For saxophonist Brad Linde and trumpeter-composer Elliott Hughes, this large ensemble show on Tuesday has been years in the making. Linde, a fixture on the Washington D.C. scene who has led the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra in its weekly Monday night residency since 2010, and Hughes, a Melbourne, Australia-based composer, first met at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music in 2013, which annually convenes an international cast of artists under the leadership of Vijay Iyer for three weeks of intensive creative inquiry and collaboration. During the workshop, Linde and Hughes only played together once, in an experimental large ensemble co-led by Iyer and Graham Haynes, but after a year had passed, Hughes, who was in Maine in July 2014 attending a composition program, reached out to Linde, who suggested they set up a few gigs to perform Hughes’s music.
One thing led to the next, as often happens with Linde, a restless collaborator and musical community organizer, and they played a string of gigs featuring Hughes’s music, including a very successful show on our stage, which featured fellow Banff alumni and several New York heavyweights, including saxophonst Jon Irabagon, trumpeter Seneca Black, bass clarinetist Oran Etkin, and trombonist Ryan Keberle. We’re pleased to welcome back Brad Linde and Elliott Hughes to our stage, presenting Hughes’s music performed by Linde’s Big Ol’ Ensemble, currently on an East Coast tour that will culminate with recorded performances at the D.C. Jazz Festival. Via Skype, we caught up with Linde and Hughes, who’d just crash-landed at Linde’s house the night before after a string of shows with the Big Ol’ ensemble.
The Jazz Gallery: Elliott, your music is really ambitious: speeding up, slowing down, sections where everyone coordinates and acts as a moving part, then sections that are more open for players to respond spontaneously. When you write, how do you balance your ambitions as a composer with the practical challenges of working with a large ensemble?
Elliott Hughes: That’s part of the reason why I conduct the groups: I know there’s a lot of coordination just to make sure that we are keeping in the same spot. It’s helpful to have a reference point. I have tried to play this music back in Australia without a conductor, and it’s impossible unless you have a week of rehearsals—and even then, it didn’t work! The music demands it, and the ensemble’s of big enough size that you do need that.
When I’m writing, I try not to limit myself by anything. If I can conceive of something that would be a cool sound that I’d want to hear, then I’ll try to write it and the practicalities of that … we make changes on the spot, but I try not to limit what I’m writing by if we only have an hour of rehearsal; the first gig might be terrible, but the next gig will be better.
Brad Linde: He even created full big band charts for the Monday night big band that we still keep in the book, but only about three of them have we been able to revisit without him conducting, because there are so many independent parts, time signature changes, and things like that. But once we do play, the pieces are cohesive and I wouldn’t say easy to read, but everyone’s quick to grab onto the concept. People know what it’s supposed to sound like, the audience and the musicians.
EH: On that as well, I put in a lot of effort to make sure parts are really clear for everyone, so that everyone should be able to see what’s going on after a couple plays through. With limited rehearsal time, the more information that’s on the part, the time is saved in rehearsal. In the past when I haven’t done that in Australia, it does suck away rehearsal time to go, “Where are we going in this bar?”
BL: People comment to me, too; they say, “Boy, these charts look great: they’re well laid-out and they’re easy to follow.” There’s a lot of information when he’s not here.
TJG: Elliott, could you comment a bit about your relationship to recent jazz large ensemble composers, such as Darcy James Argue and John Hollenbeck? In what ways do you relate to their work?
EH: I played a lot of big band growing up: Basie, Ellington, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis. When the band I was in started playing more Bob Brookmeyer, that really opened up my eyes. That’s kind of the lineage I follow: I was into Bob Brookmeyer, then, from there, Hollenbeck was my next step. Brookmeyer had kind of lost the leadsheet idea, how even in Thad Jones, you had tunes where you had sax solis and ensemble passages and solo sections, and solos were still on a form, generally, but Brookmeyer kind of took that out of having a form within the piece. Does that make sense?
BL: Yeah, more through-composed.
EH: And Hollenbeck for me took that to the next level, using the weirder techniques or having things like building ensemble textures within that and giving the players a bit more creativity, but still having the elements, like having strong grooves and strong melodies. The other thing from Hollenbeck was probably the angular lines he created. I really liked those and I think that’s in my music, as well. The melodies can be fairly angular and cell-based, rather than one long line.
