whom the late Gil Evans has written: “Tom Pierson is the best unknown composer I know!”
I took me awhile to remember, but I had “met” Tom some years ago when I purchased my boxed copy of the Smithsonian Institute’s Big Band Renaissance: The Evolution of the Jazz Orchestra which was compiled and edited by Bill Kirchner.
Tom’s orchestra appeared on the second to the last track on the fifth and final disc of this set performing Planet of Tears the title tune of a 1989 CD which was issued as Auteur CD 1229.
This is what Bill wrote about Tom’s music in his annotation as contained in the booklet which accompanies the set:
“Few jazz composer-arrangers have had a background as unusual as that of Tom Pierson (b. 1948). A classical piano prodigy, he soloed with the Houston Symphony while in his early teens, and later studied at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. Pierson went on to conduct Leonard Bernstein's Mass at the Metropolitan Opera and to score films for Robert Altman and Woody Allen, but he left promising careers in conducting and film-scoring in order to write his own music, including that for his own jazz orchestra.
From his classical background Pierson brings a strong sense of form and superior skill as an orchestrator, but his jazz instincts prompt him to give considerable space to the improvising soloist. His writing also incorporates, in highly effective ways, the musical languages of rock and John Coltrane. Planet of Tears admirably displays Pierson's approach. At the core of Planet is a four-bar motif in 9/8 meter; the entire piece develops from this thematic kernel. The mood is reminiscent of early-60s Coltrane, and its intensity is sustained by Scott Robinson (b. 1959). Robinson, heard here on soprano saxophone, performs on all of the saxophones, flutes, and clarinets, as well on trumpet and trombone; he is the most gifted multi-instrumentalist since Ira Sullivan. Drummer Pheeroan akLaff also distinguishes himself, employing both power and subtlety when needed.”
In the 1980s Pierson led an orchestra in Los Angeles and, in the latter half of the decade, in New York. He moved to Japan in 1991 to play and teach, and resides there at this writing.
When coupled with Tom’s earlier explanation of how he approaches his Jazz orchestrations - “I often use a kind of rondo idea, alternating the written themes with open- ended solos” - the following excerpt from Bill Kirchner’s helps form a more complete guide to Tom’s work:
“From his classical background Pierson brings a strong sense of form and superior skill as an orchestrator, but his jazz instincts prompt him to give considerable space to the improvising soloist.”
If you are looking for a contemporary parallel to Tom Pierson’s writing in today’s big band scene, probably the closest one you could find would be with the arrangements of Maria Schneider.
In addition to similarities in form - “alternating the written themes with open- ended solos” - both Maria and Tom emphasize texture and rhythm in their orchestrations.
I explained “texture” and “rhythm” this way in an early posting about Maria, and this annotation also fits what I hear in Tom’s approach to large group arranging:
“When writing about the music of Maria Schneider [Tom Pierson], the “texture” of her music is often stressed as that quality which makes it so unique and so appealing.
But what is a musical definition of “texture” which joins with melody, harmony and rhythm [meter] as a fourth building block used to create a musical composition?
Ironically, of the four basic musical atoms, the most indefinable yet the one we first notice is – “texture.”
“Texture” is the word that is used to refer to the actual sound of the music. This encompasses the instruments with which it is played; its tonal colors; its dynamics; its sparseness or its complexity.
Texture involves anything to do with the sound experience and it is the word that is used to describe the overall impression that a piece of music creates in our emotional imagination.
Often our first and most lasting impression of a composition is usually based on that work’s texture, even though we are not aware of it. Generally, we receive strong musical impressions from the physical sound of any music and these then determine our emotional reaction to the work.
Beyond the texture or sound of her music and the lasting physical and emotional impact it can create, Ms. Schneider’s [Mr. Pierson’s] music is also heavily rhythmic – the most visceral and fundamental of all the musical elements.
Music takes place in time and like many great composers, Ms. Schneider [Mr. Pierson] uses rhythms and the relationships between rhythms to express many moods and musical thoughts.
