The Anatomy of a Big Band

The Middle of the Circle

Matt Clohesy

Most listeners will cite a certain rhythmic propulsion in their definition of the “big-band” sound. Whether they define it as “swing” or “forward motion” or “rhythmic drive,” there is typically something inherent in the tradition of big-band jazz that pays homage to its roots as music for dancing. While a drummer like Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, or Papa Jo Jones may be the obvious explanation as to where this feeling is born, it is more than likely that the rhythmic motor—the driveshaft and axles of the big band—is coming from the center of the rhythm section, the acoustic bass. 

Strangely, given the weight that the big-band bass player carries on her or his shoulders, very few have been lauded as legendary figures in jazz history, outside of Jimmy Blanton and—with the caveat of being possibly better known as composer—Charles Mingus. And so, the bass player in a big band tends to be that quiet presence that is noticed only when it is gone. 

Matt Clohesy, the bassist for the Secret Society, is a 15-year veteran of the New York music community. His acoustic and electric bass playing has been featured on pop, classical, and countless jazz recordings of all shapes and sizes. As is clear from SA’s short conversation with him, however, he is absolutely dedicated to being the bedrock on top of which the Secret Society can teeter and swing. His dedication and rigor in playing Darcy James Argue’s complex music has made him an indispensable member of the Secret Society.

Big Band Matt Clohesy

SA What’s your musical history?

MC I started playing bass around the age of 14, growing up in Australia. I was already kind of a guitarist (playing rock and venturing into jazz) when a local jazz pianist lent me his bass guitar in order to learn the basics of walking bass so I could accompany him and his drumming son on gigs. I quickly became fascinated with jazz and started listening to Miles [Davis], [John] Coltrane, and also a lot of Wynton and Branford Marsalis!

I realized that I needed to switch to the acoustic bass. A local player loaned one to me, and a few days—and a couple of blisters later—I was hooked. By the time I was 15, I had convinced my parents I needed my own cheap double bass, which I continued to play until I was midway through college. Then I was able to get a loan to buy the great bass I play today.

After college and a couple of years of steady gigging in Melbourne, Australia, I made the move to New York, where I've been for the last 15 years. Although I've always been involved in a lot of relatively straight-ahead jazz projects, I have also performed and recorded music ranging from pop, rock, and blues to fusion, free jazz, and contemporary classical. I focus on electric bass as much as the acoustic and this has helped keep me active in such a wide range of styles.

I met Darcy James Argue over ten years ago, when his Secret Society was in its very early stages, thanks partly to trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and drummer Jon Wikan’s recommendations to Darcy—they're both longtime Secret Society members or co-conspirators as Darcy likes to refer to us. I've been a member ever since. Certainly an important part of being a bassist in his group is the doubling factor; I get to do a lot of switching between acoustic and electric and, in recent years, have incorporated a lot of electronic effects, even playing a little bit of percussion. I think my versatility on both bass instruments is a big reason Darcy found me to be a good fit. I have stuck with Darcy all this time for a bunch of reasons but, first and foremost, I believe in him and his vision. He composes stuff that's really hard to play, at first seemingly impossible, but at the end of the day we've really created some unique music together

SA Like most in the Secret Society (and in jazz in general these days) you appear to be doing a lot of different types of playing but, based on your discography, a well-represented portion of your work is done in larger (say more than a sextet) ensembles. Do you feel you have a special ability to think in larger contexts like this? What do you feel is the role of the bass player in a large group like a nonet versus a big band?

MC As much as I enjoy the experience of playing in large jazz ensembles, it was never something I was specifically seeking out to do. Playing more straight-ahead big-band music has always appealed to me, but it's something I rarely get the chance to do. For example, most of Darcy's bass parts are about 90 percent through-composed. I consider it to be almost contemporary classical music or third stream. The other ten percent or so is where I get some space to improvise but, usually within a set of unusual guidelines or frameworks.

I can barely compare Darcy's music with any of the other large ensembles I've worked with. With some of the nonet groups for instance, I find myself improvising much more and approaching playing similarly to how I play in a contemporary jazz quartet/quintet setting. In those groups, there will definitely be composed bass lines—perhaps doubled with left hand piano or bass clarinet–but I usually find the music gets away from that stuff pretty quickly and consists of a lot of blowing on chord progressions and open grooves. In my playing experience the closest thing to the heavily composed nature of Darcy's music has been short periods I've subbed in the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble and the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Hollenbeck's music consists of a large amount of specifically composed bass parts while Schneider's music strikes a nice balance between written and improvisation.

SA I know that contemporary big bands like Darcy's or John Hollenbeck or Maria Schneider are taking the traditional instrumental roles of big-band music in a new and exciting direction, but how would you describe to the lay person the "job" or "philosophy" of the bass in a traditional big band like, say, Count Basie's?