Maria Schneider’s music, also, I guess the smoothness and the flow the music has, I really like that. I mean, I don’t think I write like that at all, but her ensemble sound and the different colors, like having the French horn and bass clarinet, maybe some of that got in there. And with Darcy, what struck me was the almost post-rock kind of stuff that he can filter into his music, because that was something that one of my teachers, Mace Francis, a punk guitarist as a kid who got into jazz bands, his music has a lot of power chords, and I definitely stole a lot of that. Hearing where Darcy was at, those rock grooves and feels, that was something that I really grabbed onto because that was a sound I was already familiar with.
TJG: Wasn’t it Bob Brookmeyer who said something about how he was reluctant to write a solo unless it was absolutely necessary?
EH: That’s the quote Mace told me as well: “Never write a solo just because it’s a solo. Only write it if it’s the only thing that could happen in that part of the chart.” Not “Here’s the melody, here’s the solo,” but you want to take the line and use the band to its full potential before you then open it up again.
BL: And that’s the great thing about Elliott’s music: each piece is so conceptual that it holds together from beginning to end as its own entity. There’s something catchy, something memorable about each of his tunes that stays with you. He also explains each tune, about where it came from; there’s one tune about the extinction of the tiger-wolf, so the audience can to connect to some of the more challenging sounds or concepts, but each piece paints a picture, creates a vibe or a mood. It’s not trite, and just looking at it from a concert or presenting perspective, it’s always evolving through the performance. It’s not just like playing a night of Thad Jones—
EH: —as awesome and as much fun as that is!
TJG: Brad, Elliott had described you after last year’s large ensemble gigs as simultaneously “saxophonist, band leader, taxi driver, hostel manager, and countless other roles.” Could speak to some of the practical challenges of making a large ensemble happen in these times?
BL: Well, I keep a long list of things that I know are going to happen—no, just kidding. The reason I do what I do … I realized a few years ago that my aptitude was for being able to somehow simultaneously do all those things, or even have the wherewithal to put it together, because I don’t write for large ensemble, but I love large ensembles. I feel organized enough to at least put it into motion. Whether it all comes out in the end, that’s something else. It’s not very practical but it’s necessary, is all I can say about it.
People should hear Elliott’s music, people should be able to come together and play challenging music together and grow together. I’m very loyal to the players that stuck by us, so that’s another challenge, getting those same players to come back and do the gigs with us, and this also came out of a need to make Banff mean more than just the three weeks that we had together, you know? It changed all our lives, so why not continue that?
It could be easier; I could just invite Elliott down to D.C. and we could do the charts with the big band and that could be it, but that’s just plugging him into an already existing entity that’s been around for five years. Why not craft something that means something to me and Elliott, and Jonathan [Taylor] and Erika [Dohi] and Tara [Kannangara] and now it’s something bigger. This year we’re recording an album at the Atlas, a live album, as part of the D.C. Jazz festival, so that was really the jewel in the crown of this whole thing: that Elliott would have a product of his trips across the Atlantic.
EH: It’s not just for my benefit, though, like getting all these people together and having these amazing concerts to do. I’m amazed how ambitious Brad is—
BL: “Crazy,” I think.
EH: —crazy, to do all these once? It was fulfilling, and then straightaway, it was like, “What are we doing next year?” It was sort of instantly: “We’re going to do this again. How are we going to make it happen?”
BL: Well, we always joke about it in the car, we joke about band names or things we want to do, and a lot of times people just let it go, and I’m like, “Well, we put this out into the universe; let’s make it happen,” because if you wait…everyone’s lives are so busy that if you wait even a moment to put things in action, you’ll lose it. For this, as soon as they left last year, we said, “Okay, let’s do it, again.” And it takes a year to book a festival and get people from out of town. It could be much easier if we had a drummer who was local; Jon was using my drumset and he just beat the hell out of it so now we’re going to rent one because he needs to sound good.
EH: The bass player’s from Canada.
BL: He doesn’t bring his bass from Canada, we have to borrow trumpets and flugelhorns, I’m the only one with a driver’s license and a car and I just have a station wagon, so we have to rent a car. Erika and Aaron [Quinn] are coming down from New York constantly; they spent 10 hours on the road after the gig going back. And Elliott’s sent me new parts and I printed them and taped them all together, and he’s laughing because he has this five-movement suite and I taped all 24 pages together because I didn’t want to lose anything. And, to be quite honest, the monetary challenges, it’s almost impossible. This is all piecemeal, grassroots: Elliott applied for some grants, I Robin Hood-ed my fancy D.C. gigs to pay for the projects, and we have to go on the good faith that the friends and neighbors in this group don’t need to get paid because we see the greater good of it.
