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.
TJG: What have been some recent influences for you? Musical, not musical? What do you draw on when you sit down to start composing?
AM: That’s hard! Obviously I’m influenced by music, I’m a musician, that’s the form I’m working in, but…
The newest piece for the band is called “Coral”, and funnily enough, it wasn’t originally related to the imagery of coral in the ocean. It was a wordplay on chorale, because I was going to write a chorale-type piece, but then my idea of what a chorale was became so far from what a chorale really is that I changed the name to “Coral.” But then it became this ocean piece—I’m not sure how to describe what my influence was…
I like to read a lot. I read poetry; I love Anne Carson. I’ve seen some more theater, performance art, dance pieces; recently I saw a piece that was really amazing, Poor People’s TV Room, by Okwui Okpokwasili. Just really beautiful and unusual combination of narrative and dance, singing and abstraction. It was an amazing experience. I like thinking about the experience of spending time in the piece, and what changes throughout it, inside and outside.
TJG: To go back to what you mentioned before, writing for improvisers to change structure and how that becomes hard in a larger group. Could you talk about the differences you see between a big band and a smaller group? The need to direct the motion more in the large group?
AM: Yeah, I think for the large group, the responsibility to be very clear as a composer with my intentions and the kind of sonic spaces that I’m inviting people into. It has to be clear to be effective, because when you introduce a bunch of people making independent decisions into that it can get muddied, chaotic in a way that’s not distinct as chaos, just sort of in between.
It’s a process. A lot of what I’ve written for this band—most of what I’ve written—falls in a pretty conventional way of just using regular notation, start at the beginning, go through the end. But with “Coral,” for one, I’m playing with different pacing, pacing based on each person’s breath. Decision-making in the group, like assigning “keys” within the ensemble who have one particular job to do, but it’s up to them when they do that. In a small group, a lot can be open. I have a group called Rallidae that is songs in improvised habitats, and when it’s just a few people, you can know that the written material is going to happen at some point but otherwise it’s just up to us following where the music takes us and listening to each other. And so the form element can take care of itself. I don’t think that’s true with this band, although if we got to play together a lot, maybe that would change. Realistically, I want to be clear about what the piece sounds like, but I also like the idea of creating some adventures for players inside the piece.
TJG: What are you looking forward to in this upcoming Jazz Gallery show?
AM: It’s a lot of music to accomplish! Just getting the balance and blend of everything. That’s not experimental, just normal, but I’m really excited to hear those different things come out. We have a couple people playing with the band for the first time, and it’s really nice to hear their contributions and their solos. I’m really excited about the new piece, “Coral,” because it’s had two performances so far and both of them have been very different. So I’m excited to hear how it’s going to sound this time.
TJG: What are your larger goals with this project? What would you like to see happen?
AM: Well, we are working on making a record! We’re going to put out an album on Greenleaf next year. It’s exciting—we’re trying to get some funding for a studio recording session, but we also have a live recording that we’re really happy with. So depending on how the finances work out—we are committed to paying musicians the most that we can, especially for recording, we want to compensate! I’m not in a place to make that financially happen by myself, so looking at ways to make that happen. We’re waiting to hear about some grants, fingers crossed on that. Either way, that’s coming up. There’s also stuff in the baby stages of planning with Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, who have a great program called Jazz Explorers for girls ages 10-12, to get girls at the beginning of their music playing time acquaintanced with jazz so they can enter the teen jazz programs, encouraging more girls to take part in the programs. I got to sub in as a teacher, and it’s really fun and beautiful. We’re hoping to do a collaboration with them next year, but we don’t know what shape that’s going to take yet.
After this, we’re playing at the Queens Museum in the afternoon: we’re expecting a lot of kids there, and it’s just awesome, having it be the first time that kids had seen or heard a band like this before. I feel happy and lucky to work with Anna, and everyone in the band is an awesome musician; I’m happy to play with them and to be playing at The Jazz Gallery.
The Webber/Morris Big Band plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, March 22, 2019. Ms. Morris and Ms. Webber—composers/conductors/woodwind players—will be joined by Ben Kono, Charlotte Greve, Adam Schneit, and Lisa Parrott on woodwinds; Tim Vaughn, Kalia Vandever, Jen Baker, and Nick Grinder on trombones; John Lake, Kenny Warren, Dave Adewumi, and Jake Henry on trumpets; Dustin Carlson on guitar, Patricia Brennan on vibraphone, Marta Sanchez on piano, Adam Hopkins on bass, Jeff Davis on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $20 general admission ($10 for members), $30 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.