I got to record another of my compositions at school a few weeks ago. One of the early assignments in my jazz seminar was to compose a piece in the chromatic modal style (similar to "Out Doin' Good Again" from last semester). We submitted first drafts a few months ago, and have been making edits since then.

Although we studied several chromatic modal pieces before composing, I was still lost as to how the chords seemed to float by randomly. I could hear various tension and release effects, but had no idea when to use them. One student even asked whether this music could be composed by writing a bunch of chords on index cards and pulling them one by one out of a hat. Professor Helzer didn't like that idea. I thought I'd be a punk and do it anyway. I used a script I wrote a couple years ago for a customized flash cards kind of function, and I gave it twelve roots, eight or ten different chord qualities, and an option for one or two measures in duration. That gave me a string of random chords within the palette I defined, and I entered them into a lead sheet to begin the composing process. I named it "Flash Chords."

Of course, I knew that was only a starting point. I was thinking that this exercise could help me hear when I like or dislike a specific harmonic movement. Before I even thought about writing a melody, I played through the chords a few times, then started changing things around wherever it sounded like a change was necessary. I kept the first chord as is, Bbm9#5 (Bb Aeolian), tweaked the next chord, and immediately fell into a groove. I don't know how, but the ideas just streamed in until I had a complete 32-bar chord progression. I kept nothing but the very first chord from the original randomized sequence.

Part of what got me going was the beginnings of my technique for visualizing voice movements between arbitrary chords. I wrote about it last month: Visualizing Chord-Scales on the Cycle of Fourths. I was particularly intrigued by the idea of a "harmonic pedal," to which Professor Helzer had recently introduced us. This device holds a collection of voices static, rather than the bass note or the melody. I used this explicitly in measures 9-11, with a slight shift in measure 12. The Gmaj7b5, Abm11, and Dmaj13 all use F#, B, and C# in their voicings, while the bass notes and melody are moving.

Before writing the melody, I got a tempo and groove going in my head with just the chords. It's much like the driving ECM feel on Chick Corea's "500 Miles High." Similar harmonic rhythm too. I had been playing Wayne Shorter's "Masqualero" in combo rehearsals, so that quarter-triplet motif was in my head, and it fit well with the first few creepy measures. I modified it to make it my own, and no one seemed to notice the similarity when I asked. (Experts steal.)

It was about this time that a new title came to me. I had just watched a 50-minute documentary on the militarization of police in the United States: The Largest Street Gang in America. The closing sequence shows a montage of military-grade defense equipment used by police departments and asks, "What are they defending?" The answer: "Their turf. And you're on it." Then a metal pump-up track with images of riot cops, police brutality, etc. And I thought, "What if I could make a jazz replacement for that metal track?" So that's what this piece is. I changed the title to "Defending Their Turf" as I wrote the melody. The mindset is that of a group of meatheads getting ready to do harm to defenseless people. It doesn't have to be police; it could be mafia goons, vikings, General Sherman's troops, high school jocks, Apache gunmen in Iraq, etc. That's the mentality I'll request from my band when we perform it at my recital.

Here's the lead sheet (transposed up an octave for guitar).

Here's the recording we made with the class. Everyone but me was reading this for the first time, so pardon any of my peers' flubs. My own flubs are unpardonable. Jeanette Kangas is on drums, Doug Welcome is on bass, Danny Green is on piano, Tony Wong is on alto sax, and I'm on guitar.