Led by composer/woodwind players Anna Webber and Angela Morris, the Webber/Morris Big Band is one of several up-and-coming big bands making their mark in New York right now. In a recent feature on the city’s big band scene, Giovanni Russonello of The New York Times called the ensemble “…a jagged-edged band that has begun to turn musicians’ heads.” While both Webber and Morris have been featured composers in The Jazz Gallery’s Jazz Composers’ Workshop series, they will bring their own band to The Jazz Gallery on Friday evening for the first time. We caught up with Angela Morris by phone to talk about the band’s origins, their developing book of compositions, and what’s next for the ensemble.
The Jazz Gallery: How did the big band form?
Angela Morris: Anna and I started this band in 2015. It came out of our mutual music circles combined with the fact that we both did the BMI big band composer’s workshop, which Jim McNeely was running. We were riding the train home from a concert together, and I said, “do you want to start a big band together?” We figured we would include a lot of the same musicians, and it’s a very intensive, whimsical project to have such a large ensemble, so it’s great to do it with somebody else. And hopefully it goes without saying that I love Anna’s music and really admire her as a composer, so it’s great to have that.
TJG: How does it work with the two of you as joint leaders? Does you take turns, or work together?
AM: The music is not co-composed; we compose separately. In terms of the operation of the band, we do it together. When we want to do concerts, or planning rehearsals, or applying for grants, any of that kind of stuff, we’re doing it in collaboration.
TJG: What is the composition process like for you with a larger ensemble? Do issues of orchestration come up?
AM: I think at the beginning I was really interested in thinking about the big band less as the sound of a big band that you might think of traditionally in jazz and more as a large ensemble, like an orchestra of improvisers. So it’s thinking about ways to make the ensemble sound surprising, exploring all the different timbres and combinations you can get, especially when you’re dealing with improvisers who have vocabularies of extended techniques and ways of improvising that aren’t just playing over changes.
I’m thinking about that on the one hand, and on the other thinking about how to incorporate improvisation in those different ways, to give the musicians different ways of effecting the course of the piece. In such a big group, that challenge is more of an idea than a reality; it’s challenging to make it really true that they can influence the form of the piece, because obviously I have to compose a lot of that. There’s different ways of incorporating the improvising.
Besides musical influences, I’ve had different nonmusical influcenes. Like there was one piece that I needed to write and I was kind of in a rut, so I made a spreadsheet, got a number generator, had it churn out a bunch of material and chose from that. Or another piece was composed around some words from a poem.