Expanded Big Band?


I see it has been quite a long time since I have put up a blog post. Needless to say I am working a new project that is going to take quite a while….but hopefully it’ll be worth the wait 🙂

In the mean time, a fellow musician emailed me the other day with some questions about the concept of an ‘expanded’ big band – which I have used on the 2 jazz big band EPs that I’ve recorded. Since it might be interesting to some other folks, I decided to post the questions/answers here:

What were your reasons for adding the additional instruments in the first place?
                                                                                                                                                                 Back when I was at college, as a jazz composition/arranging student we were given a big band to work with, the West Australian youth Jazz Orchestra (WAYJO). This was our training ground. My teacher at the time, Graeme Lyall, decided to expand the traditional jazz big band line up – I can’t exactly remember why he did this, other than to create a unique sound for the band and to give us some extra writing chops I suppose. At first he added 2 horns, tuba and percussion. Then it became 4 horns. Then it became an extra trumpet and trombone. Then he added 4 woodwinds. Then another 4 woodwinds…..and it kept getting bigger and bigger. It actually became a little too unwieldy for my liking, but my favorite setup was adding 4 horns, tuba and percussion. So that’s where I got the idea from.
What is your philosophy or process when writing for expanded big band?

 – First of all, I do believe in giving these instruments meaningful parts to play – as you say, if not then why are they there? Nothing worse than a player who attends a rehearsal to play only 4 measures, which can’t much be heard anyway since it’s with the rest of the band. If we’re going to have these extra sounds available, then USE them. Give them the spotlight every now and then. Make people in the audience say ‘oh wow, there are french horns in this band’.
 – When it comes to balance, I use Sammy Nestico’s approach of ‘1 trumpet or trombone = 2 french horns’. The horns just don’t cut through as much, partly due to the fact that the bell is facing backwards. 4 horns in unison however, can bring a solid sound as we know. The rest of it….it comes down to having a good knowledge of orchestration in general, I think. E.g. the tuba is great for adding in extra weight to the bottom of a chord – big fat sound – but when it comes to short/punchy articulations, the tuba doesn’t ‘speak’ like a bass trombone or bari sax. Again the bell is facing upwards, not forwards, and due to its size, short articulations generally sound ‘fatter’ and could be sluggish/impractical at fast tempi. Every instrument has its strengths and weaknesses – I think being a good orchestrator is partly about knowing what those strengths/weaknesses are, and using it to our advantage. Percussion – well, that’s a whole other discussion 🙂
 – As most french horn players are classically trained, it’s best not to ask them to ‘swing’. So, usually I avoid any exposed swing phrasing for the french horns and tuba. Same would apply to a string section if you had one. There are times you can get away with it somewhat, though. If the whole band is playing a swing shout chorus, then usually the horns can fit in with that, and the fact that they have not studied jazz doesn’t usually expose itself as a problem.

Bill Hayes playing percussion on 'The Manhattan EP'

Who are your influences in this writing?

Not many big band writers out there have used the expanded lineup, but there are some. Oliver Nelson has some killer arrangements with horns and percussion. Check out ‘Complex City’ – that one has timpani! Also Thad Jones and Stan Kenton have used the expanded lineup from time to time – Kenton especially so, sometimes having 5 trumpets, 5 trombones etc. Quincy Jones has an album called The Quintessence which is will worth checking out.
Hope that helps!