I’m always interested in how people in different creative fields go about the business of creating. And, lucky me, I happen to be related to a musician.
Meet my older son, Alex Hoffman. He's a jazz saxophonist. He’s been playing saxophone since fifth grade, and he’s now approaching his mid-twenties—so he’s blown through a lot of reeds. I’m going to restrain my motherly impulse to provide the details of his lustrous artistic career here, but if you wish to know, and I know you do, you may read about it by visiting his website.
Last month, Smalls Records released Alex’s debut recording as a leader, a CD entitled Dark Lights. As The Urban Flux said in its review, it’s “a satisfying blend of engaging and sophisticated straight ahead jazz sounds” that “swings with definition, sharp timbre and precision.” Alex composed and arranged all the selections on Dark Lights.
Since I’m a writer, and mostly a children’s book author at that, I thought it would be fun and maybe even illuminating to ask Alex some questions from these perspectives.
But first things first:
DL: Hi, son; how’re you doing?
AH: I’m fine, thanks. Thanks for having me as the guest blogger today. It’s an honor!
DL: Alex, are you eating properly?
AL: Yes, I eat regular meals and try to regulate my intake of sugar and fat somewhat.
Reassured as to my son's physical well-being, I can now proceed to the business at hand.
DL: Are there stories behind the songs you write? For example, the song “D.C. Blue” on Dark Lights: It’s up-tempo, but not super-fast. I was expecting something “bluesy”—then I noticed it’s not “D.C. Blues,” it’s “D.C. Blue.” Explanation?
AH: “D.C. Blue” has a double meaning. It’s a nod to my birthplace of Washington D.C., but it also refers to the trumpeter Dwayne Clemons [who plays on the CD]. After I wrote this piece, it reminded me of something Dwayne might play or write himself. He has also had a great influence on my musical sensibility and style.
In regard to the word “blue” in the title, the piece is technically a blues, which is a 12-measure song form very popular in jazz and all American music. I chose to leave out the “s” because I liked the ring of the title without it.
DL: Even if there aren’t stories behind every song, there are some songs that seem so very narrative to me—for example, the tune “Night Jaunt.” When I look at my iPod when it’s playing I keep expecting to see the start of a movie.
AH: I don’t always have a narrative in mind when I’m writing a song, but when it’s time to give it a title, I try to create one. In the case of “Night Jaunt” I was thinking about New York City and the many jazz clubs I’ve frequented over the years that I’ve lived here. I was especially thinking about the nights when I’ve gone from one jazz club to another, checking things out here, seeing friends play there.
DL: It occurs to me that you, as a musician, might feel that people (like me) who so often insist on placing this story overlay on your songs, or on any instrumental music generally, are missing the point. Are we?
(In my defense, and in praise of your song-writing, “Lament,” the fifth track on the CD, is so achingly, beautifully sorrowful that any attempt to interpret it with words seems not only superfluous but possibly even destructive.)
AH: Thank you. I wouldn't say that you’re missing the point in the case of my music or the way that I perceive the music that I love, and music in general. I know many other musicians will disagree with me, but I like the metaphor of music telling a story.
DL: What is your process for writing music?
AH: My approach to writing is often deadline-based. [DL: A-ha! Just like certain writers!] If I know that I have a recording session or a concert coming up where I will need original material, my creative juices seem to flow out of necessity. Other than that, I compose randomly. I may compose one song a day for a week, and then go a month or more without writing anything.
My process consists of sitting at the piano and picking out chords and melodies. A good day would be one where I create a composition that I come away humming or that sticks in my head.
DL: What is the hardest part of writing music?
AH: The hardest part for me is coming up with the basic melody and chords. [DL: Could this be genetic? I find plot the hardest thing, too!] Once I have this basic skeleton, orchestration is a lot easier.
DL: Jazz compositions leave room for improvisation by soloists. I don’t think it’s stretching the analogy to say that this is similar to the leeway the writer of a picture book manuscript affords the illustrator. You’ve written for ensembles from trios to big bands. How much direction do you as the composer give to soloists?
AH: My compositions each have a set of chord changes. The soloists that I employ base their solos on those chords, with occasional substitutions and variations. I never give instruction to a soloist because I know before I hire him or her that I like his or her way of playing, and I trust his or her judgment. The soloists I hire, such as Ned Goold and Sacha Perry on this particular CD, are always surprising me with their wealth of creative ideas. [DL: Note to self: Must stop including annoying illustrator notes in my picture book manuscripts!]
DL: I know you have a large repertoire of music, other than your own, that you play in performance. How many songs do you know by heart? How do you decide what to play when you’re leading a gig?
AH: I know around 500 to 1,000 songs by heart, which is pretty standard for a jazz musician in New York. I’m also constantly forgetting and learning repertoire.
Before a gig, I might make a list of songs that I want to play, but sometimes even after I do that, I’ll end up playing a completely different set in the end. Sometimes I go in with no idea what I want to play, and call it all on the fly.
DL: I’ve watched you over the years as you put in the all the work—practice, practice, practice—that went into your development as a musician. Now that you’re doing this professionally, how do you keep growing as a musician?
AH: The only way to grow is to continue to practice, practice, practice, play with great musicians all the time, and listen to great music every day.
DL: What were your favorite books when you were a little boy?
AH: I loved the Berenstain Bears, Dr. Seuss, Disney Books, and the George and Martha books by James Marshall.
DL: What is the children’s book you’d most like to set to music?
AH: I’ve always loved the artwork of Dr. Seuss and have even found it inspiring, so I’ll say anything by him.
DL: What a great project that would be! And so I’ll close this interview by giving Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat the last word:
Well. . . /What would YOU do/ If your mother asked YOU?
You can listen to samples from "Dark Lights" on iTunes and Amazon. Want an autographed copy? Order here.