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Originality

WHAT A HOOT! On Monday night, June 26, 2011 I was fortunate to perform with the Jonathan Stout Orchestra again, this time at New York City’s Lincoln Center. It was an inspirational two hour concert and the opening event for a series called A Midsummer Night’s Swing.

Jonathan carefully planned each set and hand picked the musicians. He brought most of his Los Angeles rhythm section to New York along with three wind instrument players. He filled out the band with some excellent New York jazz musicians. The band has never sounded as good as it did that night.

Here’s the lineup: The sax section included the consistently excellent Albert Alva on tenor along with 19 year old Chloe Feoranzo. A couple of rising young stars from New York, Will and Pete Anderson, were on altos. The trombone players were Harvey Tibbs (who also transcribed and arranged some tunes) and the irrepressible Dan Weinstein, who doubles on violin. The trumpet section was very strong with Bria Sk├Ânberg, Dave Brown, and Jon-Erik Kellso. The rhythm section consisted of Mark Shane on piano, Wally Hersom on bass, Josh Collazzo on drums and, of course, Jonathan Stout on guitar. Hilary Alexander did the singing. Jonathan featured me on clarinet.

Only one thing stood between an excellent program and a superb one: The band recreated old swing tune arrangements; it offered nothing original except solos. While that approach may be just right for some people, I prefer a band to do more than recreate a tune somebody else wrote, arranged, and performed.

No matter how fantastic a contemporary group or individual musician may be, the original recording of a tune and arrangement typically will trump the recreation. First, the original version of a well known tune has become iconic so any deviation from it, no matter how small, becomes distracting. Second, Swing era bands never played tunes at random; leaders hired composers to write music consistent with the band’s style and arranged the tunes to make the best use of specific soloists. Duke Ellington’s band was a perfect example of that. Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and all the others did the same thing.

Contemporary bands playing Swing era arrangements usually lack musicians capable of expressing them properly. Their best results may be close but very rarely equal to or better than the original. That is because contemporary tastes, styles, attitudes, education, and peer pressure combine to influence a musician’s concept. Today’s solos infrequently reflect the way players in the early 1940s thought about music. Playing classic tunes in a more modern style detracts from their impact no matter what a jazz educator or bop snob might think. (That is primarily because Swing era bands played for dancing while later jazz is for listening.)

Contemporary Swing bands, by necessity, consist mainly of musical jacks of all trades rather than masters of one. They don’t work together six nights a week and rarely rehearse, so they play like a group of individuals rather than as a single unit. Today’s instrumentalists have no hope of becoming stars and their audience often consists of the same several dozen dancers or listeners so the performance often is just another gig.

Add to that the factor of personality. Nobody ever will play transcriptions of, for example, Artie Shaw’s or Lester Young’s solos as well as Artie or Lester did, even if the contemporary player has a better command of the instrument, a better instrument and mouthpiece, more musical talent, and the ability to express it. The reason is that those were Artie’s and Lester’s spontaneous solos, springing from their hearts and minds. When they played them their solos expressed something immediate. When we recreate them they are, at best, well crafted interpretations and reflections.

Therefore, to stand out and to play meaningful music, a band and musician not only must be excellent themselves but also must make each tune their own. That means new and better arrangements or, preferably, mostly new and excellent material. Each band needs a unique identity and a good leader determines that based on who is in the band and how each soloist plays.

So as well as a good big band, on its best night, may perform Swing era recreations, I wonder how much more exciting it might sound and how much more personality it might display with a terrific original repertoire.

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