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

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."

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."

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."

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.

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.

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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GRAMMY SoundChecks With Gavin DeGraw

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

On Aug. 28 Nashville Chapter GRAMMY U members took part in GRAMMY SoundChecks with Gavin DeGraw. Approximately 30 students gathered at music venue City Hall and watched DeGraw play through some of the singles from earlier in his career along with "Cheated On Me" from his latest self-titled album.

In between songs, DeGraw conducted a question-and-answer session and inquired about the talents and goals of the students in attendance. He gave inside tips to the musicians present on how to make it in the industry and made sure that every question was answered before moving onto the next song.


Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year


Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year

Annual star-studded gala slated for Nov. 4 in Las Vegas during 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Week celebration

GRAMMYs/May 15, 2017 - 01:36 pm

 Internationally renowned singer/songwriter/performer Juan Gabriel will be celebrated as the 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year, it was announced today by The Latin Recording Academy. Juan Gabriel, chosen for his professional accomplishments as well as his commitment to philanthropic efforts, will be recognized at a star-studded concert and black tie dinner on Nov. 4 at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nev. 

The "Celebration with Juan Gabriel" gala will be one of the most prestigious events held during Latin GRAMMY week, a celebration that culminates with the 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards ceremony. The milestone telecast will be held at Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas on Nov. 5 and will be broadcast live on the Univision Television Network at 8 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Central. 

"As we celebrate this momentous decade of the Latin GRAMMYs, The Latin Recording Academy and its Board of Trustees take great pride in recognizing Juan Gabriel as an extraordinary entertainer who never has forgotten his roots, while at the same time having a global impact," said Latin Recording Academy President Gabriel Abaroa. "His influence on the music and culture of our era has been tremendous, and we welcome this opportunity to pay a fitting tribute to a voice that strongly resonates within our community.

Over the course of his 30-year career, Juan Gabriel has sold more than 100 million albums and has performed to sold-out audiences throughout the world. He has produced more than 100 albums for more than 50 artists including Paul Anka, Lola Beltran, Rocío Dúrcal, and Lucha Villa among many others. Additionally, Juan Gabriel has written more than 1,500 songs, which have been covered by such artists as Marc Anthony, Raúl Di Blasio, Ana Gabriel, Angelica María, Lucia Mendez, Estela Nuñez, and Son Del Son. In 1986, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley declared Oct. 5 "The Day of Juan Gabriel." The '90s saw his induction into Billboard's Latin Music Hall of Fame and he joined La Opinion's Tributo Nacional Lifetime Achievement Award recipients list. 

At the age of 13, Juan Gabriel was already writing his own songs and in 1971 recorded his first hit, "No Tengo Dinero," which landed him a recording contract with RCA. Over the next 14 years, he established himself as Mexico's leading singer/songwriter, composing in diverse styles such as rancheras, ballads, pop, disco, and mariachi, which resulted in an incredible list of hits ("Hasta Que Te Conocí," "Siempre En Mi Mente," "Querida," "Inocente Pobre Amigo," "Abrázame Muy Fuerte," "Amor Eterno," "El Noa Noa," and "Insensible") not only for himself  but for many leading Latin artists. In 1990, Juan Gabriel became the only non-classical singer/songwriter to perform at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and the album release of that concert, Juan Gabriel En Vivo Desde El Palacio De Bellas Artes, broke sales records and established his iconic status. 

After a hiatus from recording, Juan Gabriel released such albums as Gracias Por Esperar, Juntos Otra Vez, Abrázame Muy Fuerte, Los Gabriel…Para Ti, Juan Gabriel Con La Banda…El Recodo, and El Mexico Que Se Nos Fue, which were all certified gold and/or platinum by the RIAA. In 1996, to commemorate his 25th anniversary in the music industry, BMG released a retrospective set of CDs entitled 25 Aniversario, Solos, Duetos, y Versiones Especiales, comprised appropriately of 25 discs.   

In addition to his numerous accolades and career successes, Juan Gabriel has been a compassionate and generous philanthropist. He has donated all proceeds from approximately 10 performances a year to his favorite children's foster homes, and proceeds from fan photo-ops go to support Mexican orphans. In 1987, he founded Semjase, an orphanage for approximately 120 children, which also serves as a music school with music, recreation and video game rooms. Today, he continues to personally fund the school he opened more than 22 years ago.   

Juan Gabriel will have the distinction of becoming the 10th Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year honoree, and joins a list of artists such as Gloria Estefan, Gilberto Gil, Juan Luis Guerra, Julio Iglesias, Ricky Martin, and Carlos Santana among others who have been recognized. 

