Building a great band part 2: for directors

Achieving excellence in jazz band performance

By Saul Richardson: Principal at Jazz Workshop Australia, Lecturer in Jazz Pedagogy at Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Chief Conductor Sydney Youth Jazz Orchestra, Yamaha Festival jazz adjudicator.

As we are currently in the middle of Festival and Eisteddfod season, I thought it might be useful to explain some of the things that band directors should be working on to build develop a stronger band. No matter how good our band it, there are always more things we can do. Here are the main things I think a good jazz band (stage band, big band, jazz orchestra) should aim for in performance of jazz repertoire:

  1. Tone
  2. Rhythm & style
  3. Intonation
  4. Blend
  5. Balance
  6. Improvisation in solos
  7. Rhythm section
  8. Musical expression
  9. Ensemble precision
  10. Presentation

It is important not to confuse jazz ensemble performance with concert band performance. They are two different things, with different expectations and stylistic requirements.


Part 2: For Band Directors

A truly outstanding band is technically correct (notes) and emotionally correct (jazz spirit). A perfect synthesis of these two ideas is very rare. A great band also becomes one, a single organism, and can get beyond the notes to express its musical emotion artistically (Brian Lillos, 2006)

Ensemble Precision   Musical Emotion

  (must interact)

Tone: Individuals should play with a jazz tone (not “classical” or “rock” or something else). The ensemble should tend to have a focused and powerful sound where appropriate, or a subtle warm sound in gentler pieces such as ballads. Powerful doesn’t mean loud. Brass instruments tend to be brighter and “brassier” than in concert band. Saxes also tend to be brighter and stronger. Rhythm sections should sound like a jazz band and not a rock or folk group. Listen to famous big band recordings for reference.

Rhythm & Style: The one thing we spend most time on in school band rehearsals is rhythm. Many students seem to find rhythm the hardest part of music to get right, especially swing rhythms. The band needs to be able to play each piece in a stylistically correct manner. They also need to be able to play all the rhythms accurately and together.

Intonation: Individuals, each section and the full ensemble should play in tune with each other. The intonation should remain secure at all dynamic levels and in all textures. Dissonant chords sound much worse than simple chords if the band is out of tune. An in tune band sounds brighter and louder or clearer than an out of tune one.

Blend:   Sounds within a section should match. The band should sound like an ensemble, not a collective of individuals.

Balance: This applies to the whole ensemble, within each section including the rhythm section and between sections. Generally, no individual part should dominate. Parts at the extreme ranges must be audible and in tune (such as lead trumpet, bari sax, bass trombone). Middle parts should also be audible and in tune (such as alto 2, trombones 2 &3). Lower parts should support the lead voices, not disappear every time the music gets a bit harder! Often a pyramid balance is most effective, but not always. The pyramid can apply to the whole ensemble and within sections. However, sometimes “sectional” balance is better (each voice equal in weight). Contrapuntal and linear arrangements call for a different approach again.

Improvisation in solos:                 Everybody can improvise to some extent, so there is no reason not to. Solos should be improvised. As a general rule the written examples tend to be rubbish. If they are a transcription of a genuine solo, then they are useful for study but shouldn’t be played in performance. Students who have solos have a responsibility to practice how to improvise effectively and in style at least in that piece. In serious jazz music improvised solos form a large and critically important part of each arrangement. It is really a shame when an otherwise well prepared group is let down by weak, unprepared soloists. Solo sections should be worked on with as much rigour as the ensemble sections.

Leaving out the solos, using written solos or choosing pieces without solos are not viable options. They are all to the detriment of the band and seriously undermine its credibility as a jazz ensemble.

Good solos tend to display excellence in the following: Style, tone, rhythmic drive and energy, projection, musical confidence, creatively following the chord changes (if any), quality of motivic/melodic/rhythmic development, level of harmonic understanding, structure, mood, spontaneity, excitement, communication with the audience, communication and interaction with the rhythm section, and a balance of unity and contrast. (Lillos, 2006).

Rhythm Section: In a great rhythm section all members play with excellent time feel and sense of style. The drummer effectively supports the ensemble playing appropriate set ups, fills, solos and punctuations. The pianist and guitarist play together cohesively and “comp” in style. All members communicate with each other and with the rest of the band. Here is a summary of points to consider (from Lillos, 2006):

  • drum feel
  • drum support, preparation & fills
  • guitar and piano fills & punctuation
  • bass kicks, punctuation, turnarounds
  • Rhythm Section (RS) punctuation
  • RS energy behind band
  • RS energy behind soloists
  • RS communication with horns
  • RS communication with each other
  • Horns playing off RS
  • Textures
  • RS musical leadership

The rhythm section should be balanced within itself and with the rest of the band. At no time should they drown out the rest of the band or a soloist (unless the conductor asks them to for some musical reason). The bass should be heard but not loud. Likewise the guitar, in most situations. It usually sounds best if the rhythm section is a bit softer than the rest of the band. They shouldn’t try to play with as much dynamic detail as the horns, but should observe important rises, falls, soft sections and climaxes.

The rhythm section must pay the same attention to detail, sound and style as everyone else in the band, if not more.

Musical Expression: Everyone in the band should play expressively and work together to create a cohesive emotional interpretation of the piece. Some elements of this might include: feel, groove, intensity, energy, spontaneity, capturing the spirit of the music (Lillos, 2006). Dynamics should be used to advance the emotional story of the arrangement, to shape phrases, to create a climax, to create contrasts and interest. A good band can play with control.

Ensemble Precision: The band must play together and with a cohesive sense of time and style. Rhythms should be accurate, cut-offs precise, attacks clear and together, articulations right for the style. A great band can play with excellent technique with individuals and the group showing a high level of facility. I don’t believe that ensemble precision is the most important aspect of jazz playing, but it is still important. It shouldn’t be ignored: a “gold standard” band takes care of emotion and technique together to create an artistic synthesis.

Presentation: A “gold standard” band is well presented. This doesn’t mean they have to be well-dressed, although in a formal performance they should be. All the musicians in a good band should demonstrate positive body language appropriate to the piece and the context. There should be movement, smiles, enjoyment, energy and a real effort to communicate with the audience. If the performers look like they would rather not be there, then why should anyone listen to them? On the other hand, joy, energy and positivity are infectious and the audience will respond!

Reference: Jazz Pedagogy, a Canadian Perspective, Brian Lillos, 2006.

©2012 Saul Richardson,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *