For our first concert I started not with the music but with the instrumentation. I’ve always had a love affair with the nonet – a nine-piece ensemble that’s not as large as a big band in size but still has a substantial sound. An ensemble of this size is what often comes to mind when we talk about “chamber jazz” which suggests jazz performed by smaller ensembles like those used in chamber music. Small enough that they can fit into palace chambers or large rooms.
In the very first concert I presented in Ottawa in 2005, the main act was a performance of the Birth of the Cool music which was composed by Gil Evans, Johnny Carisi, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, Miles Davis, and others. The album is most commonly associated with Miles Davis because he was the one who got a gig at the Royal Roost and a recording contract for the group. Yet the music and the concept of that nonet was birthed in the New York apartment of Gil Evans where he and other musicians used to hang out, listen to recordings, and talk about possible projects that might undertake.
The Birth of the Cool nonet had six horns, grouped into three pairs, alto and baritone saxophone, trumpet and trombone, and the conical brass pair of French horn and tuba. They were backed up by a classic three-piece rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums. That instrumentation was heavily inspired by the Claude Thornhill Orchestra that Gil Evans was a part of. The Thornhill orchestra incorporated French horns, clarinets, bass clarinets, flutes, and tuba, and had all of the horns playing without vibrato. This was a unique concept at a time when the “sweet” bands, such as those of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, employed copious vibrato. Thornhill also employed mixed voicings that blended the various instruments to achieve a range of different textures. The unique sounds were also obtained by having the instruments play at the extremes of their ranges. Sometimes this would be done in counter-intuitive fashion with the bass instruments playing up higher than the treble instruments. The Thornhill band had eighteen members, and Evans and the musicians who would eventually help form the Birth of the Cool nonet came up with the idea of an ensemble that would be half that number but would have a sound palette similar to the Thornhill orchestra.
Over the years we have performed other music written for this same instrumentation including some great music written by Virginia composer, Terry Vosbein, who came to visit us in Ottawa last season when we performed his fabulous La Chanson Francaise, a suite of French music which he scored for a nonet of alto and baritone saxophone, two trumpets, two trombones, piano, bass, and drums.
For our first 2018-2019 concert, we’re using yet another slightly different nonet configuration. This one has five horns – alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones, trumpet, and trombone, and a four-piece rhythm section with piano, guitar, bass, and drums.
What all of these nonet configurations have in common is an opportunity and a challenge for a composer or arranger to make a small group sound much bigger. It’s the sound of a little big band and additional variety can be added by having the saxophone players double on other instruments such as flute, clarinet, and bass clarinet.
As a bassist, I have always admired Chuck Israels for his playing but also for his writing. In recent years he has written two wonderful sets of arrangements for a nonet. One is the music of Horace Silver and another is the music of Bill Evans. Two pianists with vastly different styles but together they make a wonderfully complementary pair if you interweave their music together. Silver’s music is incredibly groovy with plenty of blues, dirt, and grease thrown in. Evans’s music is much more inventive and explores and pushes the boundaries of rhythm and harmony. It’s definitely more of a challenge to play and sometimes to listen to but the rewards are there. In both cases, this music was written by pianists who orchestrated primarily through the keyboard. This is especially true for Evans who played primarily in a trio format with just piano, bass, and drums where the piano was the primary melodic and harmonic device.
Israels took all of this great music and in arranging it for a nonet, he did what great arrangers should do which is not just to orchestrate the music for the instrumentation at hand, but also to re-compose parts, incorporate other material, re-harmonise, and effectively create new works out of great source material.
I’m pretty confident this will be the first time these arrangements will have been performed anywhere in Canada and we’re really looking forward to tackling them. You can check out a performance by Israels’s own nonet performing the Bill Evans tunes, “Show-Type Tune” right here.