Big Band Follow-up

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 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.

Published in: on July 6, 2009 at 1:04 am  Comments (11)  

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  1. One more thing: For a humorous take on a related subject, here’s a link to a posting by trumpeter Nicholas Payton, entitled “On Why I Hate Jazz!!!”

  2. 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 wholeheartedly agree that “All About Rosie” is a work of staggering power and genius. I think it’s one of the greatest compositions of the twentieth century. But I think it’s a huge stretch to say that the counterpoint drives the harmonic motion in that piece, which is based entirely on ostinatos, pedal point, and blues-derived chord progressions.

    What is great about “Rosie” is how George wields his incredible developmental chops to create an unstoppable sense of momentum, the way he transforms the children’s song (“Rosie, Little Rosie”) into a tightly focused tour-de-force. It’s almost like a David Foster Wallace essay, in that it feels discursive and circuitous as it’s going by, but by the end you can see the shape of it and realize that every word has been doing essential work.

    • Alright, I’m willing to walk this one back a little bit. I agree that parts of “Rosie” are driven by ostinatos and bluesy progressions. But I think that there are also significant parts that can be best understood by looking at the independence of the individual lines, bass line included. I’m thinking in particular of the first movement. The contrast between the first movement and the third, which is filled with hard-swinging tutti writing, makes the tutti parts that much more impactful. My point was more simply that counterpoint seems to be part of Russell’s musical DNA. I hear it as an intrinsic part of the way he thinks about composing, about thematic development, and about orchestration.

      Regardless, we can both agree that everyone should check out “All About Rosie!” I look forward to your future blog posts on the subject.

  3. What is right for any one composer is not necessarily right for all, the imperative is to make good music in the best way one sees fit. If that means working with counterpoint, well and good, but the great strength of the post-Modern era in music is that no one must write counterpoint, or dodecaphony, or aleatory, if they do not wish to. There is no one solution to musical problems.

    But as to counterpoint in jazz and the big band, I just don’t hear the issue. Counterpoint is a fairly strict and specific method in composing, and I do not hear this growing development of counterpoint in the jazz mainstream at all. I don’t hear it in Dave Douglas’ small and large groups, and I don’t hear it in Brad Mehldau’s left hand because I don’t think it’s there. What is there is polyphony. The distinction is important – unless one is Bach, if one sits down to write counterpoint and thereby produce harmonic structure, in both the vertical and horizontal sense, one will run into a cul-de-sac exceedingly quickly (unless it’s atonal counterpoint, which I don’t think you’re implying). Define a harmonic structure then express it in counterpoint, certainly. Mehldau may have freed his left hand, but he’s not the first, and he’s not playing counterpoint, he’s playing anitphonally and polyphonically in a way that has a great deal to do with Schumann. Douglas is also producing polyphony in a way that has to do with earlier jazz traditions, but he’s not inventing multiple voicings, nor is Marsalis – that’s been around since hard-bop and before.

    • On this point, I’m not backing down. You really don’t hear counterpoint in Dave Douglas’s music, or Brad Mehldau’s? I encourage you to examine Douglas’s scores for his “Mountain Passages” project. They look like Bach chorales and inventions. And I refer you to Brad Mehldau’s insightful liner notes for his album “House on Hill,” where he writes specifically about how he’s tried to incorporate a contrapuntal approach in his playing and composing:

  4. Matt, I think your definition of counterpoint is maybe slipping through the cracks between two extremes. On the one hand, any music with independently-moving voices can be said to be contrapuntal. You appear to reject that definition as over-broad, because it’s sometimes (often) ornamental and doesn’t do harmony-generating work. On the other hand, though, gtra1n is right that if you embrace the more narrow, rigid definition of counterpoint, that is pretty damn rare in jazz. I think a lot of what you are calling “counterpoint” in the music of Gil Evans and George Russell (and Brad-Mehldau and Dave Douglas) could be better described as a linear approach to voice-leading.

    For instance “Bury Me Standing” (from Mountain Passages is a beautiful three-voice chorale that moves through all kinds of unorthodox, linearly-generated sonorities. But everything happens on top of a D drone in the tuba. Also, the bottom two voices almost always move at the same time.

    Are those flaws? Would it be a stronger piece if you took the drone away, and the voices exhibited more rhythmic independence? I mean, that would make it more contrapuntal, right, and therefore better?

