Bob Brookmeyer - The Art of Swing

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Best-known for his work with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, Sextet and Concert Jazz Band, for his time with Stan Getz, his quintet with Clark Terry, and the trio with Jim Hall and Jimmy Giuffre, trombonist Bob Brookmeyer is in the UK for a rare series of gigs this month. Alyn Shipton talks to him Bob Brookmeyer - The Art of Swing
Always energetic, always outspoken, and as devoted to music now as at any time in his 77 years, this year’s Artist in Residence Bob Brookmeyer is looking forward to his various appearances at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival in May. His everyday existence seems to be about multitasking: teaching composition and arranging at the New England Conservatory, zipping across to mainland Europe to front his New Art Orchestra, playing and recording from time to time on piano, and leading his own small group on trombone, not to mention combining this with an active lifestyle in the deep heart of the American countryside, where it’s quiet enough to compose without interruption. So it’s no surprise to find that at Cheltenham he’s guesting with the BBC Big Band, playing with Hans Koller’s Octet and leading his own quartet, with Brad Shepik on guitar, Drew Gress on bass and John Hollenbeck, drums.

“It’s a very unusual band,” says Bob, when I ask about the quartet. “It’s also a very good combination, and we’d very much like it to be more regular than it actually is at present, owing to our various commitments. But we will record this summer, and I hope that means we’ll end up playing together more, because I haven’t had much time for small group work lately, having been so taken up with teaching and composing.”

I remember from talking to Bob about his education work for a radio series a few years ago that he has very forthright views about big bands, so how’s he looking forward to working with the BBC Band? “I worked with them 10 years ago, or so, and I thought they were good. At least I could work with them, I could teach them to sound how I wanted. Nowadays almost all the bands I play with have problems of phrasing. Believe me, over the last 25 years or so I’ve worked with some strange ones. You see, somewhere around the late 60s and early 70s, the number of players who’d been around in the 40s, and who’d been to hear Basie or Lunceford and all those people play live, experiencing how big band playing was done properly, began to diminish.

Up until then there were some lead trumpeters around New York who could phrase better for ballads and others who phrased better for swing, but there were plenty of them there. But with more and more musicians coming from music schools, with dance bands failing economically, and therefore removing the training ground that we all had, knowing how to swing became a studied affair, to the point that when I started my New Art Orchestra in 1994, I actually had to teach them virtually everything about how to play. I didn’t have my old colleague Mel Lewis there, who’d been my security blanket in many bands over the years, creating the swing and momentum, so I started from scratch and taught everyone in the band what to do, because they all phrased wrong.

“Almost every big band playing in the world today that I’ve heard, Maria Schneider’s being an honourable exception, to some extent phrase incorrectly. They clip notes, they make phrases sound stiff, that sort of thing. I can cite chapter and verse of many bands with very good arrangers, who produce extremely poorly played ensembles. When I was running a composing and arranging workshop in Denmark, I began to think maybe I’d got this wrong, but then one night I was going home in a taxi, and on the radio I heard Glenn Miller’s band, playing ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’. OK, it’s a commercial swing band, but the natural way they phrased, the perfect precision of the sections going ‘doo-doo-doo- dooOOO, de-doody-do-doo’ made me realise that I was right, and back at the time I was coming up, even the commercial bands did it right.”

This feature is taken from Jazzwise Issue Number 108 - to read the full feature subscribe here and receive a free CD.