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6 Big Band Composers - Custom Art
6 Big Band Composers - Custom Art


Surrounded By Moving Air: 6 Big-Band Composers Pushing The Format Forward

Bebop may have eclipsed big band in the 1940s, but large-ensemble jazz never stopped—and Etienne Charles, Miho Hazama, Anna Webber, Jihye Lee, Steven Feifke and Charlie Rosen are plumbing new dimensions of the tradition

GRAMMYs/Apr 26, 2021 - 11:46 pm

Steven Feifke has to jump out to teach a class, so one Zoom interview becomes two. When the 29-year-old pianist and bandleader returns onscreen, he looks genuinely astonished.

"This kid is a prodigy," he reports, "She's 15 years old, a trumpet player writing this incredible big-band music. She's one of my most talented and driven students. I've never heard or seen something like this before. That's an interesting thing, the passing-of-the-torch kind of vibe." Later, Feifke says, he'll Zoom with his old teacher, Jim McNeely, likening their summits to a yearly physical—not by a doctor to a patient, but from one big-band composer to another.

Big band. What do the words connote? If you're Feifke's age or close to it, chances are your parents watched an old-school bandleader like Count Basie on a black-and-white TV. And the narrative constructed by everyone from the Lincoln Center to Ken Burns' Jazz, has always been that big band faded away in the 1940s, and small-group, improvisational artists like Charlie Parker replaced it. But large-ensemble jazz never went away—and many of the form's most compelling voices are in the ballpark of Feifke's age.

Six of those relative youngsters are Etienne Charles, Miho Hazama, Anna Webber, Jihye Lee, Steven Feifke and Charlie Rosen. While they're all links in the chain of tradition, they sound radically different from each other. Some of them, like Feifke, make swinging music comparable to the canonical greats. Others, like Webber, make otherworldly, uncategorizable sounds. Lee freely admits her music hardly swings at all—which, to some devout scenesters, is tantamount to blasphemy.

Lee is fine with being told she's not "jazz" enough. But if we are to take to heart Wayne Shorter's famous "Jazz means 'I dare you'" dictum, then these six are quintessential jazz musicians. If you picture big-band leaders as a homogenous bunch of senior citizens reanimating the past, one listen to any of these composers should put that caricature to bed. They are women and men; Black, Asian and white; and often the products of wildly divergent schools of thought.

Outstanding big band jazz doesn't just still exist; even after 13 largely gig-free months, the form is gaining momentum at a frightening speed. Here are six luminaries leading the charge in the 21st century.

A Trinidadian Steeped In Many Heritages: Etienne Charles

Etienne Charles. Photo: Jason Henry

Is big-band jazz just treacly old standards with an audience of grandparents? Etienne Charles finds the notion not just risible, but provably false. 

"When you listen to Chairman of the Board, that's all original music," the 37-year-old trumpeter and bandleader tells of the Count Basie Orchestra's epochal 1959 album. "There are no standards on that record, and everybody in the band was young. Like, under 25."

The prodigious Charles, who was born in Trinidad, has a profound understanding of New Orleans trumpet tradition. "It's a great tradition," he says. "It's deep in rhythm. It's about a dancing rhythm. It's about playing in a way that makes people want to bounce."

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Despite his yearslong presence in large-ensemble music, this is the first interview Charles has ever given about his writing in that field. "Everybody's like, 'Oh, you have a big band? Nice.'" he deadpans. But don't sleep on that side of his work: Charles' big band contains first-call players like alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, tenor saxophonist John Ellis and vibraphonist Joel Ross.

Charles has his debut big-band album ready to go when the pandemic subsides. While you wait, investigate his latest record, 2019's Carnival: The Sound of a People, Vol. 1, and behold his command of a confluence of Caribbean styles.

"For me, the Caribbean is one big region. It's one big place to me," he says. "So, when I swipe a nyabinghi rhythm from Jamaica, when I use the Belair from Martinique, when I use the gwo ka from Guadaloupe, when I cite the twobadou or the macaron from Haiti or a ballad style from French Guiana or Venezuelan merengue—all those people are me. I have roots all over the Caribbean, so I see it all as fair game."

An Aural Painter Of Dazzling Colors: Miho Hazama

Miho Hazama. Photo: Agnete Schlichtkrull

One important thing to understand about big-band is that it's a format, not a genre. While it may have connoted the latter in the mid-20th century, the large ensemble is now a palette for any style you can think of. When it comes to Miho Hazama, "palette" can be more literally defined.

"I have so many colors in my palette in my brain," she tells over Zoom from Japan. "Sometimes, it's gold, a really sparkling color. Sometimes it's neon. Sometimes it's really flashy or it's really dark. I always consult with myself how many colors I would like to use, or how colorful this music can be. It's like a collaboration with your favorite painter."

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That internal collaboration results in music with a tangible sense of surprise. Her latest album, 2018's Dancer in Nowhere, is vigorous and vibrant, keeping the listener on their toes from the first minute to the last. (To say nothing of excellent albums from deeper in her catalog, like 2015's Time River.)

These attributes partly derive from Hazama's needle-sharp ensemble, m_unit, which she calls her "castle" and "playground." "I do whatever I want," she says. "Nobody controls me in that orchestra. I think [the music] is just coming naturally from my interest."

