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Interviews

Large Ensembles: Is There a Place in This Large Music World?

By Published: August 17, 2009
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Ahhh! The Music

"For me, to stand in front of an orchestra and conduct your own music and hear it come to life is like an out-of-body experience," says Manricks. That in itself—the labors of art manifesting into a breathing, living thing—is the biggest thrill and motivation for the bandleaders. "There's all that stuff that I wrote and now it's actually happening. And though this record was done with a lot of overdubbing, I've done a lot of conducting of my music with large ensembles, like big bands plus symphony orchestra, 80- or 90-piece bands. That's the real thrill. That about the best time you can have with your clothes on, to quote Miles Davis

Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
[Davis]. It's a real buzz."

"There's that satisfaction of having a really great gig," Sanford says. "One of the nice things about having different players—subs—is that people bring different things to our music that we didn't hear before or didn't intend. Both [Schumacher] and I, we're really open to the way people interpret things. But also with different rhythm section players we've had come through, it's like, 'Wow. He played that in such a different way than I conceived it and it's totally great.' I love the different flavor that a guy puts on it."

Jacam ManricksRivello, whose band has regular Thursday gigs except for taking summers off, puts it succinctly. "There's no greater feeling in the world for me than hearing a new piece, but even hearing my music every other week or every week. To be able to stand in front of the band. It's all worth it then. ...For the most part there's always some moment of magic in the stream of the three hours or whatever the gig is. That makes it all worth it. I don't know how to explain it, really. I wish I could.

"People that don't know anything about what it feels like to stand in front of a band and have that feeling—I wish I could give that to the world somehow, and let them feel it. The people that sit in an office job, or hate their jobs, or whatever it is. If they could actually feel that just once. As soon as we start to play, all the headaches and the hassles of dealing with the club or stage manager, bad sound engineers. Any of that. It all fades away as soon as we start to play."

Adds Urie, "I think there's a kind of power to music for such a large group. A kind of power that's compelling to people. I think the reason big band music has stayed around for so long is just because of that. People develop a kind of affinity for it."

Each of these individual composers and arrangers has an individual vision for writing. It appears to be innate. The seed is watered by a desire to not only learn, but explore, and the rays of sun that nurture them come from a long and varied list of influences: music listened to over and over; teachers who point sponge-like minds in the right direction.

"There's no alternative," avows Rivello. "All I ever wanted to do from when I was a little kid was write music."

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Influences

For these composer/arrangers, the influences come from different directions. But one common source is Bob Brookmeyer, renowned for his prowess with the pen, as well as his trombone playing in various contexts over the years. He'll be 80 in December. He continues to mentor young arrangers through the New England Conservatory of Music.

Bob BrookmeyerSchumacher says "Brookmeyer is the biggest presence in my writing. When I began my studies with him, I had come from a place of very traditional writing and playing. I had studied with Branford Marsalis

Branford Marsalis
Branford Marsalis
b.1960
saxophone
and an Australian saxophonist... very big proponents of starting from the beginning and going from there. So I was coming from that place. Then Brookmeyer turned my whole world upside down and showed me these different avenues. Working with him and studying his music was a tremendous influence on my writing."

Sanford also puts Brookmeyer, whom he studied with for three years, at the top. "The biggest thing I got from Brookmeyer, amongst many things, was his greater concept of form. That's something I think is distinctive about both of our musics (Schumacher and Sanford) is this really clear concept of form and how everything ties together. We both got a lot of that from Bob."

Rivello studied at Eastman with Rayburn Wright, a highly respected music educator from whom Rivello took a lot and is ever grateful. He calls his association with Brookmeyer, which included working for him as a copyist, invaluable. "I consider that my doctorate... Words don't even describe what he gave me."

In fact, Brookmeyer wrote extended liner notes for Rivello's CD, commenting on each composition and saying Rivello is "someone I believe belongs in the next generation of composers... I look forward to hearing what the future has in store for him."

Says Urie, "in terms of craft-oriented things, Bob Brookmeyer has been a huge influence in terms of learning how to edit and create long, overarching forms and cohesive artistic statements." Jentsch and Manricks also acknowledge a Brookmeyer inspiration in their work.

But things that affect these composers come from far and wide, different cultures. And also the tradition.

