Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Readings: Composer Spotlight – Guy Mintus

At 24 years old, Israeli-born New York-based jazz pianist and composer Guy Mintus has performance credits that include the Kennedy Center, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Apollo Theater, Symphony Space, Red Sea Jazz Festival, and the Israel Festival. With a focus on music as a gateway to cross-cultural understanding, Guy has collaborated with master musicians from Turkey, Greece, Iran, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India and Mali and has participated in multi-disciplinary works with artists in the visual, dance, spoken word, and theater worlds. Guy has been recognized by ASCAP, Downbeat Magazine, BMI and the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, among many others.

Portrait of a Moroccan Cantor singing about Love or Memories from a Place I’ve Never Been is Guy’s piece, a “personal journey to be perceived it as an open love letter to Morocco and to my late Grandfather,” which will be workshopped and read at the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Readings on Thursday, June 16, 7:30pm at Miller Theatre, Columbia University.

Jazz pianist and composer Guy Mintus

American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about the challenges of writing jazz music for orchestra? What do you believe is the biggest payoff?
Guy Mintus: For me, one of the main challenges has been to fully adjust my mindset to the orchestral mode. First of all, writing for “classically trained” musicians is very different from writing for players who are used to playing Jazz. There are really no discounts. You must make as little assumptions as possible.

More than that, among the various “classical” settings, I find the orchestral one as particularly challenging. It’s a big palette of sounds to control and even just the way orchestras operate, rehearse, the different psychological relationships between conductor-player-composer when we’re all in that room. I learned that these are all very important to understand and can certainly make an impact on one’s choices down to the smallest details.

I believe that the payoff in inviting jazz musicians or musicians of any background into the orchestral world is huge. On the one hand, orchestras are benefited with new musical languages, forms of expression, fresh perspectives and eventually also new audiences. At the same time, for us, being required to be that specific and detailed might be challenging but is also very healthy. When you need to weigh each decision to such extent it truly brings you closer to yourself and to your own musical identity. For example, while often in Jazz situations the composer will just tell the drummer which groove he’d like for a certain piece, while writing for orchestra, you suddenly need to break that groove down and distribute it to three percussionists showing the tiniest nuances in which you’d like that groove played.

ACO: You describe your piece as “an open love letter to Morocco and to my late Grandfather.” Can you talk about what Moroccan musical elements the audience will hear? 
GM: Well, the first main element that will occur is the vocal element. Specifically of the great cantorial tradition of Morocco (tradition of cantors singing liturgical or quasi-liturgical Jewish texts over various ). The trigger that started the whole piece has been an old cassette I found in which a Moroccan cantor singing lines from Song of the Songs of the bible. The way he phrased the words, the ornaments he used, the scales he was singing on have all become key elements in the piece.

Aside from that, there are some rhythmical, rethorical and orchestrational elements that are very much influenced by Sha’abi, Gnawa and the tradition of the great Andalusian orchestras. Morocco’s music is as vast and diverse (if not more) than the entire tradition of Jazz. While this is part of the heritage of my late grandfather I’ve gotten to explore it quite a bit and even during the writing period of the piece I’ve had the great fortune to got collaborate separately with two masters of Moroccan music; Ma’alem Hassan Bin jaafer who plays in the Gnawa tradition of the north African Sufis and Oudist Michel Suisa who plays in the Sha’abi and Andalusian traditions. These experiences helped greatly and of course made an impact on the piece.

ACO: What has your experience in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute been like so far?
GM: The experience has been truly amazing. The week we all spent in UCLA that kicked of this whole adventure has been truly eye opening and uber-inspiring. At the time, I almost didn’t go because the seminar fell on a busy touring period of concerts taking place very far from Los Angeles. Luckily, I finally decided to go even though it meant taking a very long flight from Israel right after a concert and arriving to the seminar a day late. This turned out as an incredible decision.

In the seminar, being around and sharing knowledge with the singular congregation of faculty and students that were there has been beyond anything I could expect. Many of the relationships formed has continued till today and I’m just grateful to be part of this community.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the readings?
GM: Of course, the thing we all look forward to the most is basically to hear everything coming to life with real instruments and real people. I’m also very much looking forward to spending time and interacting with the mentoring composers, my fellow JCOI composers and the players of the American Composers Orchestra. Every time something you wrote is being played, there are moments that work less than you expected, there are moments that work exactly as you expected and there are moments you didn’t expect much from but will surprise you for the better. I look forward to enjoy and learn from all of those moments.

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