Overall, if you're interested in the nexus of jazz and classical, seek out Hazama immediately. While she views "jazz" as the most helpful tag, for now, expect her to break out of that category in the future. "That's something where I want to place my label at this point," she says. "But in the end, I love to say I'm a composer and arranger without any genre."

A Crafter Of Mazes & Volatile Microtones: Anna Webber

Anna Webber. Photo: Cisco Bradley

Anna Webber's upcoming album, 2021's Idiom, might be her most visionary and startling work to date. What might be accidental sounds to another artist are presented in the center of the sound-field. Strange melodies become lodged in mid-air, causing the entire arrangement to violently boil over.

How does Webber explain this uncanny music? With something of a shrug. "All of the Idiom compositions are basically me trying to make sense of some of my improvisational language," the saxophonist/flutist explains from Berlin over Zoom. "Finding really specific things I do while improvising, isolating those and then forming a piece out of them."

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One's ear might pick up surreal harmonies on Idiom, which splits the difference between a trio and a large ensemble. But that's less due to the notes on the page than Webber analyzing the physicality of her instruments. That way, she leverages specific microtones and resonances to compositional ends.

Webber co-leads the Webber-Morris Big Band with Angela Morris and performs in trios, quartets and various other configurations. In short, she lives and works in the now. "There are still people whose entire professional career is playing standards," she notes. "There's nothing wrong with that, but there's also music that's being created now, for this moment in history."

"I just feel like we're not living in the '40s, '50s, '70s or '90s," Webber continues. "We're living now, so I want to write the music that makes sense to me at this particular moment in history and not try to replicate something from the past."

An Idiosyncratic, Personal & Intrepid Storyteller: Jihye Lee

Jihye Lee. Photo: Hyemi Kim

There's a reason Shorter's famous "I dare you" quote comes up. Those three words galvanized Jihye Lee. As evidenced by track titles like "Relentless Mind," "Unshakeable Mind," and "Struggle Gives You Strength," the composer's new album, 2021's Daring Mind, is all about personal transformation from within.

This theme stems directly from Lee's firsthand experiences. Born in Korea, she moved to America in her twenties without ever having visited before, with no knowledge of the English language. After enrolling at Berklee College of Music, "I didn't know if I should be a classical composer or a film-score composer or a singer/songwriter," Lee told JazzTimes in 2021. "I was so afraid and overwhelmed."

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Why did she end up going for big-band music? "I was overwhelmed by the sound and energy when I first saw the jazz orchestra in front of me," she tells "I didn't plan to like it, but the music happened in front of me and I fell in love with that."

Lee's music is luminous and personal, despite it not resembling traditional big-band jazz. This has led to some consternation from purists. "Some older generations, in their scope, say "Oh, you should be in this box. This box where know jazz is,'" she says. "But I still demand I'm a jazz composer because I really think jazz is a daring spirit. In that sense, I'm a jazz composer."

In the end, Lee wants her work taken on its own terms, both in terms of format ("The symphony can be jazz; the orchestra can be rock") and who she is. "I'm Asian. I'm Korean. I'm a woman. But I don't want to be categorized by sex or ethnicity," she says. "I don't want you to see my music with any kind of background. Just hear the music."

A Swinging Traditionalist & Sower Of Rapport: Steven Feifke

Steven Feifke. Photo: Chris Lee

While the previous four composers either weave between genres or disregard them entirely, Feifke proudly wears his primary influences on his sleeve: Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer. "I'm certainly inspired by both of those people very deeply," he says. "I also love Maria Schneider and Jim McNeely and all those cats."

Steven Feifke Big Band's new album, 2021's Kinetic, is his first as a leader. "It's a working big band," he stresses. "It's not a studio big band that only comes together to record." That means the ensemble includes close friends and colleagues of his, like the trumpeter and vocalist Benny Benack, who plays a killing horn and does a mean Frank Sinatra to boot.

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And while the pandemic means the ensemble hasn't been able to perform its monthly residency in New York, "It's something I'm eternally grateful, that I got that opportunity to spend with my band in performance," he says. "I think that's the sound that's captured on my record," he continues. "The energy of a live performance with the polish of a studio album."

When asked how he would define his voice as a bandleader, "I'm not sure it's up to me to define," Feifke replies. " "I hope my music has an intimate feel, allowing the members of the band's individual personalities to shine and fitting that into the large-ensemble textural plane."

What's the result of this holistic approach? "For every performance, every song, the focus isn't on the ensemble or me or any individual member, but rather on the music itself."

A Transmuter Of Songbooks & Player Of Games: Charlie Rosen

Charlie Rosen. Photo: Mehdi Hassine

As the last five composers have established, big band is not necessarily a genre, but a vessel in which to pour any kind of music. By way of the 8-Bit Big Band, a jazz/pops orchestra that performs video game music, Charlie Rosen is actively testing this hypothesis.

"I wanted to [form] the big band that reinterprets video-game music in the same way the great 20th-century jazz arrangers reinterpreted the Great American Songbook," Rosen told JazzTimes in 2021. On their latest album, 2020's Backwards Compatible, he has top-shelf musicians to help him execute this vision, like Feifke, Benack, saxophonist Grace Kelly and bassist Adam Neely.