She [he] uses rhythm to provide a primal, instinctive kind of foundation for the other musical thoughts [themes and motifs] to build upon.
This combination of powerful, repetitive rhythmic phrases and the manner in which she textures the sound of her music over them provides many of Ms. Schneider’s [Mr. Pierson’s] compositions with a magisterial quality.”
This combination of powerful, repetitive rhythmic phrases and the manner in which he textures the sound of his music over them provides Tom Pierson’s compositions with their distinctive qualities because as Aristotle asserts: “We are all different with regard to those things we have in common.”
Maria’s textural and rhythmic emphasis becomes a totally different aural proposition when Tom applies his creativity to these musical elements because as he asserts in the second part of his explanation of how he writes for large ensembles:
“Sometimes ‘style’ starts to limit the feelings you can put into the music. That’s why music that imitates older styles is often so weak emotionally. You have to unlock those stylistic limitations to make room for the complete honesty of your feeling.”
Or, put another way, while the form may be similar to that of Schneider’s, there the similarities end because Pierson’s textual pallette employs different colors and his powerful rhythmic foundation is based on the remarkable rhythmic skills of drummer Pheeroan akLaff, who is rhythmically ably assisted and abetted throughout by bassist Kanoa Mendenhall.
Another attribute that Pheeroan and Kanoa bring to Tom’s music is the ability to hold it all together as five of the thirteen tracks on Last Works are over ten minutes long.
At this point, I wrote to Tom and asked him to consider providing some comments on how he went about composing and arranging each of the tracks that make up Last Works. Here’s his reply [BTW … Tom has a preference for lowercase and I have left his spellings as submitted]:
“I'll be happy to comment about composing last works. Here goes!
!. abandoned - This is a recent piece. Because I compose at the piano (so did Stravinsky!) my thematic material often is difficult (dare I say "unsuitable") for the instruments that end up having to play it! The opening theme of "Abandoned" is in this category. I am grateful for the skill of the players in executing this awkward melody so accurately.
2. chandra lowery's samba - I wrote this for a recording with trombonist Todd Lowery. Chandra Lowery is Todd's wife, and I thought my melody sang well to the words "Chan-dra Low-er-y's Sam-ba". The Todd Lowery version didn't turn out, so I arranged it for my own band. However, I was afraid Todd began looking askance at me. Hence, a new rule: never name a song after another guy's wife.
3. by the martyr's decree - This one is from the early 80s, just after I formed the first incarnation of my big band in LA. I've always written very slowly, so as an experiment I forced myself to write a complete, fully orchestrated work each day for a week. Of those five compositions, two remain in my book - "Fright" and "By The Martyr's Decree". (A third, "Telepathy", became part of my trio repertory. Two were thrown out.)
4. times remembered - This was one of the first pieces I wrote for big band. Believe it or not, I was unfamiliar with the Bill Evans composition with almost the same title. I would never steal something like that, and, after so many years, I'm afraid this title is wedded to my composition.
5. winter's end - Like "Chandra", this was written for someone else who declined to record it. I was producing the organist Charles Earland for CBS. Earland's managers and I had "creative differences". Specifically, I thought Charley sounded best raw, backed by his young touring guys, and the managers wanted a polished, adult-contemporary, studio musician type of sound. I felt Charley was just not comfortable in that situation. So, we parted ways. Actually, CBS never paid me or the recording studio, and the recording we made (It was smoking!) was never released.
6. dark story - This melody seemed like a rock song when it came to me. I was not sure it could be expanded into a big band composition because of that stylistic incongruity. What made it work was the expansion of the pure triads of the melody into the slightly pan-diatonic voicing concept for the interludes and the coda.
7. the pharaoh's serpent - A "pharaoh's serpent" is an actual thing, the burning of a particular chemical compound resulting in a long, serpentine ash. There is also the nuance of drummer Pheeroan's name.
