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Adding Soul to Your Big Band

the blues brothersMy eyes opened to soul music with the film classic Blues Brothers in 1980 (might be a little guilty pleasure there). Besides being a movie appealing to a teenagers emerging sense of humor and identity, the film introduced a new generation to the groove and style of soul and blues. However, soul is so much more than Blues Brothers, and the first encounter with great voices like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Cab Calloway, inspired to further quests into the land of soul, discovering music from great artists like Otis Redding, Martha Reeves and James Brown.the blues brothers

Later another film classic, The Commitments from 1991, again emphasized the link between soul and music, and brought jewels like In The Midnight Hour and Take Me To The River to a wider audience.

The thing about soul, is the raw groove and intensity. There's no better musical experience than listening to live performances where the music reaches you in one way or another, and in my world the ultimate experience is when a groovy rhythm takes possession of mind and body. That might in essence be the definition of 'soul', and certainly links back to the soul music origins of Gospel and R&B.

Working with amateur jazz ensembles and big bands, the traditional approach is often to build a foundation of Miller/Nestico type standards, laying upon those some Latin variations, and then perhaps mix those with popular classic hit songs. As the band develops the most common route forward is exploring improvisations and jazz music.

These trends are also reflected in the choice of available sheet music . The big publishers rarely have soul or blues as a separate category, but what is more important is that finding soul music arranged for a big band setup is virtually impossible. Classics like Ain't that peculiar and Going back to Miami are hard to find.

Why is this so ? Is soul too difficult to play, do you need a certain type of vocalist to make it sound good ? Isn't the crowd ready for it ?

the blues brothersI believe the answer is (at least partly) in tradition. Big Bands don't play soul. It's either "tuxedo" music, where soul has no natural place, or "jazz" music, where the music definitely can be soulful, but unfortunately reaches out to a narrower audience. Yes, you need a funky rhythm section, and it certainly helps with a 'Belushi' or James Brown in front of the band, but as with every genre, also soul music needs listening, understanding and practice.

In my opinion soul is an unexplored territory for most jazz ensembles. Here you can find a gold mine of music that is challenging and fun for the ensemble, but also bring joy and feet searching for the floor in the audience.



the blues brothersI admit that my audio equipment spending might be slightly exceeding the average fellow. I take my music seriously, and want it to sound good, anywhere I wish to access it.

In practical terms that resembles into numerous amplifiers and speaker systems, connected to computers, streamers, audio players, TV's and musical instruments, in addition to a number of gadgets like earplugs and generations of portable active speakers.

My latest investment into this plethora of enjoyment, was not only a pleasant surprise in terms of sound quality, but actually managed to add something new to my portfolio of sound generators.

Portable sound has been around longer than I have, but the drawbacks have been obvious when you need something that can create enough decibel to reach a group of 10+, even up to this day. Compromises have been needed in terms of weight/portability, power supply, cables and not to mention sound quality. To have a ready-to-play quality sound system accessible at any occasion, has not been easily achievable.

With the Lingo Xtatic I have found my favorite gadget of the day. This crafty device is so small that it almost fits into your pocket, runs on long-life batteries, and have only one rather short cable. And this is all you need ! Because this little power package can spread sound onto a large and crowded room.

I see that the word "party-maker" is often used in connection with this device, and I can fully support that thought. However, I have found another usage that is quite intriguing.

I bring my Xtatic to our big band practice sessions. Most of the music we play is available on Spotify or in my mp3 library, which means that whenever we wonder about a groove, key or tempo, we can do an instant check with the original. Listening to music is the second best way to learn to play, an when you can combine it with the best way, practice, it's unbeatable.

Music is a well known catalyst for achieving ecstacy. With Xtatic you'll find a very good companion and catalyst for achieving true music.

Buy or 'Borrow'

Being an amateur jazz ensemble might be a challenging financial enterprise. Musical instruments and instructors don't come cheap and the income per head from gigs is not much for a living.

Sheet music also come at a cost, but is it costly ?

To be able to perform at a dance night, you would need a repertoire of some 50-100 songs, at an average cost of $40 a piece, that would suggest that you need a sheet music library asset worth $2000 - $4000. One can understand why some find this a heavy investment, and turns towards a 'borrowing' practice, commonly used with amateur big bands.

The 2 questions that pops into my mind is

- Is a 'borrowing practice' legal or even morally acceptable ?
- Is $30 - $50 for a complete set of music notes (scores and parts) actually so expensive ?

On the question of legality and moral, I was once told from a Security Manager that 'Everyone's a thief, it's only a matter about price, risk and opportunity'. On items that is easily distributed and hardly tracked, the opportunity is big and the risk of being caught virtually next to none. Nowhere is this more relevant than in the music business. Composers, arrangers and performing artists all make a living out of their work, but see more and more of their copyrighted materiel being distributed on torrents like Pirate Bay, thus have less and less income on their immaterial rights.

This is and will be a major discussion, but also have a relevance for sheet music distribution. In the days of the past, the copy machine did the work of the torrents on sheet music, but also music charts are now available as pdf's or midi files.

In the end steeling is still steeling, no matter how you turn it. I'm all for sharing and open source, but it is still owner of the material that decides on how to publish, distribute and charge for the material. That leads to the simple conclusion that you are a thief whenever you use the copy machine or torrent to get access to copyrighted material. A thief that will never be caught, but still a thief.

Now to the question of cost. I know of no studies of the life span of big band's, but I would assume that average life span is larger than 10, probably more like 20-30 years. The musicians change, but the band survives. Also when a big band 'die', one can often expect a resurrection where name and material is inherited to new musicians. In this context, it's no discussion that you need to view purchasing of big band charts as investments with many years of 'depreciation'.

If you make a budget of buying 5 - 10 new charts each year, we're talking $200 - $400. I find that quite moderate compared to other big band expenses, but also compared to the cost of doing other activities, like sports. In no way amounts worth making a thief out of yourself.

With more and more publishers and arrangers making their material available on the net, with audio and chart samples, also the risk of making bad 'investments' is diminishing. Here's also a big challenge to those publishers who's not working with samples ; You need to get your act together quickly. Jazz ensembles will search for and buy their music notes on the net, but they will avoid those who lack good samples to evaluate before purchase.