Big Band Scene (Feb. 2016)

Saxophonist Patrick Billingham continues his monthly column with a look at the appeal of big bands.

 

 

"Like my dad, I have the most fun when I am in front of that kick-butt big band" Natalie Cole (1950-2015).  Highlighted in The Guardian, January 2nd.

 

What is the attraction of playing in a big band rather than a small ensemble? And how does it compare with playing in a small ensemble?

Primarily, I would say, the principal attraction is the sound itself.  It’s not just a matter of volume. Small groups miked up with plenty of amplification and stacked speakers can be considerably louder. From the listening, and playing, point of view a more interesting texture is possible with a big band than with, say, a sextet.  Not only is there a greater depth of harmony available, but the saxes, trumpets, and trombones can have separate lines within the sections. 

From the playing point of view, there is the exhilaration of the band going flat out with maximum volume. Or the satisfaction of playing a slow, quiet, chart, such as Neal Hefti’s Li’l Darlin’ with precision and sensitivity.  And getting it right with a good tight sound.   This last is what distinguishes a really first rate band from a merely average one.

On the other hand, with a small ensemble, there is less of a problem when it comes to organisation.  Less rehearsal space is required and there are fewer problems in getting everyone together for a rehearsal.  On a paid gig, the individual financial gains are greater. Extensive arrangements aren’t necessary.  A small group can have a substantial repertoire with nothing more than individual copies of The Real Book.  In fact, there may be no need for charts at all, if the members have learnt enough tunes. Something that is all but impossible with a big band.

A small band gives everyone greater opportunities for self expression. When it comes to improvised soloing, not only solos on every chart if one wishes, but also as many choruses as one wants, provided the rest of the band and the audience can put up with them.

On the other hand, unless you are the leader of a big band, you are unlikely to have a solo on every piece.  Even then, it depends on the instrument.  When I switched to tenor sax for a three gig big band tour, I had more solos on those three occasions than I had had all year on baritone.  As well as first tenor, horn solos tend to be limited to first alto, second trumpet and first trombone.  In the rhythm section, the keyboard tends to have most solos followed by guitar, drums then bass.  And, unless there are open sections in the chart, the solos tend to be of fixed length, sometimes as short as a couple of bars.

But not everyone wants to solo.  In his fifty years with the Count Basie Orchestra, guitarist Freddie Green hardly ever took one.  But his style of rhythm guitar helped define the Basie sound.  There are quite a few regular musicians who feel more comfortable in a big band where they are not so exposed but are still making a valuable contribution.

Extended big bands have the potential for even more interesting textures.  If you don’t believe me, try listening to recordings of the Gil Evans Orchestra from around 1960.  In these, the brass were augmented with French horns, and the saxes were augmented with, or replaced by, woodwinds.  If you want to hear some live extended big band music, then make a point of going to hear Terry Pack’s Trees, who occupy a slot in the Big Band @Brunswick programme on the 7th. See the listings below for details.

Listening to a live performance is a much more satisfying experience than listening to a recording. If you haven’t experienced the big band sound live, then I suggest you go along to one of the gigs listed at the foot of this column.  In fact why not go to several in order to appreciate the variety of sounds they produce.

 

Now some local big band news

There has been a change of personnel at Big Band Sounds (SJM 43, August 2015). The new contact person is Darren Vassie 01323 484816/07973 450213; email darrenvassie@googlemail.com   This band still needs trombone players.  Anyone interested should get in touch with Darren.

Another band may change its name this year.  More details when I get confirmation.

 

Next month:  More news and views. Possibly a profile of one of the four Sussex based bands of which I am aware, but don’t yet have enough details.  If you would like your band featured, and I have not already contacted you, please get in touch.  Or if there is anything else, such as gig news, or feedback on this column, that you would like me to include in March’s Big Band Scene, please send it to me by Tuesday February 23rd.  My email address is g8aac@yahoo.co.uk.  

 

Big Band Gigs and Events for February – Early March 

(† means a regular monthly gig, bold italic type indicates part of a regular series.)

 

Wednesday February 3rd.

†8:30 pm, The Fred Woods Big Band at the Horsham Sports Club, Cricketfield Road, Horsham RH12 1TE (01403 254628).  £2 (Club members free.)

 

Friday February 5th.

8:30 pm, Straight No Chaser Big Band at The Abergavenny Arms, Rodmell BN7 3EZ Free entry

 

Sunday February 7th 

†12:45 – 3:00 pm, Sounds of Swing Big Band at The Horseshoe Inn Hotel, Posey Green, Windmill Hill, Herstmonceux, East Sussex BN27 4RU (02035 645225).   Free entry. 

3:00 – 5:00 pm, The South Coast Big Band at The Roebuck Inn, Lewes Road, Laughton, Lewes, East Sussex BN8 6BG, (01323 811081).  Free entry.

7:30 – 10:00  pm, Big Band @Brunswick: Terry Pack’s Trees at The Brunswick, 3, Holland Road, Hove BN3 1JF (01273 733984).  Free entry with collection.

 

Tuesday February 9th.

†8:00 – 10:30 pm, The Ronnie Smith Big Band at The Humming Bird Restaurant, Main Terminal Building, Shoreham Airport, West Sussex,  BN43 5FF (01273 452300).  Free entry with collection.

 

Sunday February 21st 

7:30 pm, Straight No Chaser Big Band with Mark Bassey at The Hassocks Hotel, Station Approach East Hassocks, BN6 8HN (01273 842113).   Free entry.

 

Friday February 26th.

†8:30 – 11:00 pm, The Les Paul Big Band (Family & Friends evening) in Patcham, BN1, £5.  For further details contact Les (01273 558009) les@lespaulbigband.co.uk  (Bring your own refreshments.)

 

Sunday February 28th.

†12:30 – 3:00 pm, The South Coast Big Band at The Junction Tavern, 99 Station Road, Polegate, East Sussex BN24 6EB (01323 482010).   Free entry.

7:00 – 9:00 pm, The Sussex Jazz Orchestra with Mark Bassey at The Round Georges, 14-15 Sutherland Road, Brighton BN2 0EQ, (01273 691833).   Free entry with collection.

 

Wednesday March 2nd.

†8:30 pm, The Fred Woods Big Band at the Horsham Sports Club, Cricketfield Road, Horsham RH12 1TE (01403 254628).  £2 (Club members free.)

 

Sunday March 6th

†12:45 – 3:00 pm, Sounds of Swing Big Band at The Horseshoe Inn Hotel, Posey Green, Windmill Hill, Herstmonceux, East Sussex BN27 4RU (02035 645225).   Free entry. 

7:30 – 10:00  pm, Big Band @Brunswick: The Studio 9 Orchestra at The Brunswick, 3, Holland Road, Hove BN3 1JF (01273 733984).  Free entry with collection.