Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Readings: Composer Spotlight – John La Barbera

Renowned composer/arranger John La Barbera has worked in the jazz world for over four decades, with performances and recordings of his music by Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Torme’, Chaka Khan, Harry James, Bill Watrous, and Phil Woods just to name a few. His selected piece is inspired by a visit to the infamous Morro da Babilônia Favela in in Rio de Janeiro, where John witnessed severe poverty contrasted with intense human spirit and outreach. Morro da Babilônia will be performed by George Manahan and the ACO at the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Readings on Thursday, June 16, 7:30pm at Miller Theatre, Columbia University.

Composer/arranger John La Barbera

American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about the challenges of writing jazz music for orchestra? What do you believe is the biggest payoff?
John La Barbera: To me, improvisation is the fundamental component of the jazz art form and I think the biggest challenge is to incorporate it in a symphony orchestra setting whose virtuosic players traditionally haven’t been exposed to or have explored it.  I think this is changing with younger symphony players whose listening is more diverse and whose training has embraced jazz as well as music from other cultures.  Also, trying to incorporate “swing” syncopation has always been an interpretation problem but with jazz now being more inclusive of other cultures and styles, it clears the way for newer rhythms that are more easily performed by orchestras. I think the payoff is broadening the appreciation for jazz, reaching younger audiences, and filling seats with new patrons.

ACO: Can you talk about what jazz elements the audience will hear in your piece?
JB: One of the components of my piece Morro da Babilônia is a representation of the Brazilian choro and, as I explain in the description, the genesis of choro music and American jazz are chronologically aligned and both have improvisation as a principal component. They also share similarities in their solo instrumentation. I prominently feature the clarinet with written and improvised solo space and though brief, a melding of choro and ragtime elements.  In addition, I use “call and response” to bridge certain phrases and sections.  The audience will also hear “voicing” techniques associated with Duke Ellington that I’ve expanded and incorporated in the work.

ACO: You are extensively accomplished in the jazz world: your big band CD On The Wild Side was nominated for a Grammy, you are Professor Emeritus at the University of Louisville School of Music and an active clinician and lecturer. And yet, as a participant in JCOI, what do you feel like you still need to learn?
JB: Lots!  I’m always listening and learning and as I’ve gotten older, I find myself more and more interested in theory and how to manipulate it for maximum satisfaction and surprise for me and the listener. I also need to be better skilled in the natural dynamics of the orchestra and the subtlety obtainable by the individual and combined choirs.  In addition, I’d like to experiment with certain non-adjacent instrument combinations to achieve colors that might work somewhat like artificial harmonics in the overall sound of the orchestra.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the readings?
JB: I’m really interested in hearing how the other composers incorporate the jazz component in their works. Also, networking with the other composers and mentors and exchanging ideas first hand will be a bonus.  By nature of our art, we composers are an insular lot and don’t have many opportunities to interact like, say, instrumentalist do.  And of course, hearing a professional orchestra play my work will be a thrill.

Learn more about John La Barbera at www.johnlabarbera.com

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