So, I don’t know: if you don’t ask the universe for it, you’re not going to be receiving it.
EH: And also, this is costing everybody money; let’s not beat around the bush. People are literally giving up their jobs or work at home to come hang out and stay on Brad’s couch and spend 18 hours in a car, and all of us know that this is costing us money, and I just hope that people are getting enough out of it to justify it.
BL: Oh, we are. This is one of the most musically rewarding experiences I’ve had, and I’ve done a lot of these weird projects, but this one is a team of friends and colleagues that are all in it for the big picture. And I always tell them: in 20 years, we’re not going to remember all that money, we’re going to remember the amazing experience of spending two weeks together playing Elliott’s stuff.
EH: And that’s why I think it’s so important to document it with a disc as well, because that’s something that’s physical and tangible and when people do leave, they can take that and they can use that as promotional material as well. Letting them own it as well—it’s not just mine, it’s not just Brad’s, it’s everyone in the band’s project, because it’s all costing us money!
BL: But people respond to it and it’s setting the groundwork for bigger things, I hope. We were down in North Carolina and there weren’t a lot of people at the show, but the people who were there loved it and responded very well to it, even though it was something that I’m sure they may not have been exposed to. There’s a traditional big band that plays at this art cinema on Wednesday nights and they put us in place of it to try to draw the same crowd, but they really got it, from the acoustic nature of the music—nothing’s miked, it’s all the actual vibrations of the instruments—to the conceptual ideas that he presents. It’s winning all around, you know?
TJG: Brad, the BCJO has been around since 2010, right? Since then, what kinds of lessons have you picked up along the way, practical, philosophical, or otherwise?
BL: Well, I co-direct it with Joe Herrera, who’s in this ensemble. We each have our own duties in the band and expectations, and for five years, almost every Monday night—and there’s only three charter members left in the band, which is pretty good—I’ve learned, first and foremost: people want to play. People understand the opportunity to play big band music on a weekly basis. I mean, who gets to play a weekly gig after you’re out of school and you’re not in the military or doing a community band? I guess it’s kind of a community band, but it’s all the greatest players we can find. Once we established that, the pure joy of being able to do that and the fact that we’re coming together, it’s become it’s own scene, and the audience responds to it. We pack the house every Monday night first set, generally, and it’s always a lot of newcomers, and the word’s around that there’s something special happening and it may not be exactly the music, but it’s the vibe of it, the family values that we’ve kind of developed.
I know it sounds weird, but it’s a community now. It’s a common ground and we’re presenting something we want to share. It’s egoless, I think, is what I’ve learned about being together—as best it can be—and the challenges are keeping the same people in the same chairs week after week. We have a general core band, but if you lose a drummer or a bass player to a sub one week—since we don’t rehearse, we just do all on-the-job training—then if a different drummer or a different bass player shows up, it can sound like a whole different band. Also, putting new music in front of them: I like to challenge them to sight-read things, like Darcy James Argue without a conductor or Elliott’s music or Maria Schneider or anything, and we use second set to be more of a workshop environment, kind of like the Mingus workshop. That’s something I’m very into, revealing the creative process, but I think the audience understands that need and as long as you explain it to them and connect to them, they will respond and say, “Well, okay, we’ll forgive them.”
EH: I know from experience playing with them that it is, when you usually go to a concert—even a jazz concert—it’s a very formal occasion sometimes, like it’s very “They’re up on the stage and we’re here at their mercy,” but in this situation, because it’s so open as to what’s going on, the audience gets a different experience from a normal concert. And despite sometimes musically it might not rise to the challenge, but they understand that, and the gig’s almost as much for the audience as for the musicians to be able to play.
BL: The other thing about it is that it’s affordable. It’s only $10, but that’s not even it—it’s that people take the chance. The tickets in Carrboro [North Carolina] were only $5, but if people don’t take the chance on it, they don’t know what it sounds like, so we just have to get them out of their house and into the club. That’s the challenge, so tweeting and Facebook, I feel like that was really cool five years ago, but now it’s more commonplace so people miss the invites, they miss the tweets, so it has to be word of mouth. When new musicians come to town in D.C., the first thing they do is come down to the Caverns because they can meet 17 colleagues and get themselves into the scene. It’s also a proving ground, a little bit.
