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

R.J. DeLuke By

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Nicholas Urie

Excerpts From an Online Dating Service is Urie's first solo excursion. The youngster, 23, grew up listening to some big band jazz, but also classical and pop music. He started working with his band a few years ago in Boston while at the New England Conservatory. "We've done a few gigs a year for the last four years. With the release of the record, it's starting to amp up a little bit. We're going to have some more gigs."

Nicholas UrieUrie says he is primarily a composer, and has approached it from more or less a standard big band instrumentation at present for economic reasons, as much as anything. "If I had a strangely orchestrated ensemble with different things, there would be no other bands to play it. So the decision to go with a big band for this record and for this music happened for that reason as much as my desire to have that kind of sound and power behind the music. I wanted to be able to play the music with other bands, whether by going to Europe or out to California to a concert. Things like that. With just the addition of a tuba, you can play all this music with and by a standard big band."

He calls his group the Large Ensemble because "I didn't want it to be the Jazz Orchestra or some kind of instrumental body with nameless faces. I really wanted people's individuality to come through in every part being played."

The music he has written for his new record stems from personal ads—some sexually explicit—that appear on the Internet. It's a different approach, for sure, but speaks to a phenomenon that exists today.

"I was curious about these ads," he says. "I saw in the text this gutter poetry, almost. Although 'gutter' may be too judgmental a word. The people on these sites, many of them, are very sincere. Because of this anonymous context that it exists in, they create these beautiful ads where they're looking for love and trying to express themselves as a person talking about fears, desires, fetishes, things like that. Going through the ads, it struck me as the perfect kind of text for the 21st Century. To take a very traditional topic—the searching for love—and find it filtered through this 21st Century technology, the Internet, which as a culture we're obsessed with.

"I saw that as the perfect source of material for a record to touch on things that have nothing to do with the Internet, but everything to do with the kinds of emotions we all have and the kinds of feelings that don't get expressed openly," he continued. "Topics that aren't talked about because they're taboo, uncouth, to discuss. I think it's beautiful that people write these ads. Of course, they're anonymous. But they're presented to a huge body of people who might be looking at these things. I know a lot of people I went to school with and people my age in general go check out these sites just because they're funny. You can find some interesting things. Once you get past that initial shock of this person asking to do this thing, you get to the humanity of the issue. You see a kind of beauty in what is happening there."

Christine Correa places the words into music; expressive and emotive. "The melodies are written and all of the words are written. They're unchanged from the original source," Urie says. "The art of Christine and the beauty of her singing is her ability to interpret, to create sonorities that express whatever emotion is being asked of her to sing... Sonically, she's the most beautiful singer I'm aware of. She can be so sweet and so dark and so angry and so light. Hers is an art of delicate and absolutely spot-on interpretation."

Of the overall accomplishment, he says "The guys on this record have an attachment. I think they have a good time playing it. I think the music allows them enough leeway to do their thing, and do it in a different context. I try to find people who are not exerting my own thing onto them, but people who will sit naturally within it and be able to express themselves. Much as they would in a small ensemble. It just happens to be 18 people."

He says reaction has been positive and the CD is selling well. He's trying to get gigs in New York and at the same time trying to get concerts put together with some of the European radio bands. "I've done some work over there and the ensemble playing is stunning. I think that's a great place to go with it...I don't think a tour, at least in America, is in the cards. Especially with the economic downturn."


The Future for Large Ensembles

Despite the hardships, the leaders that are committed to the art are generally optimistic. These bands are still turning audiences on. There is still interest, and probably always will be—to varying degrees, perhaps, depending on cycles over which no one has control. Exposure for the music, and getting the band seen and heard in an era where people's attention spans are challenged and there is a glut—some say over saturation—of material, is a problem that always has to be overcome. But as with all challenges, people usually find a way to meet them.

Most agree that the success of Maria Schneider in recent years is cause for optimism. She has shown superb artistic vision and high principles can be carried by hard work.

"She, I think, more than anyone else has really opened the door to the more mainstream audience into the world of creative jazz orchestra music," says Schumacher.

Still, the road as it exists today can be rocky.

