Speaking with saxophonist and composer Remy Le Boeuf always feels like a masterclass. As he talks about his work, he naturally brings in performance ideas, composition techniques, observations on the likes of Bartók, Copland, and Mingus, and lots of praise for his musical peers. Though already a busy performer and educator in New York, Le Boeuf has recently started a new professional chapter as a big band composer and arranger. Through an unlikely series of personal connections, Le Boeuf received his first big band commission in 2015, and since then, has had arrangements and compositions premiered throughout the world, including by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
Remy Le Boeuf’s large-ensemble writing has recently coalesced in his “Assembly of Shadows” Orchestra. The upcoming concert at The Jazz Gallery will feature the premiere of the piece by the same name, “Assembly of Shadows,” made possible by a grant from the American Composers Forum with funds provided by the Jerome Foundation. Continue reading below for some insights into Le Boeuf’s process as a saxophonist and big band composer.
The Jazz Gallery: So how did the big band thing start for you?
Remy Le Boeuf: I started writing for big band when I was eighteen, but I began to take it more seriously in 2015 when I got commissioned by Keio University in Japan to write them a piece for a big band competition.
TJG: How did the commission come about if you weren’t writing big band music at the time?
RLB: My friend Franky Rousseau, an excellent big band composer, introduced me to a guy named Jun Umegaki at a party. Jun had been a fan of my music, and worked with this Japanese big band, Keio Light Music Society, comprised of students from Keio University. They have been supportive of a lot of young New York composers, and had worked with Franky, as well as Miho Hazama, Michael Thomas, and plenty more. Keio commissioned me to write a piece that summer for an upcoming competition, and I got to work with the band via email. They would rehearse and send me recordings, and I’d send back notes and make adjustments to the piece. I became more familiar with large-ensemble textures, and learned more about how to write for the instrumentation and for those specific players. They were so motivated to play my music, and I was excited to be working with them. It was contagious. They performed the piece I wrote, “Strata,” at the Yamano Big Band Competition, and won for the first time in decades. It was a huge high for all of them, and it was so exciting for me to be writing music I loved for such enthusiastic musicians.
I had so much fun writing for Keio that I wanted to write more for big band. I applied for other commission opportunities with the recording I got from Keio, and one of those opportunities was the Jerome Fund, awarded by the American Composers Forum through the generosity of the Jerome Foundation. I proposed writing a piece called “Assembly of Shadows,” and I was awarded the commission. I began writing that in 2016, and now, this fall, I’m finishing it. I’m excited to premiere it at The Jazz Gallery, and the ensemble shares the name of the piece, “Assembly of Shadows.”
TJG: So this is the beginning of an exciting new project. You have an ambitious timeline for the next year, and you are in the middle of a fundraising campaign for your first large-ensemble album. Can you tell me about your vision for this project?
RLB: After we premiere “Assembly of Shadows” at The Jazz Gallery next week, I’m going to start planning the recording, which will likely take place in Spring 2019. By that time, I hope to have raised enough money through my fundraising efforts and applications to various organizations to record, and I hope to release the album in Fall 2019 at the earliest. It takes a lot of resources to make a large ensemble album, including paying everyone appropriately for their full days in the studio, renting the space, tuning the piano, getting hard drives, and hourly rates for engineering, mixing, and mastering. But I have all of this music that I’m really excited about, and I’m ready to share it with the world, so I’m doing everything I can to make it happen. In addition to that, I have a sextet album coming out in April, so I’ve got a lot going on this year.
TJG: In what I’ve heard of your large-ensemble writing, I can hear your own compositional voice alongside classic big band textures, cinematic structures, influences from chamber music, ideas from Copland and Stravinsky, even rock and pop sounds. What influences do you perceive in your big band writing?
RLB: I rarely write something with the intention of drawing on a specific influence. I won’t say, for example “I want this to sound like a particular Bartók piece.” But there are important musical experiences that have become part of who I am. When I was growing up, for example, I was a boy soprano soloist, and sang Leonard Bernstein’s Mass in Italy. Leonard Bernstein has had a huge impact not only in the way that I write, but in the way that I understand music. While growing up, I was not just learning the language of music: I was figuring out who I was as a person. I still draw on Bernstein. I like the way he develops exciting textures, as well as the innocence and beauty of some of his writing. I also admire Aaron Copland: I like the openness of his voicings, the space that he creates with the way he orchestrates. In May, I’ll be living in Copland’s home and composing on his piano for a month through the Copland House residency. I can’t wait. I think there are some original scores there too, which would blow my mind.
I’ve been thinking about Benjamin Britten too, because I’m writing a choir arrangement after I’m finished with “Assembly of Shadows.” A lot of Britten’s ideas have found their way into my music too. He’s an incredible composer who I also enjoyed singing as a kid. I’ve been fortunate in my life to always have different influences around me. I got to play in a ska band growing up, I got to play jazz with my brother Pascal, you know. I’m always drawing on all kinds of influences.