Says Manricks, "I love Duke Ellington. The sophistication he had in his writing, especially considering what time he came out of. The late 1920s, early 1930s, writing amazing stuff. So inventive. I find that really inspiring music. Especially the Jimmy Blanton

Jimmy Blanton
Jimmy Blanton
1918 - 1942
bass, acoustic
/Ben Webster
Ben Webster
Ben Webster
1909 - 1973
sax, tenor
band. I love Thad Jones. I love Basie. Bob Brookmeyer was also very influential on me. I transcribed a couple of his pieces. Gil Evans
Gil Evans
Gil Evans
1912 - 1988
composer/conductor
is definitely a big influence on me. Bill Holman
Bill Holman
Bill Holman

band/orchestra
is an amazing big band writer. Also a west coast cat, pianist and big band writer Gary Fisher. And more modern people like Maria Schneider. Claus Ogermann influenced me in terms of writing for strings and woodwinds and that kind of thing. I also got into classical music. I think you hear that in my CD."

Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and other classical musicians come into play. Explains Manricks, "Because jazz is a 20th Century art form, it ties in perfectly with the 20th Century classical composers in terms of the inventiveness and creativity. Particularly with the harmony. Rhythmically too, but jazz is different that way."

Jentsch says for standard big bands, Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra
1915 - 1998
vocalist
records influenced him, and later Ellington, Gil Evans, George Russell
George Russell
George Russell
1923 - 2009
piano
and Brookmeyer. "If you've listened to the records you might be suspicious that the range of my influences doesn't really begin and end with jazz big bands. There's a lot of other kinds of influences from all periods of western classical. Renaissance era composers... baroque period composers, like Bach and Handel. People like Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner. Dozens and dozens of great classical composers." Folk music and Indian music also enter into the formula. Also the music Jentsch grew up on: "The Beatles are quite a fundamental influence on my music. Dozens and dozens of rock and pop bands over the years. Guitar players like Jeff Beck
Jeff Beck
Jeff Beck
b.1944
guitar
, Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa
1940 - 1993
guitar, electric
. All kinds of American blues and the whole history of jazz. So we're talking about a wide range of musical influences. That's not even talking about comic books or novels or movies."

Jentsch Group Large
Chris Jentsch leads the Jentsch Group Large

Urie says he leans more to classical than jazz for inspiration. "I'm very much into Kurt Weill. I find his works to be riveting and to this day they still sound completely fresh to me. At the same time, I'm a fan of the French school, the French way of thinking about sonority, with people like Debussy. People like that I find endlessly inspiring. On the jazz side, I love Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
and Gil Evans. The pianist on my record, Frank Carlberg, is a wonderful composer. I draw a lot of inspiration from his example... I spent time studying with Vince Mendoza
Vince Mendoza
Vince Mendoza

band/orchestra
, who is a really great arranger and composer out in L.A., where I'm from. He is the man. I find him endlessly inspiring as well. Every new piece of his I hear I just marvel at."

Adds Schumacher, "Maria Schneider, her use of color and texture. The way she integrates her soloists into the compositions was big for me. Some of the rawness and emotion of Mingus comes into play at times in my music. We were just talking about Kenny Wheeler

Kenny Wheeler
Kenny Wheeler
b.1930
trumpet
the other day. His sense of melody. His harmonic sense. That comes into play in my writing. Over time, you go through periods where you're in a zone with particular composer outside of the jazz world. Recently I'm into some of the minimalist stuff. Phillip Glass and people like that who come into play every once in a while."

It's a big musical world out there, with a vast array of sources that can influence today's improvisational music. These composers and many others like them on today's scene don't consider what is "supposed to be" jazz. They are affected by its great masters, but not confined to them.

Another big influence for many young writers in the New York area is the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop, currently directed by Jim McNeely

Jim McNeely
Jim McNeely
b.1949
composer/conductor
, with people like Mike Holober
Mike Holober
Mike Holober
b.1957
piano
and Michael Abene
Michael Abene
Michael Abene
b.1942
piano
in key roles. The workshop was founded by Brookmeyer, composer/educator Manny Albam and author and jazz authority Burt Korall. "It stresses exploration, ranging from the traditional to the new," says its Website. "The techniques that make possible for the composer the execution of thoughts and the development of personal language within the big band setting. Experimentation with form, harmony and orchestration, the solving of performance problems and the need to produce lasting, excellent work are also concerns of the workshop directors."

"It's a class once a week and at the end of every month there's a reading session with a big band," explains Sanford. "All these composers come in and bring their music and look at it, talk about and they get to hear it at the end of the month. It's kind of a breeding ground for young, somewhat experimental composers. Most of the people I know in town that have their own big bands came through that program, at least for a minute. When I was in the BMI workshop Jim McNeely became a really big influence of mine in the way he incorporated this intellectual rhythmic style with a little flavor of humor. I always like that about his writing."



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