The Anatomy of a Big Band

Ryan Keberle Interviews Ryan Keberle!

Ryan Keberle

The big-band trombonist is somewhat akin to the catcher in baseball. Both share a one-of-a-kind perspective on the inner workings of their team. The trombone section in a traditional big band covers a lot of musical area, often providing the harmonic and rhythmic underpinnings of the entire composition, while providing the timbral glue that holds the sound of the horns together—from lead trumpet down to baritone saxophone. Like the catcher, they’re absolutely in the middle of everything, and that position gives them a unique way of looking at how the ensemble works and what’s necessary to make the performance successful.

There is no better example of this quality than Ryan Keberle: trombonist with Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society. Ryan is a superb instrumentalist, improviser, composer, and bandleader in his own right and, as is obvious in his uncommon back and forth with himself below, he embodies the kind of insight and attention that gives them the ability to sum up how an ensemble is working, what to do when it’s not, and, ultimately, what makes a big band such a unique musical experience.

Big Band Ryan Keberle
Ryan Keberle

What is the job of a trombonist in a big band?

I think that we, as trombonists, are incredibly fortunate to have so many big-band opportunities here in New York City and elsewhere. Playing in a small group setting, of course, has its advantages like more solo space, more room for personal expression, etc.… but for aspiring jazz musicians of any kind, and on any instrument, there is no more informative experience that I know of than playing in a big band.

Generally speaking—that  is to say for all big-band horn players—playing  in a big band is where we learn to play in tune and develop a sense of what it sounds like and FEELS like when you’re a part of a well-constructed chord, that sense of resonance; it’s where we learn to blend with each other and blend within the specific genre’s unique aural attributes like articulation, rhythmic feel, phrasing, dynamic contours, etc. And, given how many different genres are finding their way into big-band music these days, this is a real opportunity to become fluent in many different musical languages. I count my early big-band freelance days as being mostly responsible for my subsequent work in South American folk music, Latin American pop music, rock, R&B, hip-hop, new music, and commercial music for film and radio.

More specifically, trombonists tend to be tasked with providing the harmonic and rhythmic foundation of a big band’s horn section, whereas the saxophones—particularly tenor and alto sax—and trumpets are generally appointed to covering the music’s melodic information. Considering the dual role of the trombonist in a big band—that of providing the harmony AND rhythm and typically in the form of rhythmic counterpoint—I’d like to think that the trombone section is truly the musical engine of a big band and can help to elevate a group’s overall musical sound and emotional effect or, conversely, hinder those things. A band is only as in tune as their trombone section (assuming the piano and bass are also in tune!). Likewise, a band is only as swinging as their trombone section (again, assuming the bass and drums are swinging!). And I use the term “swinging” to mean creating a rhythmic energy that is infectious and physically stimulating.

How does your approach differ between preparing and performing in large ensembles vs. small ensembles?

To start, I personally don’t generally differentiate between preparation and performance. When I’m practicing I generally try and imagine myself performing for someone I respect. My brass colleague trumpet extraordinaire, Jason Palmer, put it best: try picturing your musical hero sitting in the corner of your practice room listening to you in the midst of a practice session!

That being said, the obvious differences between performing in large ensembles and small ensembles have to do with less or more room for personal expression. Beyond that, I find that the primary difference lies in what the performer should be listening to. As a trombonist in both big-band and small groups I’m, of course, listening to the rhythm section for a sense of time, feel, intonation, and overall aesthetic. However, in a big band I’m also listening for the phrasing of the lead trombonist and lead trumpet player. I’m listening to the bass trombone and bari sax for intonation purposes. I’m listening to the lead trombonist for articulation purposes, and this list could continue. Obviously, most of those focal points do not apply in small group playing. However, in those settings there are other important details that I listen for, like rhythmic and melodic content from the other melody instruments, comping patterns of the rhythm section, etc.

How does being in a big band make you FEEL?

I love this question because it relates back to my first point of our great fortune as trombonists to enjoy the many learning experiences had by playing in big bands. For me personally, the most important lesson I’ve learned as a performing musician and my 20-plus years of professional big-band experience, is that what draws me to music, and what draws most listeners to music, of any genre, is that music makes them feel something that is either elusive, unique, or so powerful that they want more.

This, of course, can come from an infinite variety of musical sounds and styles and in the form of many different emotions, but I find it interesting to look at what we do as performers as something intrinsically physical. For example, when I mentioned the FEELING of resonance, I was referring to the physical vibrations that we feel when playing one tone in conjunction with another tone. And, given the pure, brilliant sound of the trombone, these resonant sensations are on full display when playing with two or three other trombonists. Big-band composers have historically taken advantage of this fact and it’s one of the reasons why the trombone section is usually charged with carrying the harmonic foundation within the group’s horn section. Great examples of this can be heard in [Duke] Ellington’s three-trombone triadic voicings and also in almost all Gil Evans writing from the 1940s through the early 1960s (Gil was fond of including a tuba and one or two French horns to create even more resonance within the low brass section).

This feeling of relating physically to music also manifests itself in the way we experience tempo and groove and, in particular, rhythmic counterpoint. One of the things I love about Darcy’s music is the way in which he so imaginatively re-works classic grooves into something a bit more experimental while maintaining the original sensibility. There are many examples I can think of but I think my favorite is his “Bernard Purdy” shuffle-inspired groove on "Hard Up On The Down Low". The trombone section in Darcy’s band is oftentimes tasked with providing the counterpoint or syncopated layers that bring his smart rhythmic ideas to life. When playing these types of musical passages my focus is centered on the way the trombone section’s rhythmic phrases FEEL, physically speaking, in conjunction with the drums and bass.

Ryan Keberle Interviews Ryan Keberle!