Rosen comes from a musical theater background and, as such, makes every decision in order to "dramaturgically support" the content of the music. "What arrangers and orchestrators do is hear the potential in pieces of music and expand them by using their palette of available sounds," he says. 

For the 8-Bit Big Band, these could be selections from Super Mario OdysseySonic the Hedgehog or other AAA titles. Catch them whenever concerts happen again, and you'll hear traditional instruments blended with whirling sequencers, with the game in question projected overhead.

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Rosen has courted an audience of rabid gamers who might not otherwise have given big-band music a chance. What can it communicate to the uninitiated? "It doesn't matter if you have any musical training whatsoever. I think human beings have an innate ability to recognize when something is being done well."

And all it takes to get it, he says, is to stand in front of a big band at full tilt. That's what happened to Rosen as a child; that's what hooked him for life. "The power of a horn section was the thing that made me be like, 'This is awesome. This feels so good and so epic,'" he recalls with a hint of awe. "Being surrounded by that much moving air."

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Linda May Han Oh
Linda May Han Oh

Photo: Shervin Lainez


A Year In Alternative Jazz: 10 Albums To Understand The New GRAMMYs Category

"Alternative jazz" may not be a bandied-about term in the jazz world, but it's a helpful lens to view the "genre-blending, envelope-pushing hybrid" that defines a new category at the 2024 GRAMMYs. Here are 10 albums from 2023 that rise to this definition.

GRAMMYs/Jan 9, 2024 - 02:47 pm

What, exactly, is "alternative jazz"? After that new category was announced ahead of the 2024 GRAMMYs nominations, inquiring minds wanted to know. The "alternative" descriptor is usually tied to rock, pop or dance — not typically jazz, which gets qualifiers like "out" or "avant-garde."

However, the introduction of the Best Alternative Jazz Album category does shoehorn anything into the lexicon. Rather, it commensurately clarifies and expands the boundaries of this global artform.

According to the Recording Academy, alternative jazz "may be defined as a genre-blending, envelope-pushing hybrid that mixes jazz (improvisation, interaction, harmony, rhythm, arrangements, composition, and style) with other genres… it may also include the contemporary production techniques/instrumentation associated with other genres."

And the 2024 GRAMMY nominees for Best Alternative Jazz Album live up to this dictum: Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily's Love in Exile; Louis Cole's Quality Over Opinion; Kurt Elling, Charlie Hunter and SuperBlue's SuperBlue: The Iridescent Spree; Cory Henry's Live at the Piano; and Meshell Ndegeocello's The Omnichord Real Book.

Sure, these were the standard bearers of alternative jazz over the past year and change — as far as Recording Academy Membership is concerned. But these are only five albums; they amount to a cross section. With that in mind, read on for 10 additional albums from 2023 that fall under the umbrella of alternative jazz.

Allison Miller - Rivers in Our Veins

The supple and innovative drummer and composer Allison Miller often works in highly cerebral, conceptual spaces. After all, her last suite, Rivers in Our Veins, involves a jazz band, three dancers and video projections.

Therein, Miller chose one of the most universal themes out there: how rivers shape our lives and communities, and how we must act as their stewards. Featuring violinist Jenny Scheinman, trumpeter Jason Palmer, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, keyboardist and accordionist Carmen Staff, and upright bassist Todd SickafooseRivers in Our Veins homes in on the James, Delaware, Potomac, Hudson, and Susquehanna.

And just as these eastern U.S. waterways serve all walks of life, Rivers in Our Veins defies category. And it also blurs two crucial aspects of Miller's life and career.

"I get to marry my environmentalism and my activism with music," she told District Fray. "And it's still growing!

M.E.B. - That You Not Dare To Forget

The Prince of Darkness may have slipped away 32 years ago, but he's felt eerily omnipresent in the evolution of this music ever since.

In M.E.B. or "Miles Electric Band," an ensemble of Davis alumni and disciples underscore his unyielding spirit with That You Not Dare to Forget. The lineup is staggering: bassists Ron Carter, Marcus Miller, and Stanley Clarke; saxophonist Donald Harrison, guitarist John Scofield, a host of others.

How does That You Not Dare To Forget satisfy the definition of alternative jazz? Because like Davis' abstracted masterpieces, like Bitches Brew, On the Corner and the like, the music is amoebic, resistant to pigeonholing.

Indeed, tunes like "Hail to the Real Chief" and "Bitches are Back" function as scratchy funk or psychedelic soul as much as they do the J-word, which Davis hated vociferously.

And above all, they're idiosyncratic to the bone — just as the big guy was, every second of his life and career.

Art Ensemble of Chicago - Sixth Decade - from Paris to Paris

The nuances and multiplicities of the Art Ensemble of Chicago cannot be summed up in a blurb: that's where books like Message to Our Folks and A Power Stronger Than Itself — about the AACM — come in.

But if you want an entryway into this bastion of creative improvisational music — that, unlike The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles boxed set, isn't 18-plus hours long — Sixth Decade - from Paris to Paris will do in a pinch.

