Readers, I am still deep in big band land with my Jazz Orchestra III final concert coming up this Wednesday (7:30pm, Tanna Hall, McGill) and my big band arrangement of the 5 part “Jelly Roll Suite” scheduled to be rehearsed this week and recorded a week from today.
Ah big band. If there’s some stigma attached to this ensemble within University music programs it may be because it is so strongly associated with a style. If you say “large jazz ensemble” it could be anything, but you say “big band” and inevitably Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and all the traditional swing bands come to mind. Which, of course, is some of the best music out there, however if you’re a jazz student and that’s not your cup of tea? Well then, you’re likely to dismiss the whole thing as old-fashioned and creatively limiting, “This can’t be “art”! I only get one solo all night! WTF!?”
… I know, I used to be an undergrad too.
My favourite big band? The only big band I listen to on a very regular basis?… Duke Ellington’s band. I think it’s my favourite because it doesn’t make me think of any “big band” style in particular,… it’s just, one of the best bands that ever was in the history of music. As much as I appreciate other big band’s styles, they seem somewhat codified to me, a little boxed in to a style. There’s something magical and mysterious about Duke’s band, something which transcends style. As a composer his imagination could seemingly go anywhere as he played with beauty and ugliness, utilizing the most expressive qualities of all of his long-time band members. As Miles Davis once said, “At least one day out of the year all musicians should just put their instruments down, and give thanks to Duke Ellington.”
Anyways, I digress. Students will be what they will be, and you can try explaining to them how much large ensemble work teaches them about playing in time, listening, articulation, intonation, balance, air support and air control,… but chances are they have long since taken the experience for granted (usually since week 2 of high school).
However, as a composer/performer who has had nothing to do with big bands for the previous 12 years, I don’t take large ensembles for granted any more. Having 5 saxes, 4 trombones, 4-5 trumpets and full rhythm section playing music together,… just speaking sonically, that’s a powerful ensemble to reckon with! And writing for so many people, trying to balance each section, giving clear phrasing direction, balancing melodies with counter-melodies, etc., etc. It really is fascinating, like a large abstract, 3D jig-saw puzzle that you piece together to eventually present a clear image.
It’s also exhausting work, which is why it’s so convenient that my work desk is located right next to my bed.
And with that? Back to