Tuesday 30 April 2013

Brighton's Studio 9 Orchestra

Studio 9 Orchestra with singer Red Gray

For the past six months I have been rehearsing and gigging with The Studio 9 Orchestra, a modern jazz big band playing a wind ranging repertoire including arrangements by Kenny Wheeler, Maria Schneider, Mingus and band members. The band has a special sound, due not only to the repertoire but also to the high quality of musicianship, the voice of singer Red Gray and the commitment of the band's leaders, Scott Sheridan and Philippe Guyard.
S9O's diary is filling up and with some high profile gigs looking, I though it would be interesting to interview Scott and Philippe and find out more about this intriguing band. . .

When and why did you start S9O?
S9O was set up in April 2011, 2 years ago now - it has gone very quickly. We were both very keen to play some new, challenging material that we could we get our musical teeth into, and that was different from the repertoire being played by the majority of Big Bands.

Tell us a bit about yourselves
Scott: I studied Music at Sussex where I played trumpet in all the usual groups - Big Band, Orchestra, Musical Theatre etc. In my second year, I found myself leading the University Big Band and the Musicals Pit band, which I did for 4 years. I really enjoyed directing these bands and I decided to take the directing thing a bit more seriously. After graduating, I looked for my next challenge, and this is when I met Philippe.

Philippe: I’m ‘self-taught’ (whatever that means) on the saxophone. I came to the UK in my early 20s, and started playing in blues bands, then moved on to small jazz and funk groups, mostly around Southampton and Portsmouth. Then I moved to Brighton in 2007 and joined the Sussex Jazz Orchestra, and that really opened my ears to what could be done with big band music.

Where did you meet?
We met when both working with the University of Sussex Big Band. I was directing and Philippe was on First Tenor. Truth be told, we didn't chat much outside of rehearsals, then one fateful night, we got chatting in the pub.... it turned out both had a very similar idea of the type of group we wanted to play in, but which didn't exist...so we got scheming. Brighton has a great jazz scene and lots of great musicians around, which made the process of putting a band together relatively easy.

Tell us about the repertoire
We put a lot of thought and care in choosing our repertoire – and it's very varied. At a S9O gig, you can expect to be taken on a roller coaster ride of modern charts - a ballad followed by some hard funk, then a swing tune, then a choro....you get the picture. The main criteria for choosing pieces has to be that we have to enjoy playing them, and we try to avoid cliché. We also like pieces with a more orchestral sound, full of texture and surprises, instead of hitting the audience with a wall of sound, following predictable big band tropes.

A lot of the music is challenging, both for the musicians, but also for the listener; much of our music pushes the harmonic and metric 'norms' of the big band genre. We aim for our audiences to go away having listened to something they may not have encountered before. We often get compliments from ‘non-jazz fans’ who otherwise might feel intimidated by ‘modern’ jazz, or who associate big bands with the music of past generations.

Tell us about some of the players
We are very fortunate to have a phenomenal group of musicians playing in the band. I think that the fact that we are playing charts that don’t get to be played anywhere else attracts some of the best musicians in East Sussex (and Philippe... only joking! - he is alright too). A lot of the players joined out of the musical relationships we had before forming the band, and a key principle for us is to make sure we have a happy band with an atmosphere where we can express ourselves, learn and develop together. It takes a lot of commitment to play this kind of music.

Among the group there are some outstanding soloists; you could put any crazy chord progression in front of them and they would make a delicious meal out of it, improvising on the fly!

How would you describe the orchestra's sound?
Hmmm...Good question. It is hard to say with such a varied repertoire. But I think the thing that typifies our sound is the energy that we achieve in our performances. Even when we are playing the most delicate, pianissimo section of a ballad, it is exciting, and of course when the main head of a Goodwin piece comes along, we know how to raise the roof.

Also our approach to section playing, and balancing sounds in the more harmonically complex pieces. When we are playing something, for example, by Maria Schneider, so much is about harmony and texture - it is beautiful. What we strive to achieve is a well-blended band sound which really exploits this sophistication.

What do you enjoy about running S90?

The challenge of the music keeps us all on our toes which is good; working with such great musicians is also a privilege and makes rehearsals and gigs very enjoyable. Most of all though, everyone is just very nice, rehearsals are fun and we have a laugh while also playing some great tunes.

Any frustrations?
The economics of running a band aren’t ideal at the moment. Most players are professionals, but effectively give their time for free to rehearse. It would be great to be in a position where we could budget that in. It’s also hard to find suitable venues that will fit a 19-piece band and still leave space for an audience!

What do you think the musicians get out of it?
The opportunity to really get stuck in to some tricky stuff. Some of the pieces are a real roast, but that is good and it helps all of us develop. I also think we all love that we are playing work by the composers that we all love, listen to and aspire to play... Dave Holland, Kenny Wheeler, Bob Mintzer....Nowhere else will we get an opportunity to play most of these charts.

What are your plans and ambitions for S9O?
We’ve spent the last year or so developing our repertoire to a point where it is large and varied enough to keep us interested. Our main goal now is to settle down a bit and really get into the subtleties of the different pieces, whilst still adding the odd piece here and there to our pad. We have recently started to play some new work by local composers (including our very own Paul Nieman and David Beebee) and I think we would like to do more of that. Doing new work is particularly exciting for us and we think it is important to provide a platform for local composers to get their work performed.

Moving forward, we are looking to do some festivals and some larger gigs - let us know if you hear of any opportunities.

There has also been some chat of growing the band in terms of our line up...strings...electronics....just ideas at the moment but watch this space!

What are the highlights for the orchestra to date?
Every one of our gigs has been a sell-out to date - and that in itself is a highlight. The atmosphere in the room at performances is electric and probably the reason why these musicians keep coming to rehearsals and playing for free.

My personal favourite moment....Pete (Solo Trumpet) doing at 64-bar mouthpiece-only solo in Mingus’s Song With Orange at the Brunswick. Totally unexpected... but in a weird way... kind of worked.

What should people do if they'd like to get involved?
If you are interested in playing with us, do get in touch. Email players@studio9orchestra.com.

Does S90 have a web site?
We do indeed - it is www.studio9orchestra.com, where you can see gig info, gig photos and sign up to be on our mailing list!

Upcoming gigs:
26 May 2013 - Brighton Fringe Festival, The Brunswick, 1 Holland Rd  Brighton and Hove, Hove BN3 1JF, 01273 733984 TICKETS
21 July 2013 - The Latest Music Bar, 14-17 Manchester St  Brighton, East Sussex BN2 1TF
01273 687171

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