8. elipsis - This is the very first thing I wrote for big band. Though I have polished the orchestration over the years, the composition is essentially what I wrote in 1980. This piece has developed a reputation for its difficulty. We tried to record it for The Hidden Goddess, but it didn't come out.
A composer sitting at his desk "creating" can easily depart from what is practical. "Inspiration" takes over, and the music soon challengers the performers' limits. Beethoven was notorious for challenging the players' limits. If they would complain, Beethoven would say, "What do I care for your stupid violin!" Once I watched a recording session of Johnny Richards, Kenton's arranger. One of the brass players complained about the demands of a particular passage. Richards answered, "Is the note on the horn?"
That said, I have learned over the years to avoid unnecessary difficulties…
By the way, "Elipsis" is a deliberate misspelling. I didn't want the meaning of the real word, just its sound.
9. sultry - A recent work. Shu Enomoto's interpretation of my melody was much more delicate than I had anticipated, and it influenced the performance of the entire band.
10. 45/8 - This is a time signature, like 9/8 or 12/8. I wrote the first version of this piece for my electric sextet in the mid 70s. The climactic vamp ("Blue" Lou Marini's solo) was a complicated series of 2s and 3s, totalling 45 eighth notes for the complete talea [repeated rhythmic pattern]. Besides being impossible to play, it was hard to swing in 45/8!
When planning last works, I wanted to include this composition. However, a complete rewriting was in order. In addition to orchestrating for big band, the composition itself was 60% rewritten. Things which had originally been improvised in a 6 piece electric band had to be composed anew for 16 acoustic players.
I decided that mixing 2s and 3s in the vamps was unnecessary, so I wrote new vamps using only 3s. After the composition was finished, I happened to count the 3s in "Blue" Lou's solo. There were 15, 15x3 equalling the 45 of the original 45/8. Completely an accident!
11. in god's name - This one almost didn't make the cut. Now I'm very glad I included it. Slight revisions in the orchestration from the original late 80s version.
12. two becoming 3 - My titles always come after the composition is finished. This title inadvertently turned out to have musical relevance. The piece begins with duple phrase lengths - 2 bars, 4 bars, 8 bars. It evolves into triple phrase lengths - 3 bars. The climax is in quintic phrases - 5 bars, or 2+3. Two becoming Three!
13. among strangers - from the late 80s. I loved this thematic material but the form needed improvement. My rewriting shortened certain sections, as well as improving the orchestration. I love this one.
Tom concluded the booklet insert notes with the following remarks which I thought would also make a fitting conclusion to this piece:
“In last works I've had the privilege ol hearing my music played by the best musicians in the world. No composer could ask lor a greater gilt
When I formed my big band at the end ot the 70's. I thought the future of jazz lay in improvisation over more extended compositional forms. a way to escape the constant repetition ol choruses. This was just before the jazz establishment turned away from a creative future and pointed everyone’s attention squarely at the past.
The goal of creativity is to connect the past to the future. You can't do without either. You don't necessarily have to be 'far out', but you must be fresh. When I was young, musicians who played 50 year old licks wore straw hats and worked in pizza parlors (This is not a slur on authentic traditional jazz). From the music's beginnings until 1980, jazz was an expanding, creative art form What happened?
Creativity requires a search, and that search does not take place among old recordings. It is a search to connect life experience to the basics of the art form - pitch, rhythm, structure, texture, contrast, dynamics, etc. Copping old licks is like cutting out photos from old magazines and calling it oil painting. It's an avoidance of artistic responsibility. By the way. how do you like my new poem? It starts “'I had a dream, that one day..." Plagiarism in 4 or more words? (Miles reference intended) How much of the "jazz" ol the last 37 years has simply been plagiarism?
Of course it's not about these or any words. It's about sound. The compositions on these CDs span 40 years of my personal "search for beauty", using the words of my friend, the pianist Ben Aronov
I hope these sounds touch something in you.”