Recorded just a month before the pandemic struck, The Sixth Decade is a captivating looking-glass into this collective as it stands, with fearless co-founder Roscoe Mitchell flanked by younger leading lights, like Nicole Mitchell and Moor Mother.

Potent and urgent, engaging the heart as much as the cerebrum, this music sees the Art Ensemble still charting their course into the outer reaches. Here's to their next six decades.

Theo Croker - By The Way

By The Way may not be an album proper, but it's still an exemplar of alternative jazz.

The five-track EP finds outstanding trumpeter, vocalist, producer, and composer Croker revisiting tunes from across his discography, with UK singer/songwriter Ego Ella May weaving the proceedings with her supple, enveloping vocals.

Compositions like "Slowly" and "If I Could I Would" seem to hang just outside the reaches of jazz; it pulls on strings of neo soul and silky, progressive R&B.

Even the music video for "Slowly" is quietly innovative: in AI's breakthrough year, machine learning made beautifully, cosmically odd visuals for that percolating highlight.

Michael Blake - Dance of the Mystic Bliss

Even a cursory examination of Dance of the Mystic Bliss reveals it to be Pandora's box.

First off: revered tenor and soprano saxophonist Michael Blake's CV runs deep, from his lasting impression in New York's downtown scene to his legacy in John Lurie's Lounge Lizards.

And his new album is steeped in the long and storied history of jazz and strings, as well as Brazilian music and the sting of grief — Blake's mother's 2018 passing looms heavy in tunes like "Merle the Pearl." 

"Sure, for me, it's all about my mom, and there will be some things that were triggered. But when you're listening to it, you're going to have a completely different experience," Blake told LondonJazz in 2023.

"That's what I love about instrumental music," he continued. "That's what's so great about how jazz can transcend to this unbelievable spiritual level." Indeed, Dance of the Mystic Bliss can be communed with, with or without context, going in familiar or cold.

And that tends to be the instrumental music that truly lasts — the kind that gives you a cornucopia of references and sensations, either way.

Dinner Party - Enigmatic Society

Dinner Party's self-titled debut EP, from 2020 — and its attendant remix that year, Dinner Party: Dessert — introduced a mightily enticing supergroup to the world: Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, and 9th Wonder.

While the magnitude of talent there is unquestionable, the quartet were still finding their footing; when mixing potent Black American genres in a stew, sometimes the strong flavors can cancel each other out.

Enigmatic Society, their debut album, is a relaxed and concise triumph; each man has figured out how he can act as a quadrant for the whole.

And just as guests like Herbie Hancock and Snoop Dogg elevated Dinner Party: Dessert, colleagues like Phoelix and Ant Clemons ride this wave without disturbing its flow.

Wadada Leo Smith & Orange Wave Electric - Fire Illuminations

The octogenarian tumpeter, multi-instrumentalist and composer Wadada Leo Smith is a standard-bearer of the subset of jazz we call "creative music." And by the weighty, teeming sound of Fire Illuminations, it's clear he's not through surprising us.

Therein, Smith debuts his nine-piece Orange Wave Electric ensemble, which features three guitarists (Nels Cline, Brandon Ross, Lamar Smith) and two electric bassists (Bill Laswell and Melvin Gibbs).

In characteristically sagelike fashion, Smith described Fire Illuminations as "a ceremonial space where one's hearts and conscious can embrace for a brief period of unconditioned love where the artist and their music with the active observer becomes united."

And if you zoom in from that beatific view, you get a majestic slab of psychedelic hard rock — with dancing rhythms, guitar fireworks and Smith zigzagging across the canvas like Miles. 

Henry Threadgill - The Other One

Saxophonist, flutist and composer Henry Threadgill composed The Other One for the late, great Milfred Graves, the percussionist with a 360 degree vantage of the pulse of his instrument and how it related to heart, breath and hands.

If that sounds like a mouthful, this is a cerebral, sprawling and multifarious space: The Other One itself consists of one three-movement piece (titled Of Valence) and is part of a larger multimedia work.

To risk oversimplification, though, The Other One is a terrific example of where "jazz" and "classical" melt as helpful descriptors, and flow into each other like molten gold.

If you're skeptical of the limits and constraints of these hegemonic worlds, let Threadgill and his creative-music cohorts throughout history bulldoze them before your ears.

Linda May Han Oh - The Glass Hours

Jazz has an ocean of history with spoken word, but this fusion must be executed judiciously: again, these bold flavors can overwhelm each other. Except when they're in the hands of an artist as keen as Linda May Han Oh.

"I didn't want it to be an album with a lot of spoken word," the Malaysian Australian bassist and composer told LondonJazz, explaining that "Antiquity" is the only track on The Glass Hours to feature a recitation from the great vocalist Sara Serpa. "I just felt it was necessary for that particular piece, to explain a bit of the narrative more."

Elsewhere, Serpa's crystalline, wordless vocals are but one color swirling with the rest: tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Fabian Almazan, and drummer and electronicist Obed Calvaire.

Themed after "the fragility of time and life; exploring paradoxes seeded within our individual and societal values," The Glass Hours is Oh's most satisfying and well-rounded offering to date, ensconced in an iridescent atmosphere.

Charles Lloyd - Trios: Sacred Thread

You can't get too deep into jazz without bumping into the art of the trio — and the primacy of it. 

