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The Musician Is More Important than the Instrument: An Interview with Brent Bagwell

By Jeff Jackson

The Ghost Trees Big Band is built around the kernel of acclaimed jazz duo Ghost Trees – Brent Bagwell on tenor saxophone and Seth Nanaa on drums. They’ve filled out their compositions with colorful instrumentation that includes pedal steel guitar, singing saw, vibraphone, and cello, played by some of Charlotte's most exciting musicians. The big band was created in 2015 during a month-long residency at Goodyear Arts

Bagwell and Nanaa previously collaborated in Eastern Seaboard, whose albums were released by legendary jazz label Black Saint, alongside such titans as Max Roach, Sun Ra, and Don Cherry. Bagwell also co-composed the soundtrack for the feature film Poor Boy, which just debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. The Hollywood Reporter raved: “The picture's most compelling ingredient is its soundtrack. One scene will match shoplifting with panicked jazz; one pulses with Can-like beats; one will glide through a skating rink to something like ELO. Disparate as its sounds are, they complete the movie's distorted reality.”

The big band will be joined for their New Frequencies at McColl Center performance on Friday, June 10, by renowned Chicago musicians Josh Berman (cornet) and Keefe Jackson (reeds), who will open the show. I spoke with Bagwell about the origins of the band and what attendees can expect from this special performance. 

When you and Seth first conceived of the Ghost Trees Big Band, were you thinking more about the type of instruments and sound combinations you’d like to hear together or about the local players you knew who might work well together? How did you balance that? 

Brent Bagwell: We considered the instrumentation and wanted to represent some of the traditional notions of large ensembles and jazz music, but the natures of the individuals to whom we reached out was far more important to us. I learned some time ago that the musician is much more important than his or her instrument. Six guitarists who are pursuing the same emotional and musical goal will make more meaningful music than a traditionally balanced ensemble – every time. 

For this project, in particular, we asked these musicians to be in a band with us for a month, not just sit in or drop by a few times, but make something new all together. We wanted to really dig in and develop the nuance and unspoken understanding that only comes when bands feel that camaraderie that stems from the hours of rehearsal and the interstitial time and the stupid jokes. We’re just lucky that we know these great people who allow us to do both things: be in a room with artists who are solid, imaginative folks and grant us the flexibility to pursue almost any sort of collective sound we might dream up.

When you’re writing music for a large ensemble, how do you approach composition? What’s the process for notating, sharing, and shaping the compositions with the musicians?   

For this project, Seth and I developed the tunes as a duo, as always, but it was important to us that we could share the arrangements with the band and then set the tone and demonstrate the structure by playing them straight down. To that end, even as a duo, we practiced the arrangements that the big band would play – not our duo arrangements – for a stretch before the first big band rehearsal. I’ve been in too many situations where a player has a great idea, but hasn’t practiced it or can’t demonstrate it cleanly to an augmented group, so we really wanted to avoid that pitfall. 

Ghost Trees Big Band at Goodyear Arts in 2015 (Courtesy of the artist)

I’m known (I fear) for crazy screeds about the tunes – because they’re all about something – where I describe what we’re after, the feeling, set the scene, whatnot. Charles Mingus-style oral exhortations seem to work best. More logically, I also make charts – a page per song – that outline the structure, the basic parts, and an individual’s responsibilities. These are not traditionally notated. We prefer to work with people who have different approaches, so we give them a schematic and a red pen and talk a lot. Then we play and let the players do what they do best.

I know you’ve done movie soundtrack work including the recent feature Poor Boy. Is there overlap between how you score films and work on a larger canvas for the projects like the big band?   

Working on Poor Boy was a treat because I got to reunite with former Pyramid bandmate Chris Walldorf. It was fun because we were called upon to do everything, it seemed – free jazz freakouts, spooky clarinet bits, ABBA-style roller-skating music, you name it. Getting to the point, though, the short answer is yes. 

In fact, though my heart belongs to jazz, my major inspiration for projects like these is to be found in the world of film music. I like film music because it is so evocative and isn’t chained to existing notions of what music is supposed to be – it just has to do its job. In fact, I made a playlist for us all to get in the right frame of mind before we embarked on the Ghost Trees Big Band project and it was heavy on film composers David Shire, Bernard Herrmann, and Toru Takemitsu, among others. 

You’re releasing a double 7-inch record of the Ghost Trees Big Band at the New Frequencies at McColl Center show. What inspired you to use such a small format to capture the sound of the big band?

I think this gets to some of the black-and-white extremes where Seth and I feel comfortable. We’ve not ever augmented the core duo with just two or three players – we want to be either the pure duo or sprawl out in technicolor with the big band. In similar binary fashion, we thought it would be interesting to have released a 10” and an LP as the duo and then – when we have expanded to the largest the band can be – release the smallest record yet. We initially planned to make a single 7-inch. The recordings were such that we couldn’t leave five tunes off the vinyl release, so we decided to double up!

Ghost Trees Big Band limited edition double 7-inch record (Courtesy of the artist)

Has the big band’s music or performance approach changed much since your last show at the Goodyear Arts residency? 

The Goodyear Arts residency was not just the impetus for the project, but the space and the time really shaped the overall sound of the ensemble. Playing in that large room and having the actual piano, all of it fed in to the band and made it something that wouldn’t have come together that way in any other circumstance. We’ve been rehearsing in our usual space and it’s much smaller. The band all reconvened and the music was still right under everyone’s fingertips. 

Interestingly, though, the smaller space has brought out even more nuance and closer listening. I think the tunes have gotten deeper. They were deep before and very broad, but now we’re able to delve into them even more. The band has been sounding better than ever. We have reconfigured a few things, changed up some solo spots and such. It packs the same punch, but with even more focus.


New Frequencies at McColl Center presents Ghost Trees Big Band on Friday, June 10, 2016 at 8 PM. Chicago musicians Josh Berman and Keefe Jackson open the show. Advance tickets are available now.

Jeff Jackson is a novelist, playwright, and curator of the New Frequencies at McColl Center series.