Mondays with Morgan: Jeff Lederer (new albums ‘Schoenberg on the Beach’ and ‘Balls of Simplicity’)

Mondays With Morgan is a column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

This week, Enos spoke with tenor saxophonist, clarinettist, flautist, and composer Jeff Lederer, who released two new albums on 6 Oct via his label, Little (i) Music.

The first is Schoenberg on the Beach, a jazz song cycle hinged on the early vocal works of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, featuring Mary LaRose on vocals.

The second is Balls of Simplicity, a recording of his never-before-heard notated chamber works with the Morningside Tone Collective.

Jeff Lederer outside holding tenor sax and an orange flower, wearing sunglasses and an orange shirt
Jeff Lederer. Photo credit Rob Lowell

Like numberless saxophonists throughout the decades, Jeff Lederer is a disciple of Bird – in his day, he estimates he’s learned “one million and one Charlie Parker solos.”

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But in parallel to this communion – and his development in the realm of “blowing noisy jazz tenor” – he’s forged a path as a composer of notated music. Along the way, Lederer learned that the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

“It’s pretty well-known that Bird enjoyed the music of Edgard Varèse, and Varèse enjoyed Bird’s music as well,” Lederer notes to LondonJazz, referring to the French composer who conceptualised “organised sound.” Plus, there’s that famous account of Stravinsky at a jazz club, digging Bird – who, as a tip of the hat, allegedly quoted The Firebird in response.

What would Parker have done if he’d lived longer? Lederer has a hunch he’d explore contemporary composition. “He might have gone in the direction of working with more composers, or composing himself more in extended forms,” he posits.

Lederer’s two new albums, released simultaneously, explore both sides of that creative coin. Schoenberg on the Beach draws from the intervallic material of works by Arnold Schoenberg and his student, Anton Webern, and “working that out in spontaneous ways and variations.”

Meanwhile, Balls of Simplicity – recorded with the chamber ensemble Morningside Tone Collective and guest pianist Jamie Saft – doesn’t contain a lick of improvisation. One piece therein dates all the way back to when he was 16, at his parents’ piano – which underscores how long this mode of expression has been on his brain.

“I think [I] found a bit of a synthesis into something that feels absolutely, 100% me,” Lederer says. He’s talking about the state of his compositional acumen on Balls – but he could just as easily be talking about Schoenberg, a document of his extemporary expressions at full tilt. 

Read on for an interview with Lederer about both albums.

LondonJazz News: Congrats on two tremendous new projects. You’re having quite the autumn!

Jeff Lederer: Yeah, it was kind of a thing for me to decide to release these two albums on the same day. I’m really satisfied with both of them, and the different sides of my music-making that they’re about. 

You know that BarbieOppenheimer weekend [known as Barbenheimer], where they released the two movies? I came up with Schoenballs for this one.

LJN: They obviously have two different backgrounds and contexts. But for you to decide to release them on the same day, they must have shared a root system.

JL: The thread that ties them together, for sure, is notated composition. I’ve spent a lot of time in the world being kind of a noisy, free jazz tenor player. But I have a side of me that really focuses on composition.

In the album Balls of Simplicity, it’s all notated composition – no improvisation whatsoever. And it’s not like this is something new to me; it’s something I’ve been doing.

The first score in that one is a little piano piece I had Jamie Saft play in the end, which I wrote at my parents’ piano when I was 16. Even in that one, it’s kind of this tuneful thing. But then in the last four bars, there’s something that almost resembles the 12-tone row to end it.

I’m thinking to myself, Gee, what was I thinking at that point? I certainly wasn’t aware of Schoenberg’s music then, although it did come into my life around a year later – maybe when I was 18.

That summer, I was listening to a recording of Pierrot lunaire, Yes’s Close to the Edge, and John Coltrane’s Ascension. So, that thread about composed music has been with me for a long time. The scores on the Balls album kind of span the whole 30-year history of that.

And then, on the other side, Schoenberg on the Beach is more of my usual strategy of taking some preconceived material and really transforming it into the language I speak.

LJN: How would you describe your development in that realm?

JL: It was a little bit frightening when I assembled this group of musicians up in Vermont last summer to give a performance and record the music. Because the scores had never been played before – with the exception of one, that I maybe tried in college once.

It was kind of a secret habit of mine to be a composer that way. I don’t know if you notice, but I’m kind of avoiding the use of the word classical, because I’m not sure that describes it. So, I’m using notated music.

But when I look at the early works, there’s a quartet there from when I was 22 and in grad school, it really parallels Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time in the instrumentation, and even in the language I was speaking.

So, there is a little bit of an arc from imitation of previous models, composers that I love, and I can hear it clearly.

In one of the pieces, there’s tons of Aaron Copland influence – which I love very much – and some John Adams influence, which I was obsessed with for a while. Then, the more recent pieces, I think, found a bit of a synthesis into something that feels absolutely, 100% me.

Musicians for Schoenberg on the Beach album lined up together with an art installation in background
Schoenberg on the Beach line-up. L-R: Jeff Lederer, Michael Formanek, Mary LaRose, Hank Roberts, Matt Wilson, Patricia Brennan. Photo credit: Erika Kapin Photography.

LJN: What was your methodology for exploding those scores on Schoenberg on the Beach?

JL: I’ve done this with composers before. More than 10 years ago, I had this out-of-the-blue project – a commission that came from the Ravinia Festival, from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. They asked me to do a kind of Afro-Cuban salsa rendition of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons – which became my Los Sazones, which toured for a lot of years.

The method there was the same thing – kind of going through the scores, looking for the areas that open a window into improvisation for me. They were easy to find in the early vocal works of Schoenberg, because it’s such beautifully expressive, melodic music.

I find those spots, and then I create vamps, bass lines and rhythmic fields that, to me, derive directly from the original scores. So, that’s musically the method.

But then the other thing – especially with this Schoenberg, and there’s a couple of Webern songs as well – is the context of it. What I wanted to bring out in the Schoenberg on the Beach project was this kind of youthful and romantic sense of the poetry that Schoenberg was working with.

I think it’s gorgeous poetry; I was trying to reflect that in however I was setting it in the music for this ensemble.

Musicians on Balls of Simplicity album taking a selfie outside with green in the background
Balls of Simplicity line-up, L-R: Emmalie Tello, Leo Sussman, Francesca Abusmra, Jordan Bartow, Weiwei Zhai, Jeff Lederer

LJN: It seems like you’re interested in breaking out of the strictures of what’s considered “jazz” or “classical.”

JL: Yeah. I’m teaching a lot now, and in most of my classes I very often say, “We’re in a world where genre is really insignificant.” It’s not really like crossing genres. It’s really, Can we get away from even this notion of genre?

Although on the other hand, what’s the word I want to use? Historicity? No – historical consciousness. And a social consciousness in music is more important than ever.

And yet, in my own music, I have this long-standing habit of liking to take music out of particular cultural contexts, and put them into new contexts – whether that be traditional shaker hymns or whaling songs. I just keep on doing this over and over again.

So, I’ve got to accept that this is kind of my working method for this lifetime. In that regard, it’s a place where historical and cultural context matters – and yet, genre doesn’t, if that makes any sense.

LJN: Regarding both works, how did you select material that would flow together?

JL: For the Schoenberg release, I went straight to the vocal works. Especially the early Lieder and vocal works; he wrote tons of vocal music throughout his whole life.

I think folks forget that at the core of Schoenberg’s music is expression, and drama. So, I went and looked particularly at the early vocal works, because they were kind of coming out of a German Lieder tradition. And they were all about expression, poetry and melody.

When people obsess on dodecaphonic music – 12-tone music – they forget that for Schoenberg, it was really out of a sense of melody. It was what he was hearing. His early work is so beautifully chromatic, and yet you can sing them back very easily.

So, when I was working with Mary on the vocals for this, I gave her some written-down arrangements of vocal melodies.

I said, “You can approach it from this kind of stretched frame of mind, where you’re speaking and singing. You’re hitting the important pitches, but you’re not beholden to them.” And I kept saying to her, “Maybe treat it the way Billie Holiday treated a jazz standard. You are a jazz vocalist – give it all that freedom that you give to a standard.”

And yet, when there were particular chromatic passages, I really was married to certain pitches, as she will tell you. Because she had to find those certain pitches that were pivotal in the composition.

So, it’s a real balance of improvisation, interpretation, and composition. And in the Balls of Simplicity record – surprisingly to me – I gave them no room to improvise at all.

LJN: On Schoenberg on the Beach, you eschew the tenor saxophone for the clarinet and flute. Why is that?

JL: I feel on clarinet, I have this certain kind of lyricism. I never could have done the Schoenberg project if I had orchestrated the part for myself on saxophone. On the saxophone, we all have a lot of bags that we go into as improvisers. Being on the clarinet gave me a different kind of freedom to be lyrical.

On tenor, I’ll go into some kind of chopsy stuff; it’s just in my body. Not to say that I can’t get around a bit on clarinet as well, but I’m not going to go immediately to certain finger patterns that I’ve established on saxophone. Setting it up on a new instrument really created the need for me to interact with the material, more than interacting with what’s already programmed in my brain.

I shared some of this music with folks in Vienna at the Schoenberg Foundation, and one of the things they liked about it was that the intervallic material in the improvisation – from myself, and also all the other, brilliant players on the record – really interacts with the intervallic information in the compositions.

So, I’m trying to improvise on this record, in that I’m taking the intervallic material from the song and working that out in spontaneous ways and variations.

LINKS: Purchase Schoenberg on the Beach

Purchase Balls of Simplicity

Jeff Lederer’s website

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