At 85, saxophonist and composer Charles Lloyd is currently smoking every younger iteration of himself on the horn; his exploratory fires are undimmed. So, for his latest project, he opted not just to just release a trio album, but a trio of trios.

Trios: Chapel features guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan; Trios: Ocean is augmented by guitarist Anthony Wilson and pianist Gerald Clayton; the final, Trios: Sacred Thread, contains guitarists Julian Lage and percussionist Zakir Hussain.

These are wildly different contexts for Lloyd, but they all meet at a meditative nexus. Drink it in as the curtains close on 2023, as you consider where all these virtuosic, forward-thinking musicians will venture to next — "alternative" or not.

Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer & Shahzad Ismaily On New Album 'Love In Exile,' Improvisation Versus Co-Construction And The Primacy Of The Pulse

Kendrick Lamar GRAMMY Rewind Hero
Kendrick Lamar

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic


GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016

Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.

GRAMMYs/Oct 13, 2023 - 06:01 pm

Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.

A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.

This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system. 

"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."

Looking for more GRAMMYs news? The 2024 GRAMMY nominations are here!

He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.

"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.

"Hip-hop. Ice Cube. This is for hip-hop," he said. "This is for Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle. This is for Illmatic, this is for Nas. We will live forever. Believe that."

To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood." 

Lamar has since won Best Rap Album two more times, taking home the golden gramophone in 2018 for his blockbuster LP DAMN., and in 2023 for his bold fifth album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.

Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes. 

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Steven Feifke Hero Image
Steven Feifke

Photo: Anna Yatskevich


11 Essential Compositions & Arrangements By Steven Feifke, The Youngest GRAMMY Winner For Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album

At the 2023 GRAMMYs, 31-year-old Steven Feifke won Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album for 'Generation Gap Jazz Orchestra,' with trumpeter Bijon Watson. Here are 11 essential arrangements and tunes by the prodigious pianist, who's just getting started.

GRAMMYs/Feb 13, 2023 - 09:47 pm

When first interviewed pianist, composer, arranger, educator, and bandleader Steven Feifke in 2021, he stressed the cruciality of creating open spaces for his accompanists to blossom.

"I hope my music has an intimate feel, allowing the members of the band's individual personalities to shine and fitting that into the large-ensemble textural plane," Feifke said back then.

Upon receiving a golden gramophone for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album at the 2023 GRAMMYs — for his co-led big-band album with trumpeter Bijon Watson, Generation Gap Jazz Orchestra — Feifke hasn't let a wisp of egotism cloud his creative vision. Even despite the fact that, at 31, he's the youngest-ever bandleader to win a GRAMMY in that storied category.

"I always just want to make sure that I'm elevating someone else's thing and adding to it in such a way that it doesn't take away from that person's craft," he tells in 2023. "There are times to allow the music to be what it's going to be, and there are times to understand the vision and then allow the music to be what it's going to be."

This applies whether he's arranging and orchestrating for another artist — like acclaimed vocalist Veronica Swift, on This Bitter Earth — or for his own small, yet rapidly expanding, discography. Feifke's willingness to foster a capacious environment for those around him remains his personal stamp.

"He is a student of big-band composers and writers, and big-band leaders, and bands of the past. But he puts his own fresh spin on things," Watson, who also won his first-ever GRAMMY for Generation Gap Jazz Orchestra, tells

As per Feifke's egolessness on the bandstand? "That's definitely a great way to describe it," Watson adds. "Almost to a fault. Because he is an amazing piano player… I think his playing is definitely underrated."

To mark Feifke's big win and GRAMMY landmark in the Best Large Jazz Ensemble category, he has shared "This Promised Land," the debut single from his upcoming big-band album, Catalyst, out June 16 via La Reserve and Bandstand Presents.

"'The Promised Land' is a reference to the land of Israel," Feifke shared in a statement. "Israel is the meeting place for so many intersecting faiths, cultures, and ideas. It’s seen millennia of conflict, but also millennia of progress, innovation, and change.

"This piece acknowledges the many perspectives around Israel through angular rhythms," he continued, "and a simple melodic mode that transforms in as many different ways as possible."

Concurrently, asked Feifke to hand-pick 11 past tracks — whether his compositions, arrangements, or both — that he feels sums up his still-young career. (And for the tunes on Generation Gap Jazz Orchestra, Watson spoke his piece as well.)

These quotes have been edited for clarity.


From 2015's Peace in Time, composed by Thelonious Monk, arranged by Steven Feifke

Feifke: I love the tune, and I love Monk and his music. I was introduced to Monk in high school by my teacher there, Jeffrey Leonard. He did this really cool thing where there was a four-year cycle in the jazz program.

Every year that I was there, I was in one of the ensembles at Lexington High School. The first year I got to school, it was Duke Ellington, and then we did Miles Davis, and then we did John Coltrane, and then we did Thelonious Monk. That's a four-year cycle, basically, where you study and play the music of those people throughout the year in the jazz classes.

Where I went to high school, it's a public school, but the jazz program is pretty solid. All of this stuff is for credit and all that. He took it seriously as a professor, so I took it seriously as a student. I think that's how I hope I teach now as a professor at Berklee.

