Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band is one of the best-known big bands in the country. The band is comprised of the most successful studio musicians in Los Angeles. Their albums regularly get nominated for Grammy Awards, Goodwin’s arrangements are purchased by many college big bands, and their albums all feature high profile guests artists. Yet, not a single “serious” jazz musician with whom I am acquainted considers this music “serious” jazz, and neither do I. I have always been totally underwhelmed by Goodwin’s music, regarding it boring, clichéd, technically-proficient pablum. Thus, I was reasonably surprised to hear the man himself, in a radio interview, clearly articulate the very source of this feeling:
“That is something that is very important to us in the Big Phat Band. The concept of being a member of the ensemble, and a love for that, because what it means is – you lose your ego. If the lead trumpet, or the lead instrument in whatever section, is playing a note with no vibrato, neither do I. If he’s holding it, and cutting it, that’s where I cut off the note. If it’s really short… If he starts his crescendo right here, I wait and I go with him. And there are a lot of bands that I hear, and even in bands on this list that I have there of big influences, I hear a violation of that concept. And it’s either because, maybe they didn’t have the training to understand about that…or maybe it’s a case of ego.”
The goal expressed in the comment above is one of the most common aspirations heard among big band leaders and musicians. It’s the goal of complete “precision,” a word that pops up with disturbing frequency in reviews of big band performances and recordings. My question is this: if precision is the standard by which big bands are measured, than what is the ideal? I imagine that a band with complete precision and zero egos would sound an awful lot like the Big Phat Band – and that is a sound I hate.
While big bands are praised for their uniformity and precision, most of the jazz we love reaches us because it is deeply individual. The history of jazz is a history of great men and women who made uniquely personal contributions to the music. Miles Davis and John Coltrane did not have outsized “egos.” Okay, maybe Miles did. But his unflinching musical vision was not hindered by his personality – it was enhanced. The same is true of every improvising musician whose work is still listened to, enjoyed, and studied today, from Armstrong to Zappa.
Improvised jazz is a celebration of the staunch individualist, but big band music elevates the egoless ensemble player. This is the conflict inherent in large ensemble jazz. How can these contrary impulses be reconciled? Perhaps they do not need to be; perhaps big band music should be considered a genre completely separate from jazz, with its own standards and aesthetic criteria. But if this is the case, than why are big bands the central focus of so many academic jazz programs? And why are there certain large ensembles that are revered by jazz musicians, while so much other big band music is dismissed as unfulfilling and clichéd? I am not ready to sever ties between the two quite yet. Instead, I humbly offer a few suggestions for the salvation of big band music.
1. The band must be completely filled by soloists. And I do not use the term “soloist” lightly. A soloist is more than a musician who can successfully navigate a set of chord changes, or plug in appropriate jazz licks. A soloist is a musician with a unique sonic identity – someone who has devoted their time and energy to develop a personal language of melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and timbral ideas. The classic example of a band filled with soloist is the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Rather than choosing players who could all blend together, Ellington filled his bands with individual sounds. This resulted in an individual sound for the entire ensemble, an “Ellingtonian” sound. It must have also been incredibly inspiring to compose for such a diverse group.
Presently, there are very few bands following this model, but I believe that Maria Schneider comes closest. Her rhythm section is filled with great soloists; every member of her sax section has a solo feature, all of her trumpet players are fine improvisers. Her trombone section is really the only section in her orchestra that seems to have less identifiable players. But who really wants to hear a trombone solo anyway? All kidding aside, the Mingus Big Band is also filled with great soloists, as is the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. It is unusual for the Maria Schneider Orchestra and the LCJO to be grouped together; they are more often played off of each other, used as representatives of two extremes. But this is one lesson that I think Maria and Wynton have both taken to heart – a band composed of strong individual voices establishes a unique voice of its own.
2. Jazz composers must focus on counterpoint. Now that we have band filled with soloists, we have to give them melodies to play. Counterpoint is a compositional tool that is paid a lot of lip service by jazz composers, but actually used rarely. The stock big band chord-voicing techniques mostly hang notes under a single melody line, without much concern for how one note moves to the next. All of the inner voices become subservient to the lead line of each section, which means that that all but a few musicians in the band have little say in the interpretation of the music. When we do encounter jazz counterpoint, it usually serves to merely decorate the underlying harmony. But counterpoint can be the generator of harmony – with individual voices following their own development and logic. This is a more classical conception of counterpoint, but it also has roots in the New Orleans counterpoint of early jazz.
Historically, Gil Evans was perhaps the best large ensemble jazz composer of counterpoint. Every voice, from the soloist on top of the ensemble to the tuba on the bottom, had its own melody to play. Additionally, he chose instrumental combinations that brought the counterpoint to the fore through contrasting timbres. Thad Jones also wrote great counterpoint, between sections of the band as well as individual voices.
Today, Maria Schneider is again leading the way. While she used to favor more traditionally blocky chord voicings, there are early examples of her experiments with counterpoint, such as “Last Season.” Her most recent works are driven by counterpoint; “Aires de Lando” and “Choro Dancado” are great examples. Vince Mendoza is another jazz composer whose music is filled with meaty counterpoint, but which might be overlooked because so much of his output is for orchestra rather than big band.
3. Composers must intend to write music for individuals. It ain’t gonna happen by accident. Big band composers will have to release some of the control they have over the music, ceding it to the ensemble players in the same way that a composer for a jazz trio does. The cautionary example is Bob Brookmeyer’s New Art Orchestra. I would not dispute that Brookmeyer is one of the greatest jazz composers; his control of harmony and form are unparalleled. But he has repeatedly expressed frustration at the fact that his recordings with the NAO are passed over for awards and recognition, and I suspect that this is due to the lack of individual freedom in a lot of his works. I do not know whether many of the NAO musicians are great soloists, but if so, Brookmeyer does not allow them much room to add their personal stamp to the music. His control as composer is often so absolute that it can actually sterilize the music. This demand, that band express the composer’s vision to the exclusion of the players’, reveals where the real problem with ego in a big band lies. When every band member buries his or her own ego, it is, in fact, the composer’s ego being narcissistically served.
The fault for big band music’s sorry state of affairs does not lie solely with composers, of course. The traditional style of big band performance, the attitude of follow-the-leader that Gordon Goodwin praised in his quote at the top, is going to be a difficult habit to break. High school and college big bands all over the world indoctrinate students into this mindset. If composers ask more of their performers, then performers will have to rise to the challenge.
In the end, we have two possibilities for the future of big band music. One follows the model of the Big Phat Band – increasing precision, where a sort of generic, “ego-less,” playing supplants an individual’s musical identity. It occurs to me that the ideal performers for this type of music are not human beings, but synthesizers, only slightly more advanced than those available today.
On the other hand, we have the model I’ve described above. It’s been tried before – think about the Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaborations. They resulted in some of the most beloved, enduring, and inspiring jazz of all time. Gil’s writing was never more elegant than his works for Miles, and Miles never inhabited the music in a deeper way than he did within Gil’s settings. And this is why, as much as I hate big bands, but I am not ready to give up on them. At their finest, big bands can pull off a little feat of magic: they can express a composer completely, and an individual player completely, at the very same time.
 I admit that there is also a need for a history of jazz ensemble interaction. Ethan Iverson has written eloquently on this point, but I am unfortunately not able to find the appropriate link. If anyone could help out, please post it in the comments.
 Goodwin actually goes on to talk about Duke Ellington in the interview, mentioning the sounds of Duke’s players “ebbing and flowing, and that’s great”. But he makes clear that this is not a sound he is interested in pursuing.