It seems that my last posting has generated quite a bit of traffic to our fledgling blog – thanks to Darcy James Argue and the editors at Jazz.com for linking to it. I’ve truly appreciated the many thoughtful comments and responses it has generated, especially Ian’s over at Villes Ville, and the contrary opinion expressed at The Big City. I would like to address a couple of points and make a clarification or two.
First, I should mention that I have no personal animosity toward anyone in the Big Phat Band. I’ve met a few of the musicians in that ensemble, and they’ve never been anything but extremely kind and professional. Nor should the post be taken as a broadside against Gordon Goodwin. I honestly admire some of his work; his orchestrations for the score of “The Incredibles” are really fun and exciting.
Despite the incendiary title of the post, I actually care deeply about big band music. I was simply expressing my frustration and disappointment with the impotence of so much it. I think DJA hit the nail on the head when he used the word “fetishization” to describe my diagnosis of the trouble with big bands. My problem is with the “fetishization” of precision in big band music, rather than the precision itself. This is perhaps the main difference, in my mind, between the great big band music of yesteryear, and today’s big band formulas. It’s an attitude I encounter among big band leaders and musicians, and I think it stifles creativity and originality in otherwise wonderful musicians. My proposed solutions are intended to force musicians out of these habits and mindsets, admittedly in a drastic manner.
Now, I’m willing to acknowledge that everyone may not share this experience. Some readers may live in cities where the musical scene contains many forward-looking ensembles, all pursuing different versions of the future. I can only speak to what I know – I went to school and continue to live in Los Angeles, a city with tons of musicians, but a pathetic excuse for a musical scene. I envy any of you who feel that there’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to big band music. That has not been my experience.
On the subject of counterpoint, I need to clarify the point I was trying to make. It seems that the jazz musicians who most interest me today are returning to counterpoint in their playing and writing. Dave Douglas’s composing is one obvious example. Consider also the liberation of Brad Mehldau’s left hand, or even the two-horn writing on Wynton Marsalis’ last few records. This has been a growing development of the jazz mainstream for at least a decade, yet the language of big band composition is lagging behind. What I was really getting at, however, is a deeper concept of counterpoint. The distinction I drew between ornamental counterpoint and counterpoint that generates the harmony is best described by Ernst Toch’s The Shaping Forces in Music. He writes about how harmonies can be viewed less as discreet units, and more as the result of the powerful motion of individual voices – this is what I am missing in so much big band music. Bill Holman’s music occasionally achieves the effect I’m looking for, but other times his counterpoint seems like an exercise to me, purely ornamental. An excellent example of the type of counterpoint I want to hear more of is George Russell’s seminal “All About Rosie.” This piece sounds just as modern today as it did in 1957, and I think that this is in no small part due to the fact that his contrapuntal writing has not been significantly expanded upon in the half-century since it premiered. I’ll certainly write more about counterpoint on this blog, so stay tuned.
Several commenters suggested that the traditional big band instrumentation is part of the problem; with this I wholeheartedly agree. It is no accident that I love the muted effects Duke Ellington introduced, the Alto Flutes, French horns, and tuba of Gil Evan’s ensembles, and the addition of accordion or cajon to Maria Schneider’s Orchestra. I think that unusual instrumentation forces composers to think more carefully about their orchestration options, and often helps them break away from overused techniques.
Other commenters pointed out the enormous difficulties in convening and maintaining a big band, let alone one like I’m suggesting. Some even challenged me to do so! All I can say is that I have loads of respect for everyone who is trying to do something NEW in the big band genre: bands like DJA’s Secret Society or Nick Urie’s Large Ensemble in New York, Ian Torres’s Big Band in Chicago, and John Daversa’s Big Band or Andrew Durkin’s Industrial Jazz Group out here in the West give me hope. As for my own group, I’m obviously wrestling with these issues in my composing, and will probably try running a big band sometime in the not-too-distant future.
That is all I have to say on this topic right now. But keep checking Twenty Dollars anyway. Vikram publishes on Tuesdays, and I’ll be publishing on Thursdays (albeit more irregularly). My next post will probably be about bacon.