That's when I first got into Monk's music. I wrote this arrangement, however, as part of my audition to the Thelonious Monk competition in 2011. I was 19 at the time, and I was shocked to get into it, but very grateful nonetheless.

Steven Feifke Bijon Watson Accept 2023 GRAMMY

*Steven Feifke and Bijon Watson accepting their GRAMMY for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images*

I remember meeting Herbie [Hancock]. I have this extremely derpy picture of me and Herbie where I'm just smiling ear to ear, just being like: This is Herbie Hancock! Herbie is just one of my absolute favorite artists of all time. Not just piano composition or arranging. Dude, come on. It's freaking Herbie. It was awesome. Also, I was so young — so much younger than a lot of the other guys who were there.

[Composer and pianist] Kris Bowers won that year. This is back in the days of MySpace Music, and I used to go to Kris's MySpace page and he had a song up there called "Hope." It was a beautiful piano trio plus string orchestra composition that he had written. He played it at the competition.

I was basically meeting so many of the people who I looked up to artistically. That's what role the arrangement played in my life. I liked what I'd written, I guess, and I expanded it for the septet. It's just my take on Monk's piece.

When I recorded my first album, Peace in Time, I featured this as the opening track to feature two of my best friends, [saxophonist] Andrew Gould and [trumpeter and vocalist] Benny Benack III, who are both still members of my big band today.


From 2019's Prologue, comp. Juan Tizol, arr. Feifke

Feifke: [This standard] was recorded shortly after our Peace in Time recording session. I wrote it to feature Chad [LB]. He's ridiculously killing, and this [arrangement] is written around his virtuosity as a tenor saxophonist.

I was always really inspired by the Dave Grusin arrangement of "Something's Coming" that featured [saxophonist] Michael Brecker — while this is a totally different song and arrangement. I was really deep into Duke's music at the time. I think I spent an entire year — almost a year and a half — only listening to Duke Ellington.

Ironically, this song was composed by [trombonist and composer] Juan Tizol, but with that said, this is such a staple of the Duke Ellington songbook. I just wanted to do my own arrangement of it with Jimmy Macbride on drums, Nick Dunston on bass, and Chad on tenor saxophone.

Chad just takes this whole arrangement and runs with it. When I first sat down to write this, I immediately heard Chad's voice on it. But when we got into the studio, he just lit it up and took it to a whole other level that I couldn't possibly have imagined.

He truly is one of the great saxophonists of our generation, and it was an honor to feature him on this.

"This Bitter Earth"

From Veronica Swift's This Bitter Earth, 2021, comp. Dinah Washington, arr. Feifke

Feifke: I don't think my approach changed more for [working with Veronica] than it does for anything. My hope is just that when I'm arranging or orchestrating music for someone — even if it's for my record featuring somebody — whether it's [vocalist] Kurt [Elling] on "Until" or whomever on whatever.

I always just want to make sure that I'm elevating someone else's thing and adding to it in such a way that it doesn't take away from that person's craft. Whether that's the macro version of the craft — the vision for the overall album — or the micro version of the craft, which would be, in my opinion, being able to express themselves musically on top of whatever I've written.

I'm trying to stay out of Veronica's way, but also nudge here and pull there — support over here, surround there. Veronica had such a clear vision for this album before she even went into the studio. We were hanging out quite a bit before that record came out, and she shared some of her vision with me, and shared that this was going to be the opening track.

I immediately knew: Oh, wow, this is the direction of the record, because most opening tracks are a little more loud, and this is loud in a quiet way. I don't know if that makes sense. She's like, "Come here, step into my world for a second, and my world is 'This Bitter Earth.'"

Orchestrationally, that helped. But the approach is not different, I think. There are times to allow the music to be what it's going to be, and there are times to understand the vision and then allow the music to be what it's going to be. This was the latter.

"Singing In The Rain"

comp. Freed / Brown, arr. Feifke for "The Masked Singer" on FOX feat. Katherine McFee and David Foster, 2021

Feifke: While not strictly on an album, some of the works I arrange, orchestrate and compose happen to be for television and film media.

I used to intern for a company called JinglePunks in my senior year at NYU. I got to write some music for some pretty cool shows like Jerry Seinfeld's "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee."

This arrangement though is pretty cool. I was also able to highlight some of the sounds of the studio orchestra that reminded me of Nelson Riddle and Johnny Mandel — two of my absolute favorite arrangers/orchestrators of all time.

And speaking of composer/arranger/orchestrators, I am a huge David Foster fan. He has worked with literally everybody, and all of the music he has created and shared throughout his career is absolutely killing. And Katherine McFee? Come on. She is one of the greatest vocalists of all time, in my opinion. Getting to write for her was really special.


From 2021's Kinetic, comp. Steven Feifke

Feifke: This track is special to me, because it's the title track off of what I like to call my "second first record." In 2015, I released Peace in Time. I had a septet. That used to be my thing; I didn't have a big band or a trio yet. When I released [my first big-band album] Kinetic, I just had a better picture of my career and where I wanted to be going.

I've released simultaneously in a very spontaneous and focused way since Kinetic, because I feel like I'm more in touch with myself as a person — as a human being first, and then second, as an artist.