    I appreciate your desire to investigate why so much bigband music is terrible, and to construct a manifesto of sorts. But I’m not sure a list of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” is really what’s needed here. I mean, mainly what I’m hearing in a lot of modern bigbands isn’t insufficient counterpoint, or a lack of soloists, or excessive precision. It’s a lack of sincere emotional commitment, from both the composers and the players. I want to hear people write and play like it really fucking matters to them. I want to hear music from people that would rather die than not reach me, move me, thrill me. If your music makes me go “fuuuuuck yeah,” then I don’t really care what tools or techniques you used to get there. On the other hand, if I’m sitting there mentally critiquing your counterpoint, you’ve already failed.

  5. I would amplify what DJA wrote – and add a semantic difference between Counterpoint and counterpoint. The latter, small “c” is included in polyphony, essentially a multiplicity of voices. By your definition, any music with more than one voice, and with at least two voices moving in different harmonic rhythms is contrapuntal. Well . . . no. Counterpart with a capital “C” means something different, and requires that voices mean in opposite motion but still within harmony to each other and the overall structure – and yes this does include passing dissonance. “Bury Me Standing” would fail that test. So would “House on Hill” (and if you’re seeking counterpoint, Mehldau’s “Elegiac Cycle” comes much closer). I could take yours, and Mehldau’s definition, and say that Cecil Taylor makes contrapuntal music, which he doesn’t. But, so what? Good music is good music, no matter the style or means. I’m wary of this determinant of “counterpoint” which is being used as both a criteria for quality and is also so broad that music that fails the test of the rules of Counterpoint still gets the seal of approval. Things succeed or fail on their own terms, and jazz succeeds and fails that way as well. I have always been wary of special pleading for technical qualities in jazz, especially ones about harmonic structure, which sometimes betray a lack of confidence in the music compared to the Western Classical tradition. They are different, and wonderful in their own ways, and competition between them is meaningless.

  6. You guys are thinking about this way too much! Just hear it and write it down…….it all start with a good tune…melody is first ..everything else is secondary…that’s whats missing form today’s Modern music. Thanks for the mention…

    Yours Musically

    Ian Torres

  7. It’s ironic that you mention Toch and in your initial blog you mention Brookmeyer in a not so positive sense. “The Shaping Forces of Music” is a book he recommends that all his students read, and he is a huge advocate of counterpoint (big C and little c; won’t get into that debate). I guess polyphony is a better word. DJA and Nick Urie were also students of Brookmeyer, and I would say that there is an underlying influence of him in them. Also, while it is great to add non-traditional instruments to the ensemble to help the composer think differently, I don’t think it is necessary to achieve a “deeper” unique sound. It is about content.

  8. If I may jump in on Matt’s side (and Matt feel free to distance yourself should you disagree), I think we are defining counterpoint negatively. That is, it is the way of creating harmony that is does NOT envision a harmonic essence first, then structure voices to state or imply that structure.

    If we’re going to defend a “harmonic” approach, I think that writers would do well to expand their harmonic palette. Three ways occur to me:

    Use larger pitch sets – jazz musicians have explored 7 note chords very well. There are 5 more, though! Classical composers use these far more often; Messiaen is a favorite of mine in that regard.

    Use smaller pitch sets – three note chords that don’t imply larger structures. In the “jazz” or new music world, John Hollenbeck does this very well, in my opinion.

    Wider chords – again, jazz musicians have explored cluster harmony very well. More space between the voices creates new sounds. I’ve been on a big Stravinsky kick this summer, and he’s a good source of that (as well as counterpoint of the sort I like).

    To DJA: I empathize with your skepticism about “thou shalts” for composers. I don’t presume to speak for Matt, but as I interpret it, he’s not saying that this is the only way to create good big band music in the 21st century. That’s certainly not what I think. Rather, I think we’re saying that the other ways of writing show signs of being exhausted, because so much big band writing sounds the same. I’m sure there will be plenty of brilliant big band music written using the old methods, but to me that path is far more difficult. It would be much easier to mine other fields. Of course, utmost respect to those who can be creative in output without reinventing the wheel.


  9. […] ignited a bit of fuss with his post, Why I Hate Big Band Music. I advise you to read it and its follow-up, but will give the gist of Rubin’s cri de coeur: His antipathy for big band music is founded […]

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