MC I'd say the traditional bass role in big band is playing simple, solid, and swinging parts. I think the bassists back in Count Basie's time had really big sounds without much amplification, so the tone is a big part. In some ways the tone of the bass is what creates the swing. Another important element is great rhythm and time.

SA Maybe you can give an example of how a bass player in, say the Basie band, used tone, rhythm, and harmony to modify their approach specifically to a big band?

MC I'm certainly not an expert when it comes to the big-band tradition. My influences are limited, but I'm a big fan of Basie recordings such as The Atomic Mr Basie and April in Paris, as well as Sinatra at the Sands with Frank Sinatra, which features the Count Basie Orchestra.

The bassist on the first two of those albums is Eddie Jones. Really there's not a lot that sets his playing apart from other, small group bass playing peers. For the most part his playing just sat in the middle of the beat as he walked in 4/4 with a few triplet embellishments here and there, just as he might do in a quartet situation. Actually, there are some spots where he would get a little ahead of the drummer/band time-wise; I think it's up to the listener to decide if that's good or not!

Harmonically I think he probably kept things a little simpler, being mindful of all the stuff happening above him in the band. I believe a lot of Basie's arrangements were not written out and were learned aurally, so I imagine Eddie used his own judgment when deciding to, for example, walk down a half step and back up with the melody or hold a pedal tone for a bar or two.

The way the 1950s big-band albums were recorded was quite simple, but the techniques definitely favored the acoustic bass sound. To start with, a bassist like Eddie Jones had a fantastic, loud tone without any amplification. To me that sound contributes a lot more to the swing vibe than the ’70s and ’80s recording method using the "dreaded direct" contact bass pickup.*

Having done some reading about 1950s big-band recording sessions, I've learned it was pretty common for there to be one pair of stereo mics centered in front of the winds and drums and then a spot mic only on the piano and the bass. This is why the drums often sound a little roomy and the bass is really up front. I kind of like that sound! They did soon start spot mic’ing the drums later in the ’50s and as years went on, everything else in the band as well.

Then on top of that, if you listen to some of these recordings you notice the bands played with a lot of dynamics, often the drums on brushes, piano lightly tinkling, and the bass really cuts through.

I guess the biggest mystery for me is how did this stuff come across live? I often wish I could go back in time just to investigate this one element of jazz; how did not only big bands sound live in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, but also for example, how loud did Jimmy Garrison really sound on bass with the John Coltrane Quartet when the band was really wailing?

SA When you're sitting inside a big band, is there a kind of exhilaration that comes from the teamwork of it all? For someone that hasn't been on the inside of a group that large (or, an orchestra, for example), they may not know what it feels like to be part of such a large assemblage working together.

MC I do think there are times of exhilaration for me. There can be a feeling of teamwork when the group is rehearsing and traveling together a lot, a kind of social element that's fun with so many people working together. And, musically, there are times when I really enjoy being the bass and hearing the weight of the whole band stacked above me. In Darcy's group, however, moments of exhilaration are fleeting mostly because the music is so challenging. I'm usually too busy trying to cover the parts to actually enjoy it.

With Darcy, we've done several projects where the physical band setup was in very unconventional big-band configurations. One setup in particular is for "Brooklyn Babylon": I'm kind of in the middle of this circle of wind players and the drums and piano are on either side of me. I find myself sometimes more immersed in the music hearing it this way. You might say that experience is exhilarating at times.

Also, I should add, there have been times when I've worked with classical orchestras and also as part of a featured jazz trio backed by full orchestra; it’s definitely exhilarating being surrounded by lush sounding string sections!

"The Neighborhood", from Darcy James Argue's Secret Society and Danijel Zezelj's multimedia project, Brooklyn Babylon.

SA If you had to predict a future for large ensembles/big bands in America, what would it entail?

MC I guess proper funding is the first thing I'd think of as being necessary to the survival of the big band. There will probably always be some kind of audience wanting to hear this stuff, especially in big cities and at festivals and concert series, but it takes a lot to pay everyone in an 18-piece band. So, I guess we'll always be relying on at least some large sponsored festivals and funding for the arts to keep things going.

I like to think Darcy has breathed a little bit of life into big-band music but it's hard to tell where it will go from here.

SA In what way do you think Darcy has done that?

MC Well, just for example, orchestration. Although there has been a small amount of electronics used on a couple of instruments in Darcy's music, what really makes him unique is the unrelenting use of doubles (alto saxophonist doubles on flute, alto flute, piccolo, for example) and the combinations of instruments he chooses for each section. There are definitely times when he uses the three sections individually in a classic style but (without going through his scores and digging up a real example) there might be times when he writes a melody for say, trumpet 2 and 3 with a Harmon mute in and bass clarinet and one trombone in upper register and then doubled with tenor sax in its highest register. That’s just a hypothetical example, but that kind of writing that is more orchestral in its instrumentation is something that changes what a big band can be. Hopefully it's inspiring to younger jazz fans/musicians. I definitely think he's continuing to push the envelope with his writing.

The Middle of the Circle