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Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Boys In The Band

On the face of it the history of jazz seems to be a history of individualists and soloists. When people speak of the history of jazz they name names – Miles, Monk, Trane, Ellington, Armstrong etc On the other hand when people speak of the history of pop music or rock music they name bands –Rolling Stones, The Beatles, U2, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Nirvana etc But if you look a little deeper into rock music history, you can see that there are a lot of important individuals as well – Hendrix, Clapton, Bowie etc. And similarly, if you look at the history of jazz, you can not only see that it is a music that featured a lot of out-and-out bands, but also that a lot of the innovations of the great individualists would not have been possible if they hadn't created those innovations within the vehicle of a great band, specifically designed to support those same innovations.

Of course the concept of a band is one that is well recognised in jazz, but I'm not sure if it's given its due in terms of its importance in the development of the music. And, for musicians, I'm not sure that the possibilities for developing your music that having a real band affords you is fully appreciated.

At various points in its history, without the input of great bands, the history of the music would have been much different. Take two of the icons of jazz - Miles and Coltrane. Both Miles and Coltrane did influential work outside the ambit of their regular bands - Miles with Gil Evans for example, and Coltrane recording Giant Steps etc. But the vast majority of their most influential music was created from within vehicles that they consciously created in order to best express their overarching musical ideas - their bands.

The importance of bands can be seen if we compare another great trumpeter with Miles - Freddie Hubbard. Hubbard was undoubtedly one of the greatest trumpet players in the history of jazz - brilliantly virtuosic, swinging, a great improviser who played on many great and historical recordings. And at various times he fronted bands that also consisted of great players. But with Hubbard you never really get a sense of a concept that requires more than the virtuosity of the individual players to bring the music into being. You never get the feeling that Hubbard absolutely needed this drummer and that pianist and this saxophonist to achieve the vision of the overall music.

Hubbard's bands were vehicles for the playing of Freddie Hubbard. Yes his phenomenal playing required collaborators who were strong enough to stay the course with him, but his sidemen could easily be thought of as being interchangeable. Herbie, McCoy or Billy Childs - Elvin, Tony Williams, Al Foster - Hubbard played great with all of them, but you never get the sense that he absolutely needed any particular one of those pianists or drummers to realise his overall musical vision, he played great with all of them - but not differently. There is a monumental Hubbard trumpet legacy, but not a Hubbard band legacy. There is no concept of a Hubbard band approach to a piece of music in the way that there would be a Miles band approach.

And to compare Miles to Hubbard in this regard, while Miles was technically not the trumpeter that Hubbard was (although he was stronger technically than he's usually given credit for - such as his playing here which is killing!), he had a band concept that was second to none. The members of his bands, (at least up to the very latest years), were chosen not only for their great individual playing, but for their ability to realize the overall vision of the music that Miles had. As a result, it wasn't just the playing of Miles that was influential, in fact the music of Miles' bands, and the way they played that music was probably even more influential than his playing. It is impossible to imagine the current development of modern mainstream jazz without the input of the classic Miles bands of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

The same is true for Coltrane - his Classic Quartet was both a vehicle for his saxophone playing and a vehicle for the transmission of his overall musical concept. Again, like Miles, it is impossible to imagine the current development of mainstream contemporary jazz without the input of the Coltrane Quartet. Elvin and McCoy were themselves innovators and huge influences on players of their respective instruments, but the sound that the Coltrane Quartet made, and their approach to playing the music was at least as influential as the playing of the individuals within that quartet.

The same could be said for the Bill Evans Trio and the Ornette Coleman Quartet - both revealed a new way of playing in a group, of interacting, of creating music that was greater than the sum of its parts. Each group had a clear identity that was more than the identity of any one individual player. The same could be said for groups from both before this period (The Basie and Ellington bands) and after (Weather Report, Jarrett's American quartet, Dave Holland's quintet, Steve Coleman's Five Elements) and the band tradition continues into the present day with groups such as Jason Moran's Bandwagon, The Bad Plus, Tim Berne's Big Satan etc. All of these groups have a sound that is unique to the band, rather than being a showcase for any one member of the band.

There are different kinds of bands in jazz, (leaving aside the soloist with pick-up rhythm section genre, which is not really a band at all– it’s more like a marriage of convenience), but usually they fall into one of three categories

A collective

An out-and-out dictatorship

A benevolent dictatorship

The Collective

In the first example – the collective - there is no leader. Each member of the band has, (in theory anyway), an equal input into the material and the approach. A contemporary example of this would be the Bad Plus or James Farm. The advantage of this way of working is that, assuming everyone has a broadly similar aesthetic regarding the music, a group of people can shape the music collectively and through discussion and teamwork develop music that is unique to that collective.

The disadvantage can be that it becomes music by committee, with everything ending up in the middle because nobody wants to make a decision, or every decision becomes a tortuous thing with endless discussions over tempos, tune order, solo order and everyone having an opinion on everything. In my experience this is by far the most common format for young bands coming out of jazz schools – there is no leader per se, and the music often lacks a unifying identity or directional thrust. In order for a collective to work you need people who a) believe in each other completely, and b) are prepared to lead if necessary and be lead if necessary.

