Jentsch in the Wall Street Journal / Not Your Grandpa’s Big Bands

Jentsch was interviewed by Martin Johnson of the Wall Street Journal for his article "Not Your Grandpa’s Big Bands". This is the complete exchange that served as the basis for the Jentsch portion of that article.  

Martin Johnson: What first sparked your interest in writing for a big band? 

Chris Jentsch: Not so much a spark (no “ah-ha” moment); more like a radiator gradually heating up. Most jazz composers start with writing tunes, I suppose, and that’s what I did starting in the late 80s as a guitarist – just lead sheets with melodies and chord symbols. My interest in sculpting sound kept growing, and I became more and more interested in blending different instruments, putting together more specific and organized kinds of theme statements, adding development sections, and using more complicated forms. What would it sound like if if you combined Takemitsu, Gil Evans, Wagner, the Flintstones, Terje Rypdal, 10cc, and Ingmar Bergman? I didn't know, but it gave me ideas. 

The idea of a score was fascinating – here you had a book with all of the notes and rhythms for all of the instruments in a piece of chamber music, a symphonic work or band composition. Before you know it, there you are standing in front of a group of seventeen people with your parts on their stands. All who read much better than you do (in my case), so the possibilities are wide-ranging. It’s always a brilliant, large-scale opportunity to combine the predictable with the unpredictable. 

I had learned a lot at various schools (NEC, Eastman, U. Miami) about playing guitar in a big band, but most of the guitar parts I encountered and the guitar stuff I heard on any of the famous large ensemble records always seemed tame and a little behind the times. Particularly in terms of incorporating the sonic advances of the electric guitar into the ensemble - even if the music taken as a whole wasn't conservative at all. I thought that if I had an opportunity to write for all those instruments I could craft some different kinds of events by better exploiting the integration of sounds I knew were happening on the contemporary electric guitar: feedback (controlled and otherwise), echoes, reverbs, overdrive/distortion, time-delays, volume pedal swells with any or all of the former, etc.

And to state the obvious – that it’s not all about the guitar – one of the most appealing things is that with a band you can write all kinds of rich sounding chords, progressions, and contrapuntal lines that you can’t really grab with your fist on a six-string guitar neck, or even with ten fingers on a piano. 

MJ: Was the Large group hard to assemble? 

CJ: It wasn’t digging ditches hard – good people are eager to play good music - but it does take an enormous amount of effort, perseverance, and concentration, which ultimately I guess is hard. Beyond even having a concept for writing the music and developing a sound for the group, it’s a ton of busy work, confirming schedules, coordinating the availability of the many principles, thinking of who can double on various instruments, hundreds of emails to players, subs, venues, grant organizations, photographers, recording techs, etc. Much like the process of the composing itself, it’s like a giant puzzle. 

It was tricky at the very beginning, having been in the city only a few years. You have a core group, which for me was the rhythm section and some select other people I knew. Then you go out and hear a lot of music that your friends are playing - small and large groups. There’s a lot of very high level music going on around town sort of under the radar that fans who only know about the big name clubs might be surprised to learn about. You make notes, mental and otherwise, of players who you think would thrive in the musical environment you’re envisioning, and that’s about half or two-thirds of a 17-piece band. For me the rest were acquired in the manner of Miles Davis’ example as a bandleader. You ask whoever’s committed to the band already to suggest who would be available, interested, and appropriate for the empty chairs. That more than half of my current musicians are charter members is very gratifying. These are all very in-demand individuals, often bandleaders themselves. 

MJ: How does Cycles Suite differ from Brooklyn Suite

CJ: Both suites were recorded in concert, live in one take, no do-overs, and I particularly admire the band for being able to pull that off twice. But quite short of it being a sort of jazz electric guitar concerto, Brooklyn… was very much about adding various guitar textures to the one-shot band recording, with overdubbing extra guitar parts, one new guitar alone interlude, extra reverb and echoes, and careful doubling of certain guitar figures that were played live, just like you’d track or double parts onto a rock record. I omitted piano for Brooklyn… to really give the guitars their own space. 

Cycles… was really just the live recording with no overdubs at all, unless you count as overdubbing a few extra echoes and reverb. With its general depiction of the life cycle however, the new suite has less of an emphasis on guitar textures and is conceptually tighter, even though it’s quite a bit longer. Piano this time has an important role to play (Jacob Sacks). All of the elements could be fitted into a loose program. Cycles… was also different in that it was designed to feature a friend who has a long-demonstrated affinity for my music, trumpeter Mike Kaupa. 

As Cycles… is the third suite of a trilogy, there is unity in the way the arrangements for all three have been put together despite the considerable differences between them. An original composition played by my small group was the usual point of departure. Counter melodies, fuller harmonies, and new thematic passages were added. Additionally, select solos and improvised material were transcribed from small group rehearsals and concerts. Those passages were re-orchestrated and blended with new material to develop a hybrid of composition and improvisation. Having taken that idea about as far as I want to for now, music for any new large ensemble project I would undertake would probably be put together very differently. I’m going to record a quartet record (sax, guitar, bass, drums) called Fractured Pop in September (2009) as the focal point of a long overdue exercise of the small group. 

MJ: How often does the large group play together? 

CJ: Not often enough. It’s a money-losing situation whenever we play, even with grants here and there. So in addition to the logistics, it’s punishing financially to keep putting it out there. Plus, according to a couple of the band members, I’m probably overly wary of asking them to play in cramped spaces for minimal pay. The scheduling groove for the large group since my move to Brooklyn in ’99 has been that we have a premiere of a major suite, which is recorded, and then a more informal CD release concert of that music is booked a year or two later as a follow up. The CD release concert is always a very interesting, less pressurized affair. It makes me want to think of what a given suite would sound like after five, fifteen, or more performances instead of just a couple. 

MJ: How has the group’s sound changed? 

CJ: There are a handful of new members that do impact the sound, most obviously with their improvised solos, but I’d say for me the most important way in which the sound changes is the extent to which I learn more about what each player’s strengths are – because I try and write for that. It’s become an honored cliché almost that Ellington wrote for an individual, and not for a generic instrument. Given our limited performances I’ve had a modest but real taste of what that’s like. I still feel like I’m improving as an orchestrator and composer with every project; that sure changes the sound. Also the more the band members feel comfortable with the overall style of the group, the more they feel free to inject more of their personality. Since day one this has always been on an upward trajectory. 

The Trilogy 
Miami Suite, 1999 
Brooklyn Suite, 2005 
Cycles Suite, 2008