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

By Published: August 17, 2009
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J.C. Sanford and David Schumacher

Sanford and Schumacher met at the New England Conservatory and have been leading the Sound Assembly for about eight years. "Over a bottle of wine and some chicken stroganoff at my apartment, we decided to take the plunge and start a large ensemble," says Schumacher. "We had a long discussion about our aspirations and goals about writing. Large ensemble was a good place to start for us. We liked the opportunities it was going to present to us as writers. We finished that bottle of wine and came up with a name for the band."

They were both in Boston, but Sanford later moved to New York. "David still lives north of Boston and he just comes down for gigs. We had to split the duties, where I do a lot of the booking and contracting for the players and David does a lot of the other technical things. So it's a good partnership," says Sanford. "We both write in a somewhat orchestral way from time to time. We use lots of woodwind doubles. Using colors is a big part of how we write. You can do that with any sort of ensemble you put together, but a 17-piece big band is the most standard set of those kind of players put together. So, it's a good vehicle for us to expand our palette, but still write something that people can identify with."

J.C. Sanford / David Schumacher J.C. Sanford and David Schumacher

Schumacher notes, "There is a lot of room in our music for personality in the individual player. So it's quite interesting to see what each person will bring to the table. It's got that surprise element. You also have guys in the band where you can expect what they will bring and you can design a piece around that player and around their personality. That becomes a great part of the process."

The duo does not write together. The compositions are separate and in concert, the author conducts his own pieces.

"I'm thrilled with how the record turned out," Schumacher says about Edge of Mind. "I feel the players that we had on that session were really able to tap into the meaning behind the pieces and the vibe, to make our writing as effective as it possibly can be. You can put the most amazing piece of music in front of musicians, but if you don't have the right musicians to bring the specific elements and personality to that music, it's not going to go anywhere. It's not going to do anything for you. We had the best combination of players, personalities and music on that session to make it a really effective product. There's a tremendous variety of style and color and mood and emotion on that record. There's a little bit of something for everyone. That's one of the things that make this duo-led ensemble different from some of the other groups around right now.

"If you put on someone else's record, you may love that vibe, or you may not like that vibe," Schumacher said. "But it's that vibe all the way through the record. Whereas out record is constantly this balance between our different approaches. I think in the end it makes for a very good listening experience."

Adds Sanford, "I think as writers, we have a lot of variety within our own music. So it's not just: Here's a David chart and it sounds like this. Here's a JC chart and it sounds like this. All of our tunes on the record have a distinctive sound to them. You can't necessarily say which ones are David's and which ones are mine."

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Chris Jentsch

Jentsch's exposure to big bands also came in school. His is education included the New England Conservatory, Eastman School of Music, and the University of Miami.

"I started writing compositions for small group and became interested in creating more complicated kinds of form. Maybe songs of more than one melody. More substantially written out. Started writing stuff that had more than just guitar, bass, drums, saxophone. Three or four horns. It gets more and more complicated from that. Pretty soon you're studying some of the literature and listening to big bands. Before you know it, you're standing in front of a 17-piece group and they're all looking at your parts, playing the music."

He notes, "It's more a question of adding different things I could do to the overall picture. It wasn't necessarily devoting the rest of my life to large ensemble. It was more like... I do small ensemble stuff, I do classical chamber music stuff, I do lots of different kinds of different musical projects. I was adding this to the mix."

Chris JentschHe started the Jentsch Group Large in 2004, got a grant to write a piece from the American Composers Forum and came up with Brooklyn Suite, a 45-minute composition for a 16-piece band. Miami Suite was something written and recorded previously, when he was at school in Miami. While it wasn't done by his current band, it is part of a trilogy of suites he has authored. "I had fun with it when we did the CD release for Brooklyn Suite in New York. I sort of re-edited it a little bit and we performed both suites at that concert. I was able to bring the initial suite of the trilogy into the new era, so to speak, by having the same band play the first two suites when I completed the recording for the second one."

With the large ensemble being financially prohibitive, Jentsch applies for grants to help out. Some of the cost of Cycles Suite was defrayed by a New York State Council on the Arts grant. "To some extent, with these huge projects, it's a little bit about if I have some extra money, or if I've gotten a grant to do it. I kind of look at it that way." In fact, "the biggest way the economic downturn might affect me is that grant organizations aren't getting as much funding. They're going to be giving out less grants. That's problematic."

Jentsch is pleased with the new recording, but is already looking ahead at new fields to plow.

"If I was to do another large ensemble project, I think I'd do something very different that these large suite things I've been doing now for 10 years or so. The next thing would probably be separate compositions, so that I can experiment with different sort of vibes and not have to worry about how it relates to the larger piece as a whole and not have to work so hard at connecting the things together. I'd like to write a set of compositions that work well as a CD, but don't have to flow all one into the next. And maybe get some radio play at the same time. Radio is understandably reticent to play the whole thing or even excerpts of suites. They don't realize each movement can live on its own."

Regarding today's composers and how he looks at future projects, Jentsch says composers "are not afraid to be inclusive with their definition of jazz, as opposed to exclusive. It's like: what will I put into the mix, rather than what I will exclude from the mix. I'll put almost anything in. It doesn't matter where it came from. Sometimes people call it an eclectic approach. I kid around and call it a hopelessly eclectic."

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