Are Big Band Brass Players Losing the Concept of Being Team Players?

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Playing trombone is NOT like punching people!

I remember reading this essay by Doug Yeo years ago, Me, Myself and I: Are Orchestral Brass Players Losing the Concept of Being Team Players?. Back in 1997 Yeo expressed his concerns that trends in orchestral brass playing had not necessarily been for the best.

Go into the parking lot of any brass conference, convention or workshop, and you’re bound to find more than a few cars with the bumper sticker that reads, “Question authority.” Some would argue that this mindset is the province of trumpet players alone but that surely is not the case. Over the past twenty years, American orchestral playing has been undergoing a significant change, as brass players have (with some notable exceptions) asserted themselves beyond their traditional role in the orchestra.

Most students go through their “loud” phase, of getting together with other players and just knocking the living daylights out of orchestral excerpts. This can be great fun to do, good for the face and boosting to the ego. But excerpt sessions don’t always relate to the real world, and as many brass players have developed a more “muscular” concept of playing, the American orchestra has, in my mind, begun to suffer.

Yeo’s essay is specific to orchestral brass playing, but much of it seems to relate to big band brass playing as well, at least among the big bands I get to hear and play in. The details are different, as are some of the influences, but a lot is similar.

The job of balancing an orchestra lies with the conductor alone. But there is no denying that a 15 member brass section can ruin any orchestral concert (despite what the conductor wants) very easily as the combined volume of the strings and winds can never compete with that of even a single trombonist. Arnold Jacobs once told me that in his view, the bass trombone was the instrument of the orchestra that had by far the greatest “high volume potential” owing in part to the fact that after the flute, the bass trombone utilized the highest flow rate of any wind instrument, including the tuba.

John Berry, in his excellent jazz pedagogy text The Jazz Ensemble Director’s Handbook, wrote about the “Monster Bass Trombonist.” He’s describing a common trend in student musicians, not professionals, but occasionally I run into this player in the professional world (not recently, and not anyone I work with regularly now!).

About once a decade the music world renders up a bona fide (pardon the pun) “Monster Bass Trombonist” – you know, the guy who can play louder than any human on earth…

…A good MBT (or even a bad one who thinks he’s good) can “cop an attitude.” He becomes a star. He basks in compliments. He becomes a junkie for oohs and ahas. He craves ever more. He plays LOOUUDD!!! . . . All the time!

Well, it’s not just bass trombonists. You find them in the whole brass section.

In his essay, Yeo brings up equipment trends in orchestral brass playing.

Part of the problem is simple ignorance; the idea that Bruckner symphonies are to be played at maximum volume would horrify Bruckner, the reserved, insecure, Catholic composer of music for and about the church and the inexpressible “beyond.” Let us not forget that his symphonies also require us to play as soft as possible. Unfortunately, many players look at passages marked fff and simply blow until the seams pop. Unsatisfied with the way their instruments respond to this treatment, they continually hunt for something that will allow them to play even louder with a reasonably good sound. Hence, we now have tenor players in many major orchestras using bass trombone slides and 3 or 4G mouthpieces, and bass trombonists without leadpipes, playing mouthpieces that resemble tuba mouthpieces, and gigantic dual bore slides. All of these changes do indeed allow players to play louder.

This mirrors equipment choices of big band brass players, although the influences are different. Many big bands pride themselves on the “faster, louder, higher” school. Certainly big bands like Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson have greatly influenced big band style and the demands of those styles strongly influence big band brass players to make certain equipment choices that favor louder and higher.

About 15 years ago I went to a clinic the great big band composer/arranger Bob Florence was giving. One thing that really stuck with me is that he said, if the details I remember are correct, that he never uses mp dynamics any longer because bands never play soft enough. If he wants mp, he writes p. For p he writes pp.

I’ve been playing and directing the Asheville Jazz Orchestra for a while now. We’ve played a lot of gigs together, but some of the ones that stand out in my mind as being particularly good were those times we played without a sound system. Everyone listened closely, especially during solos, and dynamics were played consistently correctly. Knowing that there wasn’t a sound technician “fixing the mix” for us forced everyone to become team players. It was just a mental switch, but it made a huge difference in the overall quality of our music.

What about your experience? Are the big bands you play with a “blast fest” all the time? What gigs have you played were the musical quality was excellent specifically because everyone was a great team player?

Weekend Picks

Here are some random music related links for your surfing this weekend.

An old post by David Valdez in Casa Valdez, he discusses the 8 Tonic System for Improvisation to help you explore new sounds in your improvisations.

The 8 tonic system is an attempt to organize and simplify the methods that have been used to teach improvisors to use Hexatonic/Triad-Pairs in the past. Hexatonic scales used for improvisation is now an important tool of the modern improvisor, yet there are inherent problems with the methods that have been taught up to this point. The biggest problem with Hexatonics is that they immediately sound formulaic and too much like a pattern. The other problem is that in order to use a wide variety of different Hexatonic/Triad-Pairs the player must commit many different formulas to memory in order to make the correct calculations to find the HT/TPs. These formulas are short calculations, like: Major triad from the #11 and Major Triad from the b13, but they start to add up and get overwhelming.

