Feedback on the Jazz Master Summit composition challenge

I’ve received a few emails since announcing the winner of the Billy Strayhorn composition challenge asking about the selection criteria and why personalized feedback wasn’t provided. 

It’s understandable that people would like some closure to the competition other than simply knowing who won. “Why didn’t I win?” “What was the criteria for choosing the winner?” “What did you think of my piece?” etc…

With nearly 30 entries, personal feedback would have taken me more than a solid week of nothing but writing. That’s not practical. So in lieu of individualized feedback, allow me to make some general comments about the competition and about the entries.

And let me begin with a quote from Bartok:

I really had no idea of the variety of music I would receive. Everything from solo harp, guitar, and piano to vocals with lyrics to MIDI to big band, and styles from modern jazz, to soul to folk to avant-garde to new age to pop. I’m offering this out as an excuse for the difficulty of declaring one piece being the best.

But it was a competition and a winner was promised to be found. I should also mention that all blame for the outcome should fall on me. Richie and I discussed certain pieces, but the final decision came from me, not him.

So we know that this process is subjective in the extreme. The biggest subjective influence is in the judge – me. I have certain things musically I’m attracted to, as do all of us. The second influence is Richie since he is responsible for providing the lesson. If you know Richie’s music, you know he’ll resonate and therefore be more effective with someone possessing a more dense harmonic sensitivity. He probably won’t have as much to offer someone who wrote a four-chord pop tune.

And to respond to a Facebook comment, yes, in a perfect world, we would arrange for a panel of artistically diverse judges to agree on a winner, each piece would receive a written commentary, and every entry would be posted for the entire Jazz Master Summit audience.

However, in my imperfect and time-restricted world, we are left with little-old me choosing the winner with this post as the collective written evaluation, and the posting of less than a quarter of the entries classified as runners up.

Okay, enough of the excuses. Let’s talk about the music.

At the outset, I stated that my criteria would be melody, harmony, and form. I stated that the complexity of orchestration and the arrangement would not be a criterion, and neither would be recording quality. I considered those to be superficial to the actual songwriting.

I could not, however, help but be swayed by the performances. One trait I found in several submissions was in the lessor quality of many of the performances. Maybe I should have stated this at the outset, but the performance quality weighed in on my evaluation. Even if I tried to put the performance issues out of my mind, it’s an integral influence on the overall impression of a piece of music. A Bartok string quartet would sound completely different on a MIDI sequencer quantized to sixteenth notes and set to one velocity. It would strip the humanity out of the music. I would also not want to hear any of the instruments consistently 20 cents sharp. Horn players: tune before recording an audition piece!!

Another trait I heard in many of the pieces was less interesting melodic evolution. These melodies had either static, overly repeating patterns or meandering lines that offered less satisfying resolutions. Again, maybe chalk this up to my personal subjective opinion of music, but I believe melodic lines must evolve in such a way that the listener is taken on a journey full of interest and surprises.

The opposite problem can occur when everything is a surprise and there is no home base that the listener can return to.

There should be a rhythmic interplay between predictability and surprise. Not all surprises and not all predictability – harmonic or melodic. The rhythm of predictability and surprise is the difficult-to-define art of it all. And it’s hard to get just right.

That is the trait of good composition, in my opinion. An interesting melody that takes the listener along a journey that is colored by a complementary and evolving harmony. Enough surprise to build interest but not so much as to lose the listener. It should have a rhythmic balance within the flow of the melodic lines. Nothing meandering nor choppy.

So, there ARE certain principles of good composition, but in the end, it is very subjective and much of it is in the ear of the beholder. Anthony Braxton might have chosen a different winner than Diana Krall. There you go.

Here are six good compositions that I’ll call runners up. I want to highlight some other pieces that I liked in part to show that there were indeed other good compositions that were considered. I could add to this list, but I’ll stop with these eight. I’m not crediting these people because I don’t have their permission to use their name. If you wish to be credited for your piece I’ve included below, I’m happy to do so. Just let me know.

Thank you again to everyone who entered! Keep writing, recording, and putting yourself out there. Consider the criticism but never let it stop you from manifesting the music you have inside.

First, here is the entry of a very talented 14-year old boy.

Walk in Bb Minor

Here are the others:

Lyle’s Smile
Flotsmfilly
Pablo’s Peace
Song for Eli
Timeless
Tree Beings I have Met
Washington Heights

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