"To be honest, I am constantly doing this soul-searching all the time. Is it worth all the hassle to do this?" says Sanford. "Is this the vehicle I want to express myself through? I always question that. But then we have a good gig and I come back and say, 'This is cool.' I've always had that turmoil in myself about what else distinctive I could I be doing. Should I be using other instrumentation? Should I just be writing for duos or something? But this is a place where we're both really comfortable. I can't imagine not doing it in some format."

Nicholas UrieSays Schumacher, "I think the trickiest part is getting people to know about it, actually hear it. It's great that there are so many bands out there trying to do something. But it's easy to get lumped in with other bands that are trying to do something. I feel our music, though intellectual, is always something that is very accessible. Another thing I think is distinctive about our band is the variety between the tunes. You may not like this one, but wait until the next one. You might like the next one. I find invariably that's the case. The people come out to hear us, they are really into it. At least some point of it. We haven't figured how to totally tap into that audience yet, but this is the first time we've put a record out... There's just so much competition for people's attention these days."

"We're a group of people who are a product of the Internet age where things are widely available," says Urie. "The whole notion of style, a unified genre of music, is going out the window in general. Soon, within a generation, there will be fewer distinctions between things. That's a product of the availability of information. So much of what we're trying to do, all of us, is to create work that speaks to the time that we live in and functions as a cultural. I think people are trying to create a new paradigm, for big band music especially, simply because we live in a new world. The original function of the big band is no longer. The idea of a dance band is no longer the thing. We have techno music for that, and hip-hop and R&B. That's what people dance to. It's being re-energized by a kind of desire to move away from that, to create something that is more resonant in today's world.

"There a lot of people taking the music in a lot of different directions. There's the Maria Schneider school of thought, with a lot of writers going from that vantage point and imbuing it with things like indie rock or metal. Darcy Argue's record is very much functioning within that paradigm. I think it's a very successful, beautiful record. He's doing well because it's good music."

"We're still talking about a lot of grand ideas about large ensemble jazz, which is even a smaller audience than jazz as a whole. To say that younger people are more into it—we'll have to see if the numbers bear it out. It's like hovering over this piece of pie wondering if the kids are going to be into it. I think there's a better chance that they'll be into it if some of the music reminds them of music that's in their life already."

He astutely says the media explosion is something that plays into whether large ensembles—even music in general—gets heard and appreciated. "Forget about television shows versus Internet shows. With music alone, everybody has a CD out. It used to be not everybody had their own record. Now everybody that does anything has a CD. So the market is completely over-saturated with product. Which is good from an options point of view, but it's hard for people to find things that are...I want to say it's hard for people to find things that are more valuable, but that's for every listener to determine. But when there's just so much noise, in terms of CD releases, available, I don't know how you deal with trying to go through everything to find what you're looking for, or to even know what you're looking for.

"Maybe that's the way it is, for people who are in their 20s now. Over saturation is a fact of life. Maybe, to an extent, listening habits are changing. People listen to what's on their iPod next and they don't care what it is because they put it on there at some point. It's not a question of 'I need to listen to this particular record now, because I listened to it yesterday.' Maybe it's more like: 'I'm on the subway and I have an iPod that doesn't even tell me what's on next. It's loaded on there and it comes up and that's what I'm listening to.' Things change and maybe that's how it's going to be. There is going to be less emphasis on reading liner notes to a CD. I hate to sound like a curmudgeon, but it may lead to people less aware about how the music is put together. I don't know what it leads to, but things are changing and I don't think I know where it's going."

It's not gloom. It's just adapting to a new reality. The guitarist adds, "What never goes out of style is a bunch of real musicians in a room, doing something in real time."

Urie is confident his generation will continue to stand up for music that has substance, and music that is energized by a large group functioning toward a common goal, putting out quality sounds that move people.

Sound Assembly"Large ensemble music will continue to be made because it's the only ensemble that makes that sound. It's a sound that people, whether they know it or not, want to hear," Urie says. "When they discover it, they are captivated by it. I've gotten a lot of response from my record from people who are not musicians or even jazz lovers, who bought it because they read a review of it and thought the concept was interesting. They weren't aware of those kinds of sonic possibilities and that kind of power. I think there's something to be said for that. There is a certain kind of power and intensity that you can get with the ensemble that you can't get with any other smaller ensemble. People in one way or another, if they're interested, figure that out."

