One of the assignments in last semester's graduate jazz seminar at SDSU was to compose and record a piece with a "fixed but flexible" form. We listened to several examples from Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman, Frank Kimbrough, Richie Beirach, Bill Plake, and Rick Helzer, the professor.

From the syllabus:

This piece is to be composed in an alternate form idiom. In other words, the improvisational structure for the composition will not include a fixed harmonic form. Open-ended forms, open-ended forms with cues, closed rhythmic forms, ostinato forms and other improvisational structures can all be used.

I listen to a lot of Kneebody, and they have a fascinating system of about 30 different cues they all use to communicate instructions to each other. Any member can tell any other member at any time to drop out, come back in, repeat a loop, change the key, change the tempo, etc. All these cues can fit into any key or tempo and most musical contexts, so the unaware listener might only notice a few recurring motifs.

This was the kind of thing I wanted to compose, only I had to have it written with enough clarity to record with my classmates on the second or third take. I wanted a crazy-sounding melody, like a weird Monk tune, but less tonal. And I wanted specific cues for the soloist to instruct certain members of the rhythm section to drop the bomb: do something with your instrument you've never done before.

Here's the lead sheet. (This is its current state, what I'll be using for my recital. It's been slightly modified since this recording.) I'll explain my composing process and link to the recording below.

I had the above vague idea of what I wanted in my head, so I sat down with my guitar and plunked out the first random notes that came to my fingers. That became the first bar of my piece. From there, I composed the rest of the melody, adding chords as I went, within the context of that first bar.

For a title, I requested an idea from my wife while I was halfway through writing it. I played some of it for her and explained my cuing idea, and she said, "Wacky misadventure?" I responded, "Wacky misadventure." That's what we say to each other when we're out driving and we take a wrong turn, intentionally or not, and we embrace the opportunity to discover new lands. So I had half a tune with a title and a real-world context to which I could relate everything. It's always easy after that.

That third page with the cues is tricky to internalize. To make it as clear as possible, I wrote out my intentions in complete sentences at the top of the page:

Solos begin on stated form. Soloist plays each of the three "Wrong Turn Cues" below in order, at any point in the solo, followed by the final cue, ending the solo.

"Wrong Turn Cue": Target instrument immediately does something unexpected, disregarding form while still interacting with other players. Other players roughly maintain form until their cue is played.

None of the cues use exact pitches until the cue to end the solo.

I've been running this with my recital band at all our rehearsals, and it tends to work really well. I love how the final cue counts off the original tempo in the middle of all the chaos, signaling everyone to fall right back into the head.

Here's the recording we made in class at the end of last semester. The band was Jeanette Kangas on drums, Douglas Welcome on bass, Danny Green on piano, and myself on guitar.