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    Posted: 09 Jan 2023 at 5:16am

Sean Gibbs on writing 'Confluence', and his love of big band music

by Joshua Lee

Sean Gibbs
Photo by Iza Korsak

With the release of his album Confluence on Ubuntu Music, Scottish trumpet player Sean Gibbs makes his return to composing for big band, after his quintet debut album When Can I See You Again? in 2021. Big band is something close to Sean’s heart, and while putting together a project like Confluence can present some logistical challenges, for Sean writing for large jazz ensembles is a continually rewarding process. Joining me for a chat from his home in London, Sean spoke to me about the creation process behind his latest album and his love of the big band sound.

How did you start playing music and go ‘professional’?

I started playing trumpet when I was about 11 growing up in Edinburgh, and I was offered free lessons at school (this was back when music lessons were still free!). My family weren’t musicians but my dad did play a lot of jazz around the house so I used to hear it – I remember Lee Morgan specifically on some of those Art Blakey records getting me hooked on that kind of sound. I ended up joining all kinds of youth big bands, and eventually ended up going to Birmingham Conservatoire when I was 18 and just took it from there. I moved to London a couple of years after graduating and since then I've just been trying to play as much as possible.

Was there anyone else you were listening to a lot in those formative years? Was there any big band music you were into?

I think I started off more on the small band stuff, I guess it’s easier to hear the individual trumpet soloists so that was the kind of thing that was really exciting to me when I first heard it; a lot of Freddie Hubbard, Miles Davis, Clark Terry… all the usual folks. I think the first big band thing I got really excited about was actually a more contemporary thing, hearing Kenny Wheeler’s ‘Music for Large & Small Ensembles’; I actually played that with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland and got hooked on it from there, it wasn’t until after that that I went back and checked out more of the traditional stuff like Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

So what was the impetus behind your latest album Confluence?

I did quite a lot of big band writing when I was in college, and even released an album of music I did there with some friends in Birmingham, but that was quite a while ago so I hadn’t written much music for big band for a few years and just had the urge to do it again. And you kind of need that urge, because it’s quite time-consuming, and inevitably meant my trumpet playing took a bit of a backseat for a few months! It was last December I started writing it and it came together pretty quickly – I had it ready to record in May earlier this year. I think I’ve got a bit of an obsessive personality when it comes to this stuff, because once I decided I really wanted to do it there was no stopping me!

Sean Gibbs

Like you said it’s not your first time recording a big band, there was an album you did back in 2015 wasn’t there?

Yeah, that was Burns with the Birmingham Jazz Orchestra, which was a project me and some friends set up while we were at the Conservatoire. That was our first time doing that kind of thing ourselves and I definitely learned a lot from doing it; I’m still really proud of the music on that album, and there are some really great players on it too. Confluence was a chance for me to do a similar thing, but in a higher quality studio and with players from the London scene.

Did you notice any changes between Confluence and *Burns?

It’s been quite a long time since that record, so naturally both my writing and playing style have changed quite a lot, and having a totally new band obviously makes a big difference too.

Did you compose the music with specific players in mind, and if so were you already thinking about the band’s line-up when you began writing?

Totally – I got really lucky in that regard, actually. I was writing the music with several people in mind and they were all able to do it; people like Helena Kay and James Copus for instance, players with these really specific sounds that it would’ve been a shame not to have on the record.

Getting them all together was thankfully easier than I thought it would be – we had one rehearsal day beforehand and nobody depped it out, which was kind of amazing. Whenever you do a big project like this you get a bit worried that it’s not going to work out exactly how you want it, if you have last-minute cancellations for instance. Once we’d got the recording date set with AIR Studios – they’re often quite busy doing commercial recordings for Netflix and the like – everyone was able to make the session. AIR is a really impressive studio; they’ve got the stunning Lyndhurst Hall that they use for orchestral recordings, and we were in the slightly smaller Studio One that’s great for big bands. It was such a dream to do it there, at one of the best recording spaces in the country.

How did it differ from writing for quintet, like on When Can I See You Again?, your previous album?

It’s interesting, because I think some people when they write big band music like to write a quintet-type tune and then arrange it, but I didn’t want to go about it like that. I like to use all the different opportunities I have in a big band, and to have all of that in mind as I’m writing; maybe I’ll be coming up with a melody and other textures come to me as I go. And then there are certain things that just work better than in a quintet, like maybe you have a certain kind of build-up that’s able to grow more organically because of all the extra forces you can bring to the music, rather than just having a few horns. I did have all the members of my quintet in the band too though, so it was fun to have all these extra components but the ability to strip it back when I wanted to.

I tried to spotlight the individual players in a similar way to a quintet – I wasn’t able to feature everyone, but that was something I wanted to make sure I included when composing the music.

Now your new album is out, what are your plans for 2023?

The main thing at the moment is getting some gigs for this big band, which would be amazing if a bit of a logistical nightmare. We do have a few very exciting venues and festivals close to confirming, although I can’t name drop anything just yet so maybe let’s just say “watch this space”! I’d love to do even just a few gigs with this band because it’s such a lovely collection of people. Other than that I’ve got some stuff on with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra – we’ve got a project with Georgia Cécile in February, then another with Gwilym Simcock in April, so I’m really looking forward to next year.

from www.prestomusic.com

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