For information on purchasing tickets or tables to The Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year tribute to Juan Gabriel, please contact The Latin Recording Academy ticketing office at 310.314.8281 or

Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013
Grizzled Mighty perform at Bumbershoot on Sept. 1

Photo: The Recording Academy


Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

Welcome to The Set List. Here you'll find the latest concert recaps for many of your favorite, or maybe not so favorite, artists. Our bloggers will do their best to provide you with every detail of the show, from which songs were on the set list to what the artist was wearing to which out-of-control fan made a scene. Hey, it'll be like you were there. And if you like what you read, we'll even let you know where you can catch the artist on tour. Feel free to drop us a comment and let us know your concert experience. Oh, and rock on.

By Alexa Zaske

This past Labor Day weekend meant one thing for many folks in Seattle: Bumbershoot, a three-decade-old music and arts event that consumed the area surrounding the Space Needle from Aug. 31–Sept. 2. Amid attendees wandering around dressed as zombies and participating in festival-planned flash mobs to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," this year the focus was on music from the Pacific Northwest region — from the soulful sounds of Allen Stone and legendary female rockers Heart, to the highly-awaited return of Death Cab For Cutie performing their 2003 hit album Transatlanticism in its entirety.

The festival started off on day one with performances by synth-pop group the Flavr Blue, hip-hop artist Grynch, rapper Nacho Picasso, psychedelic pop group Beat Connection, lively rapper/writer George Watsky, hip-hop group the Physics, and (my personal favorite), punk/dance band !!! (Chk Chk Chk). Also performing on day one was Seattle folk singer/songwriter Kris Orlowski, who was accompanied by the Passenger String Quartet. As always, Orlowski's songs were catchy and endearing yet brilliant and honest.

Day one came to a scorching finale with a full set from GRAMMY-nominated rock group Heart. Kicking off with their Top 20 hit "Barracuda," the set spanned three decades of songs, including "Heartless," "Magic Man" and "What About Love?" It became a gathering of Seattle rock greats when, during Heart's final song, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready joined for 1976's "Crazy On You."

Day two got off to an early start with performances from eccentric Seattle group Kithkin and Seattle ladies Mary Lambert and Shelby Earl, who were accompanied by the band Le Wrens. My highlight of the day was the Grizzled Mighty — a duo with a bigger sound than most family sized bands. Drummer Whitney Petty, whose stage presence and skills make for an exciting performance, was balanced out by the easy listening of guitarist and lead singer Ryan Granger.

Then the long-awaited moment finally fell upon Seattle when, after wrapping a long-awaited tour with the Postal Service, singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard returned to Seattle to represent another great success of the Pacific Northwest — Death Cab For Cutie. The band celebrated the 10-year anniversary of their album Transatlanticism by performing it from front to back. While a majority of attendees opted to watch the set from an air-conditioned arena, some of us recognized the uniqueness of this experience and enjoyed the entire set lying in the grass where the entire performance was streamed. 

Monday was the day for soul and folk. Local blues/R&B group Hot Bodies In Motion have been making their way through the Seattle scene with songs such as "Old Habits," "That Darkness" and "The Pulse." Their set was lively and enticing to people who have seen them multiple times or never at all.

My other highlights of the festival included the Maldives, who delivered a fun performance with the perfect amount of satirical humor and folk. They represent the increasing number of Pacific Northwest bands who consist of many members playing different sounds while still managing to stay cohesive and simple. I embraced the return of folk/pop duo Ivan & Alyosha with open arms and later closed my festival experience with local favorite Stone.

For music fans in Seattle and beyond, the annual Bumbershoot festival is a must-attend.

(Alexa Zaske is the Chapter Assistant for The Recording Academy Pacific Northwest Chapter. She's a music enthusiast and obsessed with the local Seattle scene.)

Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Neil Portnow and Jimmy Jam

Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images


Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Jimmy Jam helps celebrate the outgoing President/CEO of the Recording Academy on the 61st GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Feb 11, 2019 - 10:58 am

As Neil Portnow's tenure as Recording Academy President/CEO draws to its end, five-time GRAMMY winner Jimmy Jam paid tribute to his friend and walked us through a brief overview of some of the Academy's major recent achievements, including the invaluable work of MusiCares, the GRAMMY Museum, Advocacy and more.

Portnow delivered a brief speech, acknowledging the need to continue to focus on issues of diversity and inclusion in the music industry. He also seized the golden opportunity to say the words he's always wanted to say on the GRAMMY stage, saying, "I'd like to thank the Academy," showing his gratitude and respect for the staff, elected leaders and music community he's worked with during his career at the Recording Academy. "We can be so proud of what we’ve all accomplished together," Portnow added.

"As I finish out my term leading this great organization, my heart and soul are filled with gratitude, pride, for the opportunity and unequal experience," he continued. "Please know that my commitment to all the good that we do will carry on as we turn the page on the next chapter of the storied history of this phenomenal institution."

Full Winners List: 61st GRAMMY Awards