We also have 400 charts in the book, and we keep adding. I just don’t want to get bored.
EH: You’ll lose the audience if you’re playing the same charts, and it keeps the band on their toes so they keep learning as well.
BL: That happened to the band I was in before I started this band. We were playing the same 10 charts for like three years, and no one was interested anymore, but now I feel the need to reach out to people who want to come through town and play. People even send us charts all the time, and it grows our book and grows our understanding. It’s kind of an open door policy.
I’ve learned that, if you build it, they will come, that kind of Field of Dreams idea. But it’s also hard to keep your own interest. I left the band for two months and then I missed it, and my reading got really bad, so I needed to go back and I needed that $20 a night [laughs]—no, but you take for granted being able to practice flute and clarinet and baritone saxophone and reading every week. It’s better than watching TV.
TJG: That idea of community building is so important, local scenes, staying with it and building something rather than just, “Time to move to New York.”
BL: I’ve been in D.C. 10 years and I think about what’s next. Not that I’ve exhausted it, but the Atlas thing went away this past year and I was thinking, “Should I just go somewhere else and start over?” And I thought, “No, let me enjoy the things I’ve worked on and keep working,” because if I start over somewhere, I may not have the opportunity to bring Elliott down or have Jon [Taylor] come from Detroit. If I moved to New York, I don’t have anything to offer to the people I work with in New York. I hope it’s fun for them to come here and play in a new scene. I’ve also got this large house that sleeps 12 sometimes, and we got a lot of pillows and air mattresses.
EH: It’s funny you mention the local scenes because that came up in Carrboro. Joe Herrera was talking about how he runs this international thing, but he said jazz is both international and local, because you have the communities there, and it has this paradoxical thing: it’s universal, but it’s not.
BL: It’s also blending the scenes. You have this group of Banff buddies—sounds like a line of plush animals or something—but the Banff buddies and you integrate some of the New York heavies, but then also people from the D.C. scene. I think it’s a beautiful chance for us all to share the experience together and not seem like so, “Oh, they all went to Banff together, they think they’re better than us,” that kind of thing, or “Oh, those are New York superstars, we couldn’t dare approach them.” But I guess what I learned from doing this for so long is that everybody’s human and everybody wants to play.
EH: And if the projects are right for those people.
BL: Right. And it’s not about marquee value, it’s about the musical value, you know? Jon Irabagon: he’s great, great hang and great player, but he’s right for the music, and I’d never put somebody in the chair for the wrong reasons.
TJG: Great. I think that about does it for us today. Is there anything you’d like to add, a parting shot, thoughts from the road?
BL: Well, we will tell you what happened; we mentioned bad things happening. In rehearsal in North Carolina, everybody came at different times. We all thought we were going to come down together and stay in a hotel and play the gig with local musicians—who were great, they were all fabulous—and I didn’t know what to expect, but in rehearsal, my tenor falls off its stand and bends the whole post and the high F key is opening up like this far, but it still played—and in tune, as best as I could. And Jonathan broke the lugs on the tom-tom.
EH: “They broke themselves.” [laughs, Jonathan in the background]
BL: And then during the performance—
EH: —first tune—
BL: —the alto player who was with us, his octave key screw just popped, just flew out and off the stage, but Billy, the tenor player, had brought a screwdriver to make metallic sounds (just for stupid reasons!), but he ended up saving the day, and then we all got back. Anything could have gone wrong, and they did, but it all worked out. You gotta trust the process, I think. And now we get to do it all again starting on Sunday.
Brad Linde’s Big Ol’ Ensemble presents the music of Elliott Hughes this Tuesday, June 9th, 2015, at The Jazz Gallery. The band features Jon Irabagon on alto saxophone and flute, Brad Linde and Billy Wolfe on tenor saxophones (the latter also on clarinet), and Oran Etkin on bass clarinet; Seneca Black, Joe Herrera, and Tara Kannangara on trumpet (the latter also on voice); Ryan Keberle on trombone, Jeff Nelson on bass trombone, and Ben Brody on horn; Aaron Quinn on guitar, Erika Dohi on piano, Julian Anderson-Bowes on bass, and Jonathan Taylor on drums. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. The first set is $15 ($10 for Members); the second set is $10 ($8 for Members). Purchase tickets here.