Artist Blog

JC Sanford: A Social-Distance Reflection on My ‘Game-Changer’ Big Band Charts

Hey folks. Your friendly neighborhood blog guru here. Unfortunately, due to COVID craziness, our scheduled blogger for April was, understandably, unable to complete his article for this month. So, I decided at the last minute to step in and throw together a little something that might be of some interest to some of you. I quickly assembled a little playlist of some big band music that I considered “game-changers” for me in my understanding and appreciation of the modern idiom. Many of you will be familiar with at least most, if not all, of this music, but if I’m introducing something new to you, you’re welcome. And if these are all your favorites, like they are mine, you’re also welcome, because what better excuse than now to settle in and listen to these masterpieces again. I could go on and on about each example, but I’m just going to say a few things about each, and maybe little bit about how I happened on it.

“(The) First Circle,” by Pat Metheny, arr. by Bob Curnow

As a junior at the University of Northern Iowa many moons ago, I was just starting to gain some understanding of modern big band music, and I barely knew who Pat Metheny was at that point. So, I was really thrown into the fire my first semester in Jazz I (then directed by Bob Washut) by playing this amazing chart. When I first looked at the music, I couldn’t even understand how you could even count it, much less play it accurately and smoothly. But it was really was an eye-opener how something so complicated and constantly changing could feel so fluid and organic in performance. Yes, this chart is only an imitation of the truly breathtaking original, but I think it does an admirable job.

Bob Curnow’s LA Big Band – The Music of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays, 1994

(Btw, here’s also a version of Pat playing another orchestration of it with the Metropole Orchestra conducted by Jim McNeely in 2003.)

“The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife are Some Jive-Ass Slippers,” Charles Mingus

I was already way into Mingus by the time I was a student at New England Conservatory, but I wasn’t all that familiar with his big band music yet, so when Allan Chase brought this into the NEC Jazz Orchestra, I was totally knocked out. The orchestration, the episodes, the incredibly memorable melodic structures were so rich while still managing to maintain the sense of spontaneity that the small group records always had. How could something be so complex and structured while also simultaneously feeling so loose?

Charles Mingus – Let My Children Hear Music, 1972

“Ugly Music,” Bob Brookmeyer

My trombone teacher at the time, John Mosca, hipped me to this whole record Electricity. I was somewhat familiar with Brookmeyer at the time but thought of him as an interesting improviser who wrote some “funnier-sounding” music in the Ray Wright book Inside the Score. Little did I know I’d be studying with him the following year at the beginning of a long and invaluable relationship. This record seemed so out of context for what I understood about Bob at the time. So much of the orchestration is stripped down to 3 voices or less, and the timbre of the 2 synths plus Abercrombie’s MIDI guitar was just so surprising to me. Later, after I had studied with Bob for a while, I thought of this track of the album as the paradigm of the melodic development stuff he was working on with me and his other students. It goes along with his concept that you really can’t develop an idea too much. It just keeps going, and I think it’s so powerful that the main thing that changes in the opening section is Danny Gottlieb changing from brushes to sticks.

Bob Brookmeyer (w/WDR Big Band featuring John Abercrombie) – Electricity, 1994

“Skittish,” Jim McNeely

The summer in between being hipped to Electricity and studying with Bob for the first time, I attended the Lake Placid Institute for its first year hosting a jazz workshop that was spearheaded by Bob. In addition to working with Maria Schneider for the first time (also see “Wyrgly” from Evanescence), I got to play a bunch of Jim’s music with him, including charts like “Extra Credit” and “Sing, Sing, Sing.” But the big thing for me was playing “Skittish,” the 2nd track on the masterwork East Coast Blowout. I had heard the chart and thought the melody was super cool and that there was some neat rhythmic stuff, but I gained a much deeper appreciation of the chart with Jim rehearsing us. And after playing it, I just couldn’t stop listening to the original recording. The Ornette-ish melody is captivating, but the ways that the chart weaves through all of these contrasting ideas and section but are still held together by all kinds of unifying elements, I just feel it’s a paradigm of modern sectional large ensemble composition. Plus, the ways he utilizes the soloists with these back-and-forths with the ensemble is just riveting.

(Check out this great listening session Ethan Iverson and Darcy James Argue have where they talk about this great record.)

Jim McNeely (w/WDR Big Band, John Scofield, Marc Johnson, & Adam Nussbaum) – East Coast Blowout, 1989

 

“April in Paris,” Vernon Duke, arr. Bill Finegan

It’s only fitting that my study with Brookmeyer would not only be transformative by what I learned from him compositionally and improvisationally, but also by the great music he introduced me to. When I would go to Bob’s house in rural New Hampshire to hang, he’d often play me all types of music, but these last two examples were the ones that really affected me long term. The first was this arrangement from the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, an ensemble I’d never heard of before. On this chart, I just got caught up in all the lush colors and motion that I didn’t even realize what tune it was until Florence Fogelson’s sudden statement of the lyrics over the bridge. So much yumminess throughout!

Sauter-Finegan Orchestra – Directions in Music, 1952

“Processional/Desiderata, “ John Hollenbeck

I had heard John Hollenbeck’s superb drumming with Bob’s New Art Orchestra, but on one of these other trips to Bob’s house, he told me about this recording a bunch of folks, led by Ed Partyka, put together to celebrate his 70th birthday (called Madly Loving You). He thought I should hear this certain piece by John, who I had no idea was also a composer. It grabbed me immediately, mostly because of Bob’s deep and paternal voice permeating the whole second half. And the fact that John also had Bob’s trombone playing in the ensemble just did it for me, hearing both of his influential voices simultaneously. Even without that very personal aspect, the colors and shapes John uses here are captivating and surprising in the ways I love so much about his music. (Again, little did I know at the time that I’d eventually conduct three Grammy-nominated records by the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble and would get the opportunity to conduct this work!) Here’s just the second part of the piece.

Ed Partyka Jazz Orchestra – Madly Loving You, 2001

 


About the Author:

Trombonist/composer/conductor JC Sanford is a musician of rare breadth, deeply rooted in the traditions of Jazz and Classical music, yet constantly pushing at their boundaries. Equally at home in many roles, Sanford works regularly as a composer, performer, arranger and conductor. A disciple of the legendary composer/trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, Sanford has had his works performed by Danilo Pérez, Dave Liebman, John Abercrombie, Ingrid Jensen, Lew Soloff, and others. His jazz orchestra CD Views from the Inside garnered international acclaim and received the coveted Aaron Copland Fund Recording Grant. The ensemble has also been recognized as a “Rising Star Big Band” in DownBeat Magazine’s Critic’s Poll the past 4 years. As a conductor, he is a member of the twice-Grammy-nominated John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, and also conducts the Alan Ferber Nonet +Strings, the Frank Carlberg Large Ensemble, John Ellis’ Ice Siren, and conducted the Alice Coltrane Orchestra featuring Ravi Coltrane, Charlie Haden, and Jack DeJohnette before her death. He also curated the Brooklyn-based creative large ensemble series known as “Size Matters” for over 4 years. He was a member of the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop led by Jim McNeely and longtime contractor for the BMI/New York Orchestra. In 2017, Sanford founded the Twin Cities Jazz Composers’ Workshop alongside his wife, composer Asuka Kakitani, with whom he also co-leads the Twin Cities-based Inatnas Orchestra. He was recently awarded a 2018 McKnight Composers Fellowship and a 2019 MN State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant to record his quartet. In 2019 he took over as musical and artistic director of the JazzMN Orchestra.