Says Manricks, "I think the golden rule for being an artist is that you have to believe and you have to keep the faith. If you work hard, things will happen. You can make it happen if you really want to make it happen. You might have to spend a lot of time applying for grants or trying to get festival support. Spend hours on doing e-mails to generate hype for an album release. You might have to do a lot of stuff that isn't music related, but if it's a means to and end and it creates an opportunity to make music happen... there's a way to make it work if you want it bad enough.

"I do what it takes. I teach. I love teaching. I play commercial gigs if I have to. I apply for grants. That's how I stay afloat. I wish all I could do was tour with my band; maybe one day. That's my dream, that's my goal. I think it's possible, but you have to build things up. Get a few more albums under my belt. Hopefully, things start to go a little bit more that way."

When things are not looking great and if spirits sink temporarily, there is a resolution.

"When you hear a piece of music played for the first time, I think that's what keeps me going," says Urie. "It really is thrilling. Sometimes you might write something where you're not quite sure how it's going to sound or whether it will work. That's the kind of writer that I strive to be. One that takes chances and writes ambitiously. When it comes off, it's amazing. Sometimes it doesn't. You have to go back and re-score it. That's all great fun."

Schumacher agrees. "For me, the final product at the end of the night, listening to these players is amazing. They're all such great players and great improvisers and great people. It's a great hang. It's a great listening experience. It's a great conducting experience. Musically, it's extraordinarily fulfilling. It gets you through those dark periods between gigs and through other projects that might not be as rewarding."

Rivello is confident that big band music will continue to live on. It's had its problems all through its history, but that doesn't mean there is an end in sight. To Rivello, quite the contrary.

"It's never really gone away and I think that it never will. I'm not sure that anyone will ever make money at it. But the people that hear this music and feel they need to write it down and have it played are always going to find a way do that," he says. "There's also some kind of attraction to that many people playing, synchronized on a stage somewhere. There's something about it that draws in people that are not jazz-oriented people. It goes into a different part of the brain or something. I've had that experience many times. The club we play in is not a jazz club. But Thursday nights are our nights to play jazz. The people that want to hear us, come. The people who are used to rock and roll are there on the nights there is rock and roll. But there are some rock guys who come up and say, 'I have no idea what you call this. But it did something to me.' So there are a few moments like that. Clearly something touched them and they have no idea what to even call the music. They just were touched by something."

"People keep forming bands. I don't know if it goes in cycles, but it seems right now there's a bunch of them. It would be nice to be able to take a band on the road and be able to financially afford that. We never know. Who knows? Everything could change and it becomes the new popular music again," Rivello says, chuckling. "You can dream, can't you?"

Selected Discography:

Sound Assembly, Edge of the Mind (Beauport Jazz, 2009)
Nicholas Urie, Excerpts From An Online Dating Service (Red Piano Records, 2009)
Dave Rivello, Facing the Mirror (Allora Records, 2009)
Chris Jentsch, Cycles Suite (Fleur de Son Records), 2009
Jacam Manricks, Labyrinth (Manricks Music Records, 2009)

Chris Jentsch, Brooklyn Suite (Fleur de Son records, 2007)
Chris Jentsch, Media Event (Blue Schist, 1998)

Photo credits

Page 1: Duke Ellington, courtesy of Mike Schultz; Maria Schenider by Dani Gurgel; The Dave Rivello Big Band courtesy of Dave Rivello

Page 2: Bob Brookmeyer courtesy of Bob Brookmeyer; the Chris Jentsch Group Large by Gina Renzi

Page 3: Jacam Manricks courtesy of Jacam Manricks

Page 4: J.C. Sanford and David Schumacher courtesy of Braithwaite and Katz

Page 5: Nicholas Urie by Walter Urie

Visit Sound Assembly, Chris Jentsch, Jacam Manricks, a href=http://nicholasurie.com target=_blank>Nicholas Urie and Dave Rivello on the web.

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