BMI jazz composer Michael Weiss has long been one of the most fluent and flexible jazz pianists of his generation. But in recent years, his music has ascended to a higher level of creativity and individuality. Why? He's turned his attention to composition.
"It's made all the difference because you can express so much more with composition,'' says Weiss, 42, of Brooklyn, NY. " Improvising a solo is like being a short-order cook; composing is more like being a chef."
Weiss has won the 8th annual Thelonious Monk International Jazz Composers Competition, sponsored by BMI, and was awarded a $10,000 grand prize for his composition "El Camino," a smartly tailored song bathed in Latin rhythms and scored for three horns and rhythm section.
This year's competition celebrated the burgeoning popularity of Latin jazz, and the judges included such stars of the genre as Hilton Ruiz and Chico Hamilton. "El Camino" blends south-of-the-border rhythms with an active bass line, vivid harmonies and a lithe, through-composed melody adorned by an introduction, interludes, coda and background figures adding spice to the improvised solos. "This award should be a reminder to jazz musicians to play their own music and not be content with a simple 'head' chart or just improvising on a standard tune," says Weiss.
A Dallas native, Weiss has been a stalwart on the New York scene since 1981. He's become a particular favorite of veterans, and his resume includes stints with Lou Donaldson, Art Farmer, Slide Hampton, the Jazztet, George Coleman, Jimmy Heath, Charles McPherson and, since 1987, tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin, with whom he's recorded three CDs. He also performed with Wynton Marsalis on "Live from Lincoln Center." Weiss has made three albums as a leader, including Power Station (DIW), his most definitive statement as a composer to date with six originals.
Given the authority Weiss exhibits as a composer, it's surprising that he didn't begin writing earnestly until about seven years ago. For years on his own gigs he concentrated on obscure standards and neglected jazz originals by Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Hank Mobley and others. Weiss simply lacked confidence in his own composing abilities.
But once he fell into collaboration with a group of compatible peers, his creative urge awakened. With a feedback loop in place, he'd churn out originals one by one, take them to gigs, hear them played under battle conditions and then take the music home and tinker. After a while he not only had a book of distinctive originals but his improvising had gathered additional focus, emotional depth and a stronger sense of self.
"El Camino," like all of Weiss's best compositions, is distinguished by its attention to detail and formal integrity. Weiss has recorded his award-winning song on a self-produced project, along with eight other originals that he hopes will find a home on a label in the near future. Meantime, he's playing the tune on his own gigs in New York and elsewhere, including a high-profile debut at the Detroit International Jazz Festival this month. "Improvising on your own material is an even greater reward," he says.