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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of the artist.

The Erica Seguine/Shan Baker Jazz Orchestra has been around for just shy of a decade. For one of those years, the band had a monthly residency in New Jersey where they were able to workshop new compositions and develop an expansive network of big band personnel. In our recent phone call, we talked about how the sound of the band has evolved over the last eight years, and how the two bandleaders approach composing for a large ensemble.

Both Seguine and Baker contribute compositions to the band, while Sequine conducts and Baker performs. New York Daily Music notes Sequine’s “vivid, cinematic narratives, counterintuitive Gil Evans-like color contrasts,” and Baker’s “tectonically shifting sheets, atmospheric crescendos and long panoramic stretches.” The large ensemble will be camping out on The Jazz Gallery stage for an evening of new and old works, with eyes toward a late-summer recording date for the ESSBJO debut album.

The Jazz Gallery: Thank you both so much for taking a moment to chat! You mentioned you’re based out of New Jersey—do you do most of your rehearsing out there too?

Erica Seguine: We mostly rehearse in the city, actually. Most of the band lives in the city, though a few of us live in New Jersey as well. We’ll often rehearse at City College because one of our band members, Scott Reeves, teaches there. For this performance, we’re rehearsing at iBeam in Brooklyn.

TJG: Do you find that rehearsal spaces influence your perception of the band? As you’re making changes and interpreting the music, does space play a factor?

ES: Space is definitely one of the factors, though not the primary factor. When we bring in a piece for the first time, everyone’s naturally just reading the notes. On a first reading or first rehearsal, or even after the first couple of performances, it takes time to get into the subtleties, so often the result is that I’ll hear the music and think, “Oh my god, did I really write that?” I’ll find out later that it just needed more time to sink in with the band. That’s why I usually wait to change something until after I’ve had a couple of readings, unless something is totally not what I had in mind, or is technically impossible. Shan writes really dense harmony sometimes, and can take a few performances before things really gel. Rarely does it sound right on the first read-through.

TJG: There’s a big sight-reading culture in New York. People are busy, and play in so many bands. So, a lot music is heard on a first read. Do you think the sight-reading experience is integral? Would you prefer it to be different?

ES: Frankly, I would love to rehearse more, to have rehearsals where we comb through harmonies, chords, voicings. Once, we had the luxury to have a rehearsal where we could stop and go chord-by-chord to tune the band. That was amazing, but a rare luxury [laughs]. We happened to have already had a couple of rehearsals, plus we had performances that were close together, so we were able to use one rehearsal and say, for example, “Let’s take three notes within the ensemble, and slowly add the other instruments until the chord is built.”

TJG: Tuning with so many musicians is such a big part of the sound, it really defines the ensemble.

ES: It does! I remember something from Ray Wright’s “Inside the Score” book that analyzes music by Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer. There’s a line in there about how if the band is not totally in tune, the whole thing can just go out the window.

TJG: Does the band play an equal split between your compositions? At what point in your composition/editing/rehearsal process do you begin to interact?

ES: Lately, it’s been two-thirds my work and one-third Shan’s work. In terms of all the work together, it’s pretty close to equal. The composition process is very independent: I might ask Shan, “Hey, what do you think of this or that,” at a rehearsal when I’m conducting the band, especially if we’re doing one of Shan’s pieces. I’ll often ask about what they’re looking for in terms of ensemble sound, tempos, interpreting lines and rhythms.

TJG: Are there parts that are more fully collaborative?

ES: Not really. I conduct, and Shan plays, so our roles are pretty clear-cut. There’s not much back-and-forth: We’re usually pretty independent in terms of the notes on the page. Other band members often have insight into different parts, and we definitely listen to that too.

TJG: Shan, is this your first full-time big band where you play in it and have your own composition played?

Shan Baker: Yes, it is.

TJG: Have you felt your writing change over time?

SB: Yeah, it’s a lot more balanced, though I’m still working on it. I spend more time on writing than playing, and then I’ll remember, “Oh yeah, I have to play all of this stuff too” [laughs].

TJG: Do you have your “musician” hat on while you’re composing, or is it more like you get to the end of a piece, and then go back to the beginning and learn it as a performer?

SB: It’s definitely more like the latter. When I am writing I don’t think about the fact that I’ll be performing it later. Playing and composing for the big band are two different worlds for me. I use the piano as a compositional tool and leave the saxophone out of the process. 

TJG: Big band pieces tend to be on the longer side. How do you tend to think about structure?