Here’s an interesting discussion by a rock guitarist that I think is good advice for any musician on improving your rhythm.

Here’s an oldie but a goodie by James Boldin for music teachers on Guidelines for Private Instruction.

And lastly, here’s a briefer performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle by one of the masters.

Stylistic Playing – Traditional Jazz versus Modern Jazz

I recently read a great essay by trumpet player Gordon Au about playing traditional and modern jazz styles. I’ve played a couple of times with Gordon in swing dance bands at Lindy Focus. Gordon was such a fantastic swing player that I assumed that he specialized in playing in older jazz styles. As it turns out, he is equally skillful in modern jazz playing and has quite a bit to say about the different “camps” promoting different jazz styles.

As a musician who has extensively studied and performed both traditional and modern jazz (alternatively, read: early, Dixieland, 1920–30s; vs. contemporary, avant-garde, post-bop, etc.), it saddens me to see fans in either camp bashing the other. On the one hand, I don’t understand it because they’re so similar—part of the same tree!—blood relatives separated by hardly any time at all. (More practically: how far can you subdivide an already miniscule fan base, and why would you?) On the other hand, I totally understand it because while they’re both jazz, they’re quite different, separated sometimes by very contrasting goals and aesthetics. And that surface similarity concealing inner difference is a prime recipe for sibling rivalry.

I too find it interesting and somewhat disconcerting how otherwise accomplished jazz musicians don’t demonstrate stylistic playing outside of their particular area of interest. In particular, I’ve found that excellent modern jazz players will often not be able to play a convincing solo in a swing or early jazz style. Frequently musicians that I hire to play big band don’t know standard Swing Era phrasing and nuances that make a chart by Fletcher Henderson, for example, sound different from Maria Schneider. There are some musicians I frequently play with that specialize in earlier jazz styles and struggle if the music is more modern. At least, that’s not uncommon among the musicians I happen to work with most frequently. I should also say that there are some musicians in my area that are virtual chameleons, like Gordon, and you would swear they specialize in whatever they happen to be playing.

In my opinion, attentive and extensive listening is the key to performing whatever you’re playing in an appropriate stylistic manner. You must know what it’s supposed to sound like before you can interpret it. Serious jazz musicians should spend some time doing some transcribing in all styles in order to make they phrasing, note choice, rhythmic language, vibrato, articulations, and other nuances sound natural while playing in any jazz style.

Gordon has some great points to make regarding the different arguments between traditional and modern jazz enthusiasts and is a great read. Go over and check it out and if you have the chance to hear him play live, jump on it!

 

NCMEA 2015

This Sunday and Monday (November 8-9, 2015) I will be performing and presenting at the North Carolina Music Educators Conference at the Benton Convention Center in Winston-Salem, NC. While the conference does have a fee to enter, if you’re a member of MENC you get a discount. If you are a member, there’s a chance you’re already planning on attending. If so, please come to one of the events I’m presenting at.

On Sunday, November 8, 2015 at 3:30 PM the Asheville Jazz Orchestra will be performing one set for the music students and educators present. We’ll do a mix of my original compositions and some others by bands like Count Basie, Buddy Rich, or others. I haven’t finalized the set list quite yet. We will be in the South Main Hall 3 at the convention center.

The next day at 3:30 PM, Monday November 9, 2015, I’m joining Chris Nigrelli, Matt Buckmaster, and Wes Parker in a big band trombone section workshop. We will be performing some trombone solis from standard big band rep and talking a bit about how to get the best sound and style from younger trombone students.

I will also have a wee bit of downtime on Sunday evening and Monday morning. While I plan to spend it at the convention checking out other performances and clinics, I can also break away for a bit in case anyone is looking for a lesson or cup of coffee. Please feel free to contact me.

What Can a Japanese Pasta Chef Teach You About Jazz?

I continue to be very busy lately between teaching and gigging, so apologies for letting things be so “dark” around here. Tonight (Saturday, September 26, 2015) I’ll be performing at the Kinston Ballroom in Knoxville, TN for the Knoxville Lindy Exchange with the Gamble/Wilson Swing Orchestra. I really enjoy playing with big bands and this one will be especially fun because I usually end up having to be the music director and deal with all the business stuff when I do big band gigs. This time I get to be a sideman and just enjoy playing.

In the mean time, a bassist who grew up in New Jersey and New York went on tour to Japan and learned how to play jazz from a Japanese pasta chef.