The Out-and-Out Dictator

The out-and-out dictatorship model is well known in jazz and harks back to the ‘bandleader as star’ idea. In this model the band is principally formed around the leader and it’s clear that the leader of the band is supposed to be the cynosure of all eyes. These bands are primarily a vehicle for the playing of the leader and even though others may have opportunities to solo and play extensively, their input is required primarily to support the leader and not to detract attention away from him or her. There are so many examples of this in the music, it’s hard to know where to start in giving examples. But I think a good example would be Oscar Peterson’s various trios. Even the greatest of them, the trio that featured Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen, is formed around Oscar’s playing and though Brown and Thigpen get lots of solo space the music clearly revolves around Oscar and inevitably everything leads back to him. I would think of Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio as being in the same mold – great as his sidemen are, and they make such a contribution to the group sound, ultimately the trio is all about Keith. I think he went from the benevolent dictatorship (see below) of his 1970s quartets, to the out-and-out dictatorship model of his current trio.

These bands can be great or terrible, everything depends on the leader, his or her leadership abilities and how good the sidemen are. Believe it or not, some leaders were known for deliberately hiring sidemen who were not very strong in order to make themselves look even better. That kind of thinking is all about the star system and not about the music. Having said that, much great music was played by bands in which the music was really all about one guy – Errol Garner for example, and the aforementioned Jarrett trio would be another.

The Benevolent Dictatorship

In this model the bandleader doesn’t just hire people to make him or her sound good, the sidemen are hired to do justice to the overall musical vision of the bandleader and are hired for their ability to be able to understand and enhance the bandleader’s vision. In this type of group the bandleader encourages the sidemen to be themselves and allows them the freedom within the music to do what they do.

The ultimate model of this type of bandleader is of course Miles. His ability to pick the right guys for his music over a period of more than 30 years was extraordinary. Although he was a guy who was very conscious of his image and his status in the jazz community, he was never happy to simply feature himself in his bands, he always wanted to play the MUSIC he thought should be presented to the listeners. And that meant getting the right saxophonist, the right pianist, bassist and drummer. He would choose the guys he wanted and then he would give them the freedom to develop the music – he would hire them for what they could do and then let them do it. He famously gave almost no verbal instructions, he would just allow the players to do what they felt was right in the moment.

It wasn’t a democracy – Miles chose the tune order on a gig, nearly always took the first solo and would think nothing of cutting off a player if he felt the music should finish or didn’t like what he was hearing. In all his bands it was very clear who was the leader, but at the same time the players in the band really got to express themselves because of Miles’ overarching concern about his music rather than merely his trumpet playing.

Coltrane’s Quartet was similar – Trane hired McCoy, Elvin and Jimmy Garrison and then gave them the freedom to do what they do. Again he was concerned about the music rather than just his own playing. He was clearly the leader, but the sidemen were hired because of what they could contribute to Coltrane’s musical vision, not because they simply made Trane sound good as a player, or were bit part players to his featuring act. Again, Coltrane was clearly the leader and they played only his compositions but he hired these guys for their ability to realize his musical concept, not just to make him sound good. A modern version of this type of band would be Wayne Shorter’s great quartet of recent years – they definitely play with a band concept, but Wayne is also clearly the leader. Here they are playing a phenomenal version of Wayne’s ‘Joy Rider’

Of the various models I’m probably fondest of the benevolent dictator mode, since it gives such a great scope to create ensemble music as a single entity, but at the same time it can accommodate the vision of one person. When I’m in bandleader mode myself, this is definitely the route I take – I get the guys who can best realize the ideas I have for the music, and then I let them get on with it, with minimum interference from myself. If you pick your guys well you can usually get results that are even beyond your expectations and the music can go places that you didn’t anticipate – true serendipity.

Having said that, I’ve also had fun in a few collective situations, including recently in a band called M├ętier, where we had the good fortune to be funded by our local town council as Ensemble in Residence and could devote time to rehearse and develop the music. This band was really fun to work with and we played many good concerts, and made one album that I’m very fond of. Here’s a track from that – a piece I wrote called ‘Cascade’

And while I wouldn’t recommend going the route of complete dictator to anyone contemplating putting a band together, it can be educational for a young musician to get into the band of one of these older dictator types - providing they’re really good musicians of course – and be told what to do by a more experienced musician for a while. You can learn a lot this way, so sometimes even these out-and-out dictator type bands can be good.

But whatever mode you choose, I do think it’s very important for people to think in terms of bands rather than of just being interested in being an individual soloist. By developing a band you’re not just developing yourself, you’re also developing something that goes beyond your individual playing and gets into the whole area of developing a musical concept. Think collective identity rather than individual showcasing, think music rather than instrument. See the big picture – develop a band!

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