With Peace in Time, I look back on it and realize how much I still had to learn. How much I still have to learn now and always. Even with things like the mix, for example. I was super happy with the recording process, but I feel like on Kinetic, I got a second first chance.

[On the title track] I featured [drummer] Ulysses Owens, Jr., who has been something of a mentor figure to me over the years. He has had me arrange music for several of his albums, and featured me as the pianist on his record "Falling Forward" alongside [bassist] Reuben Rogers, [vibraphonist] Joel Ross and [vocalist] Vuyo Sotashe.

[Ulysses] really brought it on this track. It wouldn't have been the same without him. Not to mention  — he is the drummer on Generation Gap!

"The Sphinx"

From 2021's Kinetic, comp. Steven Feifke

Feifke: I wrote this song during my second year of my masters program at Manhattan School of Music under the tutelage of the great Jim McNeely and Mike Holober.

While I was in school, I was juggling a lot of outside writing and touring projects, and I wound up only having about 36 hours to write this entire piece. Originally it was written for a studio orchestra, but when I recorded Kinetic, I reorchestrated it for a big band. It features Lucas Pino on the tenor saxophone.

Part of the reason I chose to go to Manhattan School of Music was that at the end of every semester, you got to have one of your pieces performed by a studio orchestra.

That's extremely rare: a full-sized orchestra complete with everything that you could possibly imagine — a full brass section, a full string section, full percussion. There's no other program that really does that, anywhere in the world, to my understanding.

Steven Feifke Vertical Embed Image

*Steven Feifke. Photo: Anna Yatskevich*

During this semester, I was swamped with commissions and traveling as well. I got back, and I basically had 36 hours at the piano, and I stayed up for 36 hours. I wrote this piece from start to finish, from zero notes written down to all the notes written down.

We played it, and it was pretty stream-of-consciousness. I approached the composition in a pretty specific way as a result, because I wanted a major leaning — almost an Arabian Nights mode to start in D major.

Then, to talk about the theory a little bit, I tonicized the key of D major for the first almost two thirds of the piece, and then it uses the relative minor of D major — B minor — to exude a little bit of a darker texture and flavor and ultimately use a plagal cadence to modulate into F# major to the end. Hence the name "The Sphinx." Compositionally, very little of the song changed from the studio-orchestra version to the big band.

Whatever your tool or color palette is, I think it's important to bring it out in the best light possible as an orchestrator. I think that's the orchestrator's job. In the process of shifting the orchestration, a big band is still a huge band. It's a lot of people. I didn't feel like I lost anything when I moved over. I just had to work to find some of the color combinations a little bit.


from 2021's Kinetic, comp. Steven Feifke

Feifke: Two of the most important roles in a big band are the drums and the lead alto saxophone, and I'm lucky that these two guys — [drummer] Bryan Carter and [saxophonist] Andrew Gould — have such an incredible hookup.

This song is inspired by the ocean — Wollongong Beach in Australia — and the two of them really demonstrate the power of the ocean on this track.

Those two guys are such powerhouses of music and human spirit that they often play supporting roles to bring my music to life. This song was a chance to just let them loose and let them be water in one way, shape or form.

They are also featured heavily on the title track of my forthcoming big-band album, Catalyst. Stay tuned.

"Sunrise in Harlem"

From 2022's The Role Of The Rhythm Section, comp. Feifke

Feifke: I began writing this in 2018, and I continue to work on it always. The version on The Role of the Rhythm Section is just where it is for now.

This track speaks to a few things: In NYC, you can go out, hear your first show at 8 pm, then go out for a late dinner, falafel, taco truck — whatever it is. Then, go out and hear a second show, go out for a drink with a friend before you wind up at the Dizzy's or Smalls jam session, and then by the time you come home, the sun is rising.

Some of my best memories are of nights like that, filled with music the whole night through, and coming back to my apartment in Harlem and being the only one awake as the sun is rising.

The other sense is that the title is an allusion to the Harlem Renaissance. "Sunrise in Harlem" speaks to all of my heroes who at one point or another lived in New York. Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk being two of the grandfathers of bebop. Benny Golson, Herbie Hancock… the list goes on and on. And it's my small way of paying tribute to them.

"I've Got Algorithm"

From 2022's Generation Gap Jazz Orchestra, comp. Steven Feifke

Feifke: This is my play on Gershwin's "I've Got Rhythm." A little on the nose, but… [Laughs]

Bijon Watson: As collaborators, we were putting together what the album would look like, and we wanted to cover a lot of ground in terms of styles of music we wanted to play. We knew we wanted to do blues, do rhythm changes, do something contemporary, do something that featured the strength of the players and the band [as well as] these different styles.

Feifke: Bijon and I talked a lot about who else to feature on this track, seeing as it opens our Generation Gap Jazz Orchestra album.

Without Chad LB on this track, it just isn't the same. Chad has been one of my closest musical collaborators since we met as students at the Stanford Summer Jazz Institute in 2009.

We chose to feature Mike Rodriguez on the trumpet. Mike is one of my favorite trumpet players of all time. The first time I ever got to play with Mike was on a concert with the NYU Jazz Orchestra. I was a student; he was a professor.

