Thursday, April 3, 2014

Interview With Tom Erickson, Jazz Composer

Tom Erickson, jazz composer
Saxophonist/composer/arranger Tom Erickson attended the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music (BM Saxophone Performance, 2004). While at DU, Tom was winner of the Lamont Composition Contest (2002,’03 and ’04), the Lamont Chamber Competition (2002), and was also a member of Lamont’s Downbeat Award winning collegiate ensembles, the Lamont Jazz Orchestra and Lamont Symphony Orchestra. After DU, Tom received his Masters in Jazz Arranging from William Paterson University (2010), where he was awarded the Music Scholar Graduate Award for outstanding musical and academic achievement. Tom studied with Art Bouton, Eric Gunnison, Dave Hanson, Rich DeRosa and Jim McNeely.

Tom’s compositions and arrangements have been performed by the HGM Jazzorkestar Zagreb, HGM Jazzorkestar Zagreb Faculty All-Star Band (Johannesburg, South Africa), Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge, Flying Dragon Orchestra, 9th & Lincoln Orchestra, Yellowstone Big Band, William Paterson University Jazz Orchestra featuring Randy Brecker, North Texas Lab Bands, Lamont Jazz Orchestra,Northwest College Big Band, and Lamont School of Music Faculty Saxophone Quartet.

Do you write music daily? What is your routine? Do you write in the morning, afternoon or at night? When are your most productive hours of composing? Can you write in small units of time or do you need to set aside larger blocks of multiple hours? How many hours per week do you devote to composing and arranging music?

I write whenever I have time, which varies greatly from day to day. I definitely generate the most music when I am relaxed and don’t have anything to do in the near future. If I only have 2 hours to work, I often sit down and stare into space for 90 minutes before I the process starts to happen. However, if I don’t have anything to do the next day and I can stay up late writing, sometimes I look at the clock and I have been going for 6 or 7 hours straight without realizing it. I’m also really great at procrastinating, which seems to be ok since I get motivated by a rapidly approaching deadline and can usually get the writing done just in time.

Describe your compositional process. From where do your initial ideas come? What happens next? What’s “step two?” (and three…)

Most often I establish the form or concept for a piece first. I literally draw a sketch outlining the shape and drama of the music and then after I figure out the big picture I connect the dots.

I used to think more about the smaller pieces of the puzzle. I would find cool voicings, bass lines and grooves and create music out of little fragments. Now I think mostly about controlling the emotion of the piece. I think about the surface sound (is the music loud or soft, tense or resolute, hectic or calm, dense or thin etc). I locate the major points of tension and release within the music and try to, to the best of my ability, portray that drama in an honest way.

I really enjoy this process because I constantly challenge myself to create something I haven’t done before. And I usually always create “negative” rules for the same reason. This means that if the last couple of charts I wrote have any features in common, i.e. ostinato bass lines or parallel voicings etc, I will purposely not use those aspects in my new piece.

Do you compose at the piano or away from it? Do you use MIDI playback on Finale/Sibelius? How else do you utilize technology in the act of composing?

I always compose at the piano and most definitely use Sibelius playback as a resource. As a saxophonist, the MIDI playback helps me hear my music in real time rather than struggling to play it myself with my remedial piano skills. I know some old school guys frown upon this technology, but I don’t see it that way. You should write however it's most comfortable and most efficient.

Is transcription/analysis and score study something you do regularly? you site examples? Do you find nuggets of ideas this way?

I rarely study scores. Not that I don’t enjoy it, I just don’t do it often. I guess I would rather experience music without any distractions. I listen to everything I can get my hands on. Nothing is off limits and I listen very intently and deeply. Although I’m not always consciously trying to analyze or decipher what I am hearing while I’m listening, I listen with purpose and consider it a serious part of my study (in addition to listening purely for enjoyment of course). I’m generally listening for how the music makes me feel, the emotion, or the vibe, not necessarily what voicing was used leading into the bridge. The little details are obviously very important, but I am more interested in the overall flow.

How important is musical innovation to you?

As Charlie Parker said of innovation-there’s nothing new under the sun. Most likely, anything I come up with has already been done before so I don’t worry too much about being innovative just for the sake of being original. I do however constantly push myself to expand my boundaries. Even though something has been done before, when I discover it for the first time there is a certain energy and excitement to breaking new ground and I think that makes it’s way into the music. This is one reason that music can sound fresh and relevant, even if it’s not anything new for others.

On average, how long does it take you to write a piece?

I usually try to finish a piece within a couple weeks of starting it. This isn’t always possible but it seems to be an optimal way for me to work. I’m constantly jotting down ideas and concepts while I’m riding on the train or watching a movie etc. There is an entire folder of sketches/concepts for pieces in my computer that I haven’t found the time to finish writing. Whenever I need an idea for a new piece I have a look at all the sketches and usually one will grab my attention and I will get to work.

Typically, how many big band charts do you write per year? How does this compare with music you write for other instrumentations?

I mostly write for big band --- primarily for my own band to perform and commissions for other ensembles. I usually finish between 5-10 charts per year. This year one of my goals is to get involved in more projects outside of jazz such as film, TV, dance etc.

Do you still practice and perform on an instrument professionally? How do you balance writing and playing?

At this point I’m much more of a composer than a player. I love both, but feel that writing is my strong suit. If I have to choose between writing and practicing, writing usually wins.

When you think about it, writing big band music makes no sense. It takes hours to write and prepare the music. It’s exorbitantly expensive to assemble a band for performances, let alone recording. The audience for it is miniscule. Very few performance venues have the space or money for a big band. Big band CDs sell poorly. So.... Why are you interested in writing big band music? Why do you do it?

I write for my band because I absolutely love it. It’s my creative outlet. Especially in New York, working with such talented, highly creative musicians is really inspiring to me and I can’t imagine not doing it, however crazy and illogical it may be.

Do you have a job outside of being a composer? How do you support your composing and band leading “habit”?

I work at Manning Custom Woodwinds to pay the bills and support my habit.

Define success from your vantage point.

Success is doing what you love and not being afraid to fail.

What are your career goals?

To write and perform in as many different situations as I possibly can. Hopefully all over the world and with many different musicians.

Why did you enroll in the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop?

I had studied with Jim McNeely previously. He and several of my peers had mentioned the workshop and recommending that I apply.

Do you have a degree in composition? What training have you had in composition? What have you done to supplement your training?

B.M. in saxophone performance from the University of Denver.
M.M. in Jazz Arranging from William Paterson University.

To supplement that education, I go see live music all the time and ask lots of questions to those who are doing similar things as me. I am constantly surrounded by musicians and composers talking about music. Perhaps too much sometimes, but this is what I love to do.

What do you enjoy doing outside of music? What non-musical things/topics capture your interest/imagination?

I’m an avid soccer fan. Go Liverpool! I am also a (casual) foodie and have been learning more about mixology recently.

Music has the power to...
...physically change people. I am always amazed what a huge impact it can have.

I compose music with the goal of...
...creating sounds that are enjoyable for the musicians who perform them as well as the audience. I hope my music can put a smile on someones face and give them a positive experience, as it has so often for me. 


  1. Great interview. Thanks for taking the time to share this!

    1. Thanks for reading, Ken. Several more will follow.