BY SAMUEL COTTELL
For many music lovers, the term ‘big band’ might conjure up images of a group of 16 or so musicians (with a celebrity leader to boot) playing favourite hits such as String of Pearls or In the Mood. But now, the big band is much more than that and the term ‘jazz orchestra’ a much more apt description of the combination of musicians playing fresh and contemporary tunes.
In Sydney alone, there are several jazz orchestras that are vehicles for composers to have their new works premiered and performed. One such group is the Divergence Jazz Orchestra, founded by Jenna Cave and Paul Weber when they met in the con band shortly after Jenna moved from Canberra to Sydney to study her Masters in Composition with the famed Bill Motzing at Sydney Conservatorium.
When she started writing for big band and realised the exhilarating rush that came with hearing her music performed live, it was a dream come true to finally put together her own ensemble and hear compositions of hers and others. In 2013, Divergence recorded its first album The Opening Statement, which received great reviews in the press and contains beautifully crafted music. It is now time for the group, which has undergone many changes since its initial inception, to record a second album – and the musicians need your help. Jenna Cave is leading the charge with a crowdfunding campaign to raise around $7,500 to cover the costs of recording an album.
“Having a new album would be great as we can actually show radio audiences and people who aren’t local what we sound like now; share our music with them. When you make music, there’s nothing more satisfying than sharing it with others,” Jenna says.
The Divergence Jazz Orchestra is made up of many up-and-coming young Sydney jazz players as well as a mix of established jazz musicians. Jenna describes the Divergence Jazz Orchestra as “powerful, fun, exciting, emotional and awesome”. But despite her enthusiasm, there are many challenges to be faced in putting together a jazz orchestra and undertaking projects such as recordings. I asked Jenna (who is also a young jazz musician) what she feels is the best experience for young musos.
“Listen lots – to jazz and to all sorts of music. Experiment, play and compose lots, and work out what makes you excited about making music. And then, do that thing. Because you’ll be most convincing doing the thing you care most about.”
So what are the main skills needed for musicians performing in a large jazz ensemble?
“I’d say number one is team work; willing to work together for a greater whole and put individual egos aside. Essential musical elements would be good sight reading, good intonation, ability to blend in a section, an intimate understanding of the jazz idiom and stylistic approaches. I also think sensitivity as a musician, willingness to listen to what is going on around you and adapt.”
While there are increasing opportunities for engaging with audiences, jazz music seems to get less representation in Australian media. With decreasing column space and little representation on mainstream television programs, less people know about jazz than they do the latest pop artist. Last year, Jenna challenged this representation by tweeting to an Australian breakfast program about potentially showcasing a more diverse range of artists on their programs.
“I was ignored, of course, but I guess it can be frustrating to know that there is so much wonderful music locally in Sydney and around Australia that is heard by so few. There are so many wonderful jazz gigs in clubs, new music concerts in performance spaces and classical recitals that get smaller audiences. I just sometimes feel that people are missing out; a lot of people who aren’t in the know about local live music are often amazed when someone introduces them to it, especially jazz.”
Since its first album release, Divergence has added a pianist and a few of the players have changed, but getting used to playing together as an ensemble means they are sounding better than ever. “Our sound has evolved. We sound much more like a band, we are tighter, blend better, have better intonation, groove more. And although I am not the only composer – we feature many composers – we have a kind of common thread through out the music we play now, and we just gel with this sound.”
The compositions featured on the upcoming album will include pieces Jenna herself, Brendan Champion, Luke Davis, and an arrangement of a beautiful gospel ballad by Miroslav Bukovsky, who was collaborating with the band in 2015. “The pieces that we’ve chosen all vary in rhythmic feel and influences, from modern jazz to New Orleans second-line, R&B and pop feels to flamenco. However, they all share the common thread of featuring strong melodies with great value placed on rhythmic feel/a sense of groove,” Jenna says.
So what is the trick to composing a piece for jazz orchestra and how does Jenna go about it? “I usually begin with a melody or melodic fragment and have some idea of what kind of rhythmic feel I’d like. Harmony is usually sketched out with bass notes to begin with, and then as the inner parts are filled as I begin orchestrating and the chord qualities become apparent,” she explains.
“The extended form of a piece usually unravels as it happens, but often after I’ve finished composing the first section of a piece, where an idea is developed to some kind of climax; that’s when I will try and sketch out a plan of the full form, so I can pace it properly and plan how or when it might reach a final climax. Though sometimes, these plans are just completely changed as it unfolds.”
When you hear Jenna’s music performed by Divergence Jazz Orchestra, you will be safe to assume the sound of a jazz orchestra is alive and well, and as fresh as ever. While they are making some stunning music and delighting the audiences, there is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes. This is often costly and time consuming. “Trying to get enough rehearsal time in to really fine-tune material up to a recording standard has been a challenge lately, and was last time we recorded, too. Composing for big band is just something that takes me a while, a long while; I need very long periods to pop out a new composition. The more experienced I get at it, the longer it takes as my standards are always going up as I grow as a musician.”
Recording an album will help Divergence share its music with more audiences and engage listeners with some quality jazz. “I feel lucky that we get to make music as a band and put on gigs and have some nice audiences come along to listen,” Jenna says.
To help Jenna and the Divergence Jazz Orchestra record their second album, support their Pozible crowdfunding campaign here. Divergence will also perform a live gig at Sydney’s Foundry 616 on March 16. Tickets and details here.
Image supplied. Credit: Aaron Blakey.