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

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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 GRAMMY.com 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 GRAMMY.com 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 GRAMMY.com. "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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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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ReImagined At Home: Watch Ant Clemons Croon The Cosmic Blues In Performance Of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine"

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ReImagined At Home: Watch Ant Clemons Croon The Cosmic Blues In Performance Of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine"

Singer/songwriter Ant Clemons puts his own spin on Bill Withers' immortal "Ain't No Sunshine" in an exclusive performance for ReImagined At Home

GRAMMYs/Jun 15, 2021 - 08:13 pm

Why has Bill Withers' immortal hit, "Ain't No Sunshine," endured for decades? And, furthermore, why does it seem set to reverberate throughout the ages?

Could it be because it's blues-based? Because it's relatable to anyone with a pulse? Because virtually anyone with an ounce of zeal can believably yowl the song at karaoke?

Maybe it's for all of those reasons and one more: "Ain't No Sunshine" is flexible

In the latest episode of ReImagined At Home, check out how singer/songwriter Ant Clemons pulls at the song's edges like taffy. With a dose of vocoder and slapback, Clemons recasts the lonesome-lover blues as the lament of a shipwrecked android.

Giving this oft-covered soul classic a whirl, Clemons reminds music lovers exactly why Withers' signature song has staying power far beyond his passing in 2020. It will probably be a standard in 4040, too.

Check out Ant Clemons' cosmic, soulful performance of "Ain't No Sunshine" above and click here to enjoy more episodes of ReImagined At Home.

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Recordings By Janet Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Odetta & More Inducted Into The National Recording Registry

Janet Jackson

Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

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Recordings By Janet Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Odetta & More Inducted Into The National Recording Registry

Selections by Albert King, Labelle, Connie Smith, Nas, Jackson Browne, Pat Metheny, Kermit the Frog and others have also been marked for federal preservation

GRAMMYs/Mar 25, 2021 - 02:37 am

The Librarian of Congress Carla Haden has named 25 new inductees into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. They include Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814,” Louis Armstrong’s “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” Nas’ “Illmatic,” Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration,” Kermit the Frog’s “The Rainbow Connection” and more.

“The National Recording Registry will preserve our history through these vibrant recordings of music and voices that have reflected our humanity and shaped our culture from the past 143 years,” Hayden said in a statement. “We received about 900 public nominations this year for recordings to add to the registry, and we welcome the public’s input as the Library of Congress and its partners preserve the diverse sounds of history and culture.”

The National Recording Preservation Board is an advisory board consisting of professional organizations and experts who aim to preserve important recorded sounds. The Recording Academy is involved on a voting level. The 25 new entries bring the number of musical titles on the registry to 575; the entire sound collection includes nearly 3 million titles. Check out the full list of new inductees below:

National Recording Registry Selections for 2020

  1. Edison’s “St. Louis tinfoil” recording (1878)

  2. “Nikolina” — Hjalmar Peterson (1917) (single)

  3. “Smyrneikos Balos” — Marika Papagika (1928) (single)

  4. “When the Saints Go Marching In” — Louis Armstrong & his Orchestra (1938) (single)

  5. Christmas Eve Broadcast--Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill (December 24, 1941)

  6. “The Guiding Light” — Nov. 22, 1945

  7. “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues” — Odetta (1957) (album)

  8. “Lord, Keep Me Day by Day” — Albertina Walker and the Caravans (1959) (single)  

  9. Roger Maris hits his 61st homerun (October 1, 1961)

  10. “Aida” — Leontyne Price, et.al. (1962) (album)

  11. “Once a Day” — Connie Smith (1964) (single)

  12. “Born Under a Bad Sign” — Albert King (1967) (album)

  13. “Free to Be…You & Me” — Marlo Thomas and Friends (1972) (album)

  14. “The Harder They Come” — Jimmy Cliff (1972) (album)

  15. “Lady Marmalade” — Labelle (1974) (single)

  16. “Late for the Sky” — Jackson Browne (1974) (album)

  17. “Bright Size Life” — Pat Metheny (1976) (album)

  18. “The Rainbow Connection” — Kermit the Frog (1979) (single)

  19. “Celebration” — Kool & the Gang (1980) (single)

  20. “Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs” — Jessye Norman (1983) (album)

  21. “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814” — Janet Jackson (1989) (album)

  22. “Partners” — Flaco Jiménez (1992) (album)

  23. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”/”What A Wonderful World” — Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (1993) (single)

  24. “Illmatic” — Nas (1994) (album)

  25. “This American Life: The Giant Pool of Money” (May 9, 2008)

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Press Play At Home: Watch Dodie Perform A Morning-After Version Of "Four Tequilas Down"

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Press Play At Home: Watch Dodie Perform A Morning-After Version Of "Four Tequilas Down"

In the latest episode of Press Play At Home, singer/songwriter dodie conjures a bleary last call in a hushed performance of "Four Tequilas Down"

GRAMMYs/Jun 24, 2021 - 07:38 pm

"Four Tequilas Down" is as much a song as it is a memory—a half-remembered one. "Did you make your eyes blur?/So that in the dark, I'd look like her?" dodie, the song's writer and performer, asks. To almost anyone who's engaged in a buzzed rebound, that detail alone should elicit a wince of recognition.

Such is dodie's beyond-her-years mastery of her craft: Over a simple, spare chord progression, she can use an economy of words to twist the knife. "So just hold me like you mean it," dodie sings at the song's end. "We'll pretend because we need it."

In the latest episode of Press Play At Home, watch dodie stretch her songwriting muscles while conjuring a chemically altered Saturday night—and the Sunday morning full of regrets, too.

Check out dodie's hushed-yet-intense performance of "Four Tequilas Down" above and click here to enjoy more episodes of Press Play At Home.

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