The chef’s name was Toshiaki Yanase, and cooking pasta wasn’t even his main gig; he also ran a small fruit stand! His life story, and his dishes ended up being symbolic to much of what I experienced in the country, and drew some interesting parallels to improving in music. I was on tour with a wonderful Japanese pianist named Yuki Futami. And while traveling throughout the country, inspiring encounters like these were all too common-some directly related to music, and others like in the case with Toshi, perhaps a bit more metaphorical. I’d like to share some of the lessons I learned during my stay.

Weekend Picks

Here are some random music-related links for you to check out this weekend.

A lengthy and interesting master class by jazz pianist Kenny Werner on improvisation, from 2005. Early on, he says:

You have to learn to play what is within your control.

Check out the context and more here.

Geared mainly for orchestral string players, there are some good nuggets of advice for any musician who rehearses and performs in 39 Orchestral Etiquette Tips Every Musician Ought To Know.

Here’s a nice resource for music theory students about a variety of topics, including Backcycling, Chord Basics, Scales, and Transposing.

Lastly, if you’re like me and both a Weird Al Yankovich and a Frank Zappa fan you’ll enjoy Yankovic’s tribute to Zappa, Genius In France. Unlike a lot of Yankovic’s popular music, this isn’t a direct parody of a Zappa tune, but rather written in the style of Zappa.

“You Again?” For Jazz Ensemble

Things have been fairly “dark” here for a while since I have had so many other projects going on. One of those was completing a new big band composition for the Asheville Jazz Orchestra’s performance last month. Here’s a MIDI realization of it if you would like to listen to it.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

As always, when you listen to acoustic music played by a computer you have to use your imagination. I didn’t bother putting in solos or other nuances that would have made that audio file sound better because I got to hear it played live.

The tune itself is based on the changes to There Will Never Be Another YouI wanted to have an open solo section with changes most players would already know, but do something different from a blues or rhythm changes tune. I also  borrowed a few ideas from Bob Florence’s chart Bebop CharlieNot only did I steal borrow the opening riff, but also the road map of going from unison melodies into harmony followed by a sax soli then into solos.

I’ve already started a new big band project that I’m excited to be working on, since it is a commission for the Greenville Jazz Collective Big Band. With my self-imposed deadline looming, I need to get back to work.

Main FM Radio Broadcast Tonight

Update – Because of the expected wintery weather tonight we’re postponing this show until another time. I’ll post an update when it’s rescheduled.


 

Tonight, Monday February 16, 2015, I’m planning on stopping by the Main FM radio station headquarters here in Asheville, NC to sit in on Russ Wilson’s jazz program, In the Groove. Depending on the weather (we’re supposed to get some wintery weather tonight) and how long a board meeting I am attending just before, I expect to be on Russ’s show sometime between 7:30 and 8 PM eastern time tonight. You can listen in on the internet by going to the Main FM web site.

Victrola 2Russ asked me to bring some recordings of the Asheville Jazz Orchestra to play and I’m going to bring a bunch of my favorite big band records. Yes, records, not CDs. Russ is quite a collector of old records. Russ brought this portable Victrola player pictured here along on a short tour we played together a while back.

Weekend Picks

It’s Friday, so here are a few music related links for your perusal this weekend.

Drummer Peter Erskine on Jazz Flick ‘Whiplash’. I haven’t seen this film and based on what I’ve read about it  I’m not certain I’ll rush out to see it in theaters. The band director character sounds like the sort I try to avoid. Erskine wrote:

Being a jerk is, ultimately, self-defeating in music education: for one thing, the band will not respond well; secondly, such bandleaders are anathema to the other educators who ultimately wind up acting as judges in competitive music festivals — such bands will never win (the judges will see to that).

Joey Tartell teaches trumpet at Indiana University and he points out that You’re Not Always Entitled To Your Opinion.

There are people posting so often that their voices are heard more, and they are therefore treated as experts. But a lot of these people have no standing in the real world. Recently, I read as the Associate Principal Trumpet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Third Trumpet of the New York Metropolitan Orchestra were, separately, berated online for offering their opinions on some trumpet related matters. I’d like to say that I was amazed, but considering what I’ve read in the past few years online, I was just sad.

You already know Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but do you know how celebrated a musician his older sister, Maria Anna Mozart, was?

Leopold Mozart, a court musician, began teaching Maria Anna, his first-born child, to play harpsichord when she was 8 years old. She progressed quickly, with 3-year-old Wolfgang often at her side. After a few years, Wolfgang tried to play sections from Maria’s music book. “Over time, Nannerl’s playing became more and more brilliant, her technique perfect,” Rieger says. “Young Wolfgang was probably impressed by that and inspired to play.”

I mentioned in a recent blog post how Donald Reinhardt was known to occasionally tell his students to practice in a way that would intentionally exaggerate the ultimate goal. Rich Hanks posted a previously unpublished interview that describes one example.

Now these statements are exaggerated. They have to be. So that when you say, “Let’s forget Reinhardt,” you’ll play well, because I’ve exaggerated so much that enough rubs off in the subconscious to have that take over.

And lastly, it’s not just trumpet players who are competitive musicians.