TJG: There’s a nice video on Facebook of you playing an arrangement-in-progress on the piano, and at the end you talk about your process, the specific musical goals you’re reaching for, some techniques you might use. Is that your typical workflow?
RLB: I’ve been working on that piece for a while, and I even got to try a version of it at Smalls a couple of weeks ago. It’s still taking shape. I’ll usually play through something a number of times at the piano while thinking about where it can go, what instrument might play a certain part, or how I can do this or that differently. I knew I wanted to end with an ascending Bb melodic minor phrase, and make it arrive at a high C# in the melody, then go between C# major and G major, which of course is this super epic texture. I find myself writing a lot of epic things. I have one particular friend who always notes the “Lord of the Rings” moments I have in my music: There was a time in my life where, instead of drinking coffee or tea to get focused, I would watch exciting parts of movies to release endorphins in my brain before sitting down to write. When you’re in a movie, you might cry at a denouement moment, it’s just so emotional, which is a great state to be in while composing. You really feel the weight behind every melody, every texture. There was a while when I didn’t have a streaming service and I had the “Lord of the Rings” films on DVD, so I would watch those to get excited [laugh].
And then, a lot of the preposterousness, the “epicness,” that I try to put forward in my writing, comes from Mingus. I listened to so much Mingus growing up: The first year I was truly into playing jazz, I listened to only Mingus for a full year. I was an obsessive listener, a purist. I also like Stravinsky, he’s another one I like to draw on for epic moments. I’m still listening to these guys alongside all of the amazing jazz composers out there today.
TJG: Does your process for writing change much when you’re doing an arrangement of someone else’s music? I know you’ve done some arranging for Aaron Parks and a few pieces for Jazz at Lincoln Center.
RLB: Every arrangement is different. I’ve had some great conversations with Aaron about composition. Through his writing, Aaron really makes me believe his gestures and his melodies, so it’s easy for me to get behind it and arrange it. There are other situations where, for example, I worked with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Wynton Marsalis last May and arranged a piece by Ornette Coleman called “Honeymooners” from Virgin Beauty, an album from the eighties. That was not the kind of music that I would normally write or arrange, but I love it. In approaching the arrangement, I had to decide whether to write in a style that was consistent with Ornette, or to try to bring his material into my own identity. Ultimately, after talking to Ted Nash about it, who was directing the concert, I decided to take a lot of liberties and really put myself into the arrangement. One of the reasons they asked me to arrange was because they wanted a modern voice on the concert, as well as someone who would take on Ornette’s late period.
TJG: Do your compositional concerns change when the harmonic and melodic material is beyond your control?
RLB: No, even if I’m arranging someone’s music, I’m always developing, reharmonizing it, making adjustments to melodies. I think Aaron Parks is an exception, but even there, I added things. Right now I’m doing an arrangement for Sachal Vasandani that’s going to be performed at Lincoln Center on the 14th and 15th, and I took a lot of liberties. I do it if I feel it’s necessary. Of course, If something is beautiful as-is, I’m not going to change it just to put my stamp on it. But I do find a lot of opportunities when I’m trying to take something in a new direction.
TJG: Finally, I want to ask about your saxophone playing in the context of the large ensemble. What’s your performance role in “Assembly of Shadows,” and how has your performance experience influenced how you write for the group?
RLB: On the concert, I’ll be conducting most of the material, and I’ll be featured on several songs as well. Moving forward, when we record, I expect to be playing on everything. Because the compositional process is so much more involved, I can really build my solos the way that I want. I have a lot more control. At the same time, with any big band or jazz orchestra, freedom is limited, because there are so many voices in the conversation. If you’re having a conversation one-on-one with someone, it’s a different conversation than when it’s nineteen people in a room. Musical intimacy is important to me, and at every turn, I’m trying to find ways to incorporate it in the larger conversation of the jazz orchestra. Sometimes it’s a challenge, but that’s what makes the process different from a compositional perspective. I’m trying to bring my small ensemble vibe into the jazz orchestra. I get to be the same person when writing for big band or for quartet, the only difference being that I’m creating vehicles of expression for other people. I’m thinking about John Lowery when I’m writing a tenor solo, or I’m thinking about Martha Kato when I’m working on a piano feature. I’m going to write a different kind of piano feature for her than I’d write for a small group with Shai Maestro or Aaron Parks. I get to write for so many different voices, and through that, I get to explore new sides of myself as a composer.
Remy LeBoeuf’s Assembly of Shadows Jazz Orchestra plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, December 7, 2018. The group is conducted by Remy LeBoeuf and Greg Robbins, and features Vito Chiavuzzo, Alejandro Aviles, Ben Kono, John Lowery, and Carl Maraghi on woodwinds; Tony Glausi, John Lake, Mike Rodriquez, and Matt Holman on trumpets; Alan Ferber, Alex Jeun, Isaac Kaplan, and Max Seigel on trombones; Alex Goodman on guitar; Martha Kato on piano; Matt Aronoff on bass; Peter Kronreif on drums; and Rodrigo Recabarren on percussion. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.