Posted on 11/4/2009at 10:18 AM
Sometime in the mid-90’s, I quietly became obsessed with great arrangers. I became so enthralled with great arrangers, I decided that anyone who spends the time to figure out how to write and orchestrate for different intruments and voices is a great arranger. I love them all – Thad Jones, Ernie Wilkins, Gil Evans, Quincy Jones, Maria Schneider, John Clayton, Billy May, Gordon Jenkins, Nelson Riddle, Don Costa, George Duke, Bill Russo, Gary McFarland, Slide Hampton, Patrick Williams, Jimmy Heath, Bob Brookmeyer, Don Sebesky, J.J. Johnson, Wynton Marsalis and the list goes on and on and on and on…..(I don’t REALLY need to mention Duke Ellington, do I?)

I narrowed my personal favorites down to the late, great Oliver Nelson and a man who I’ve been fortunate to work with many times over the years, Lalo Schifrin. I’ve seemed to migrate to their projects more than anyone. Just the sheer diversity of their writing constantly leaves me awestruck. Jazz writing, pop writing, large group, small group, TV/Movies, orchestral works, etc, etc.

Since the mid-90’s, I’ve (again quietly) amassed a fair amount of my own big band material. The Mancini Institute was a wonderful place for me to cut my teeth as a big band arranger. Although I was always there as a clinician, I was most certainly a student also, since I was still very much a novice at writing for big bands. Being around the late Jack Eliott, Justin DiCioccio and Patrick Williams every summer being asked to write something for the big band almost every year, to me, was school.

Last month, I played my first week-long engagement with a big band. It was incredible! My manager, Andre Guess, is always staying on my case about writing. “Write! Write! Write!”, he says. Yeah, he’s write. I mean, uh, “right”!

Anyhow, I had a trumpet section of Frank Greene, Kenny Rampton, Brandon Lee and Freddie Hendrix. Trombones were Steve Davis, Mike Dease, James Burton and Doug Purviance. Saxes were Steve Wilson, Todd Bashore, Todd Williams, Loren Schoenberg and Frank Basile. The rhythm section consisted of David Bryant (piano) and Ulysses Owens, Jr. (drums). I also had young, bad Ben Williams play on a couple of things. Our star female vocalist (the female vocalist is always the star in any big band) was Melissa. As for me? I stood out front and played/conducted and did most of the writing. What a week. We’re going to do it again soon. Keep watching the gigs page.

Speaking of Ben Williams, some of you probably know that he’s the winner of this Thelonious Monk International Bass Competition. It feels strange saying “competition”. That’s not what it’s about. Yes, there is a technical proficieny that comes from a LOT of practice, then once you’ve put in that time, you can do what you want with it, but still, “competition” is a little severe. On the flip side, however, that word “competition” gets the musicians geared up and on top of their game, and it gets the listeners excited, so I guess it’a all good in the end.

Frankly, the most memorable part of the competition was being one of the judges. I was honored to be part of a blue-ribbon group consisting of Robert Hurst, John Patitucci, Dave Holland, Charlie Haden and Mr. Ron Carter. With us being there and all the hottest young cats in the competition, I wondered if jazz took the weekend off, because there were no bass players available! Everyone was in DC!

Hats off to all of the 15 semi-finalists and the three that made the final cut – Ben, Joe Sanders and Matt Brewer. You all played GREAT!

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