ES: When composing, I try to tell a story. Things often need to take time to develop. If you try to introduce a theme and suddenly say “We’re going this way instead, or we’re going to do this whole arc in three minutes,” it doesn’t feel like enough time to develop. Even in a small group, soloists take their time developing ideas. Rarely do you hear someone jump in, then jump right back out. As a composer, regardless of the size of the group, I want to develop the progression of the story by giving each section the time it needs.

SB: I agree. When I’m writing, I honestly never think about how long a piece is going to be. I try to let things unfold as organically as possible. That being said, a lot of my pieces end up being nine or ten minutes.

TJG: So recently, you were profiled in The New York Times about the ‘new rise of the big band.’ Do you feel like you’re a part of a broader big band movement and community?

ES: There’s a significant scene happening, and there are plenty of fantastic big bands and composers who were not mentioned in that article, so in that sense, the article didn’t give enough of a survey of what’s actually out there. Off the top of my head, there’s Migiwa Miyajima Meg Okura, The Liberté Big Band, Jihye Lee, Remy Le Boeuf, lots of people were not mentioned in there. In terms of the community, on a rational level, I know I belong. Sometimes, I have a fear that I don’t belong, but that’s just insecurity talking [laughs].

TJG: I totally understand that. And does the additional prep that goes into a big band project heighten that sense of self-questioning?

ES: Yeah. There’s a lot of stress that goes into organizing the gig and getting rehearsals together. When you’re a big band leader, you have twenty different roles: Composer, arranger, rehearsal organizer, booking agent, PR and management, deliverer, cat-herder [laughs]. But I do feel that the scene has been very supportive. My peers are wonderful people, we share a lot with each other, everything from composition techniques to moral support.

TJG: You’re leading up to a recording this summer. Can you tell me a little about the music you’ll be recording, and how you’re prepping for the session?

ES: Yup. We’re recording in August. As far as the music goes, it’s a mix of stuff that has been written within the last five years. We’re still deciding what exactly to include on the CD: We have too much music, which is a great problem to have. Each composition expresses a different aspect of our personalities. We’re trying to figure out how best to say what we want to say, which can change from day to day. You have different parts of yourself, you know? Cheery, introspective, sentimental: When you’re trying to figure out what’s going to represent you, it makes committing to the repertoire more of a challenge, because you’re saying something specific about your message, your philosophy. We’re constantly shifting. On performances, we often choose to include pieces that represent certain sides of us, and then choose other pieces for other performances, but the recording feels pretty fixed, by contrast.

TJG: Will the band on the recording be basically your steady group?

ES: For the most part, minus a few personnel changes for practical reasons. There’s always someone who can’t make the session. Our personnel has been pretty set since 2014, we haven’t made many changes since then. The session will have very similar personnel.

TJG: In New York, there are so many people to choose from, so your big band could potentially sound so many different ways, even without considering the compositions. Could you describe the sound of the band?

SB: The sound has definitely evolved. We began in 2011, and it took three or four years to find a personnel that really clicked. We had an opportunity to play at a small tea shop in Montclair, New Jersey every month for a whole year. Throughout that period, different band members inevitably couldn’t make it. One night, for example, we had an entirely different trumpet section. Over that year-long residency, the band evolved and the personnel became steadier. We grew a huge network of musicians that we still call upon when regular members can’t make a performance. 

ES: Exactly. Rather than feeling like “Ooh, this is it, this is the band,” it’s been a gradual shift based on every musician. For example, John Lowery plays the first tenor/clarinet chair: As soon as he joined us, I felt like “Yes, that’s it.” When we first heard Nathan Eklund, we felt “Wow, that’s the sound we’re looking for.” It wasn’t necessary a moment where everyone came together, but individual players. We’re so excited to continue sharing our music: The recording has been long overdue, and we’re ready to finally make some big strides with the band.

Erica Seguine/Shan Baker Orchestra plays The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, April 3, 2019. The group features Erica Seguine, composer/conductor; Shan Baker, composer/woodwinds; Ben Kono, John Lowery, Quinsin Nachoff, and Andrew Hadro on woodwinds; Nathan Eklund, John Lake, and Adam Horowitz on trumpets; Scott Reeves, Nick Grinder, and Bob Bennett on trombones; Meg Okura on violin; Sonia Sundelson on voice; Eric Burns on guitar; Carmen Staaf on piano; Evan Gregor on bass; and Paolo Cantarella on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($15 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.