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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 8

Preserving the Big Band Tradition: the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

by Paul Serralheiro / May 11, 2008

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Drums, bass, and piano beating out a rhythmic vamp with trumpets, trombones and saxophones wailing as dancers jump and jitter may well conjure images of the jazz orchestra in its full glory. During the heyday of swing it acted primarily as a dance band, but as much as dancing was one of the reasons for the music then, the repertoire established by those powerhouse units still draws attention today.

In late June, for instance, one of the most artistically accomplished ensembles of its kind, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO), will kick off this year’s Ottawa International Jazz Festival before heading West for a six-city Canadian jazz fest tour. A model of musical preservation—which does not exclude flashes of innovation in its concert programs—this orchestra espouses a spirit of neo-conservatism embodied by its artistic director Wynton Marsalis. (At press time, the virtuoso trumpeter was unfortunately unavailable for an interview as he was hard at work on a special concert event for orchestra and choir, marking the 200th anniversary of the Abyssinian Church in Harlem.) Though the term “big band” is known to all, other designations for large ensembles have appeared over the years such as “ jazz orchestras” or “concert jazz bands”. But designation is a moot point, according to Ted Nash. The saxophonist, composer, arranger and co-leader of JLCO, made the point in a recent phone conversation that the terms “jazz orchestra” and “big band” are synonymous because both entail large groupings of musicians. Nash should know, since he started with big bands in high school, graduating to the Monterey All-Stars and later doing stints with traditionalists Lionel Hampton and Louis Bellson in addition to forward-looking outfits like those of Don Ellis, Gerry Mulligan, and Toshiko Akiyoshi. “That was one of the easiest ways for a horn player to get sideman work,” Nash claims, “especially saxophone players, because there are five of us per band.”

A Large Palette

But the challenge confronting a jazz orchestra is quite different from that of a small combo. “The big band is a tough thing, especially for people who may have a larger ego and are not satisfied to play a supporting role,” Nash went on to say. “It trains you to think about society and not just yourself. When you’re doing your own thing, like in a quartet or quintet, and take a lot of solos, you obviously get more exposure, but my musical life is a happy mix of both.” Nash, it must be noted, is one of the architects of the JLCO aesthetic, one that is as likely to feature roots jazz as the free bop of Ornette Coleman. “What I really prefer and enjoy the most is writing for a big band. There are so many instruments, so many different ways to achieve the sound, all the colours that you hear and textures to create.” Tailored somewhat to the instrumental stylings of Wynton Marsalis, its star soloist, the JLCO has a unique personality, much like its illustrious predecessors did (Ellington, Basie, Webb, the Dorseys…), On that issue, Nash ventured to define the band’s sound: “We have such a collection of soloists, of individual personalities who achieve a strong group sound that’s different from all others I’ve heard. But we share some similarities with Ellington’s band, too, one of these being a basic brightness in sound.” Nash also agrees with a statement offered by fellow band member, trumpeter Marcus Printup, that the uniqueness of the JLCO stems from the fact that each member is an accomplished soloist. That asset notwithstanding, Nash added: “We are all intent on playing together on a given concept and achieve a group sound while letting something of our personal voices emerge.”

A Formal Setting

Even if words often fail to convey what can be grasped by hearing the music, there is a definite connection between the orchestra’s approach and its home base at Lincoln Center. “Unlike a workshop format,” Nash went on to elaborate, “it’s more formal, so we have to come prepared. We are aware that people buy tickets to see us perform, so we draw up clearly defined programs that we try to approach creatively.”

If there is one major difference to be drawn between the classic big bands and the JLCO, it’s the ensemble’s self-awareness of playing a role similar to that of the symphony orchestra. Nash put it this way: “The Jazz Orchestra for me is about getting colours from the instruments, like in a symphony.” Also important to him is the necessity to preserve the legacy of jazz, a goal for which the JLCO has been criticized in some quarters for not moving beyond. “And that’s always the problem whenever you do that,” he opines. “The repertory we do play is music from a while back, but we always bring a fresh approach to it, and handle it with respect. It’s like when you go hear Beethoven at the Phil: you want it to sound like Beethoven. The music we play deserves similar treatment.”

Improvisation Imperative

In a jazz band, though, improvisation takes center stage, even if it’s balanced with written material. To that end, “the arrangements are mostly about the group sound and the solos are supportive of the arrangements,” Nash avers. “Improvisation is one of the keys; it’s what makes jazz, jazz. It doesn’t matter how complex or involved the composition is, or the interpretation: the solos still become a high point of the piece.”

For its Canadian tour, Nash informs us they will perform pieces out of their vast repertoire. “We play a kind of ‘Best of’ that includes more traditional pieces and a couple of original charts as well. At times, we might have a general theme or thread of sorts that allows us to play a number of things.” Combining the best of approaches, preservation and innovation, the JLCO is redefining the role of the jazz orchestra and setting new standards in the process.

Big Band Cornucopia

The traditional big band is alive and well, with everything ranging from ghost bands whose original leaders are no longer with us to newer orchestras reviving and extending the tradition. This summer’s jazz fest blitz offers a good assortment of large aggregations, as in the following.

The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra was among the most successful bands in the heyday of swing, characterized by the smooth-as-silk trombone melodies of its leader and suave vocalists, the most famous of which was Frank Sinatra. While its current livelihood is as a nostalgia act on cruise ships, it is coming up to Montreal on July 6 to engage in a battle of the bands with another name brand from the swing era, the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Miller’s strength was arranging and writing such catchy tunes as “Tuxedo Junction” and “In the Mood.” Though its leader was reportedly accidentally shot down while flying over the English channel in 1944 (a story never officially confirmed), the band has continued presenting the Miller sound. The band will be playing at twelve other events across Canada, including stops in Fredericton, Toronto, Calgary and Victoria.

The Lionel Hampton Orchestra is another outfit that survived the era by virtue of the originality and longevity of its vibraphonist leader who passed away in 2002. A tribute to this leader will be offered by Le Big Band Caravane on June 22 during the Ottawa International Jazz festival. Also in Ottawa, on June 30, the music of The Stan Kenton Orchestra will be tackled by the Impressions in Jazz Orchestra, a repertory band led by local bassist Adrian Cho that displays much imagination in its programming choices. In fact, the group touts itself as Canada’s first symphonic jazz orchestra, with ambitious interpretations of works by John Coltrane (“Africa/Brass”) and Gil Evans (“Miles Ahead”). In Montreal, pianist McCoy Tyner will share the spotlight with the Berklee Concert Jazz Orchestra on July 3 in a rare big band performance of his own music. PS

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