I remember sitting behind the piano just saying to myself: Wow, wow, wow, after every single line. Having him on the Generation Gap Jazz Orchestra album was something special.

Watson: We wanted to do a traditional Ellington- or Basie-style tenor-battle type of thing.

Feifke: That's a rhythm-changes chart without a good old-fashioned tenor battle? We were lucky enough to have [saxophonists] Roxy Coss and Tom Luer in our section, and they both brought the fire here for real.

Bijon and I have often spoken about our mutual respect for the incredible John Clayton. When I was growing up and checking out big band music for the first time, I was listening to a lot of Clayton and Hamilton — of course, featuring Bijon on lead trumpet — and I certainly borrowed a lot of techniques and colors from Maestro Clayton on this one.

"Until (Matter Of Moments)"

From 2022's Generation Gap Jazz Orchestra, comp. Sting, arr. Feifke, feat. Kurt Elling

Feifke: [Vocalist] Kurt Elling is featured on this track. In fact, he requested we do it on the album.

Watson: Steven and I are both huge fans of Kurt Elling.

Feifke: I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little starstruck during our first "collab call."

Watson: The way he approaches albums when he [appears on them], he doesn't hold back. It's whatever he's feeling, whether it's the SuperBlue project he has now, or the way he takes pop tunes and makes them his own from a jazz standpoint. Or the American Songbook — the way he can put his own stamp on it.

Feifke: The arrangement is customized to fit Kurt's voice. Because of the timbre of his sound, I was able to access higher frequencies in the ensemble such as flutes and trumpets in mutes, and flutes and flugels as countermelodies to Kurt's singing.

The ending of this track is probably my favorite part. The way Kurt built the stacked vocals — that wasn't arranged. He just did it. So incredibly special. It truly speaks to the kind of artist Kurt is that he heard that and just went for it.

"Remember Me"

From 2022's Generation Gap Jazz Orchestra, comp. Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez for Coco, 2017

Feifke: Bijon is known for his incredible lead trumpet playing on records with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Diana Krall, Natalie Cole, Michael Bublé, and many others. Chances are, if you've listened to any of those artists, you've heard the incredible trumpet stylings of Mr. Watson.

When we set out to start Generation Gap Jazz Orchestra, Bijon told me, "Don't shy away from the pyrotechnics, brother!" Which I didn't. I took full advantage of Bijon's seemingly limitless lead-trumpet capabilities. But the time came for a ballad on the record, and I asked Bijon if he liked the song "Remember Me" from Coco so we could show off the sensitive side of Bijon Watson.

Will Brahm is also featured prominently on guitar, providing beautiful accompaniment on the duo intro and an incredible solo later on in the track. While Bijon is filling the solo-chair role, Tanya Darby effortlessly steps in on lead trumpet for this track.

The resulting track is one of my favorites on the Generation Gap Jazz Orchestra record. It truly shows off Bijon in a light that, as a fan of his, I humbly hope he takes more readily in the years to come.

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Judy Whitmore ReImagined Hero
Judy Whitmore

Photo: Courtesy of Judy Whitmore


ReImagined: Judy Whitmore Dazzles With A Classic Interpretation Of Frank Sinatra And Count Basie's "The Best Is Yet To Come"

Judy Whitmore introduces fans to the music she grew up with in this jazzy full-orchestra performance of "The Best is Yet to Come" — a song that was made famous by Frank Sinatra and Count Basie, and won a GRAMMY thanks to Ella Fitzgerald.

GRAMMYs/Dec 6, 2022 - 09:02 pm

An American standard originally composed in 1959, "The Best is Yet to Come" has been recorded by an array of vocal greats, including Tony Bennett, Michael Bublé, Bob Dylan, and Ella Fitzgerald — the latter of whom won a GRAMMY for her rendition in 1984. But it's most closely associated with Frank Sinatra, who recorded it with jazz pianist Count Basie for their 1964 album, It Might As Well Be Swing. In fact, the song was so important to Sinatra that its titular lyric is carved into his tombstone.

In this episode of ReImagined, vocalist and cabaret-style performer Judy Whitmore delivers a faithful, buoyant rendition of "The Best is Yet to Come." A full orchestra performs behind her, including horns, jazzy drums, a sweeping string section, and a grand piano — creating a swinging performance that does Sinatra proud.

Whitmore's cover choice is no coincidence, as the singer has been inspired by American classics literally since birth — her namesake is legendary actor and musical performer Judy Garland. Like Garland before her, Whitmore has taken on a diverse and multifaceted career. She's a bonafide Renaissance woman, whose resume includes accomplishments as a theater producer, best-selling author and pilot, who also happens to have a Master's degree in clinical psychology.

Singing has been a lifelong passion for Whitmore, and she has several albums to show for it, including 2020's Can't We Be Friends. That project, which includes her spin on standards like "'s Wonderful," "It Had to Be You" and "Love is Here to Stay," is Whitmore's "love letter to The Great American Songbook," her website explains

"This is the music I grew up with, and I don't want people to forget it," she details. "I think it's one of the most extraordinary bodies of work ever created."

Press play on the video above to watch Whitmore bring her love of American classics to her version of "The Best is Yet to Come," and keep checking back to for more episodes of ReImagined. 

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