Birdland Big Band on Section (Ensemble) Playing

The Rico Reed folks recently shared some time with the sax section from the Birdland Big Band. The conversation was so good I wanted to capture some of it here for future reference.


Bret Pimentel · Assistant Professor of Woodwinds at Delta State University

What tips do you have on section playing?

Nathan Childers · New York, New York

<Tip: start this Basie recording before reading on for the full effect.>

Hi Bret, thanks for the great question! I certainly “second” the thoughts of my section mates. This is a wide ranging topic.

Section playing is a skill and art form unto itself. Ideally, each player possesses a knowledge of theory, composition, melodic structure, and historical perspective. The Birdland Big Band is made up of highly skilled performers and composers that have an intimate knowledge of these concepts.

Many of the great big band composers (Ellington, Basie, etc..) wrote pieces based upon the skills and assets of the individual band members. As such, their work became a team effort between the composer and the player. This was a driving force behind their success and musicality. That’s why it’s nearly impossible to sound just like one of those bands. The compositions and the players were inseparable.

It’s essential that modern players consider each composition in a global sense as they learn their individual parts. In addition to some of the important basics like notes, rhythm, tempo, articulation, breath, phrasing, style, it’s important to understand your role within the section and the ensemble. Your task is to accomplish the goals of the composer while adding your unique “stamp” along the way.

Young players are often highly focused on their individual part during practice and rehearsal. It takes time to feel comfortable and confident enough to listen across the ensemble while playing your own part. I call this skill lateral listening.

Neal Hefti’s composition Li’l Darlin’ is often used to develop team skills, tonal color, and nuance within an ensemble. It’s also a good work space for lateral listening concepts.

Here are some habits and exercises for a saxophone section to consider…

Rehearse without the rest of the band whenever possible. Use this time to explore and develop items such as clean articulation, dynamics, style interpretation, and phrasing.
Bring pencils to all rehearsals. Write in relevant details such as breath marks, cut-offs, phrasing, and dynamics. Discuss your parts in detail as a section.

Practice your parts in various groupings (duos, trios, both tenors, alto and bari, both altos, etc..). This will help you isolate various discrepancies and areas for improvement.
Record some of your rehearsals and listen back as a section.

Practice with a tuner. Use the tuner to check chord voicings and unison lines throughout the piece. Write in reminders and arrows in order to help clean up the intonation.
Practice with a metronome (one that can change pitch on any chosen beat and can subdivide, like a Dr. Beat). Challenge the section with different tempos and beat accents within the measure.

The lead alto player will decide the overall style, articulation, and sound concept for the section. The lead alto part is usually the highest written note within the saxophone chord voicing. As a result, the listener will hear this part as a “lead” sound. The lead alto player also sits directly in front of the lead trombone and the lead trumpet. These three players create their own team and must be listening to each other at all times. Similarly, their notes are often the top notes of chord voicings within their section.

Each section member is an equal partner in the success of the band. Interpretation, stylization, and performance is only as good as the commitment of each individual.
I highly recommend that all middle school, high school, and college music programs incorporate saxophone quartets into their required saxophone curriculum. Saxophone quartets provide an incredible opportunity to build the fundamentals of section playing. Each member should have the opportunity to perform on each chair (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone) throughout their studies.

Listen, listen, listen! Make sure you are listening to a lot of big bands both live and on recordings.

Read more…

About Gandalfe

Just an itinerant saxophonist trying to find life between the changes. I have retired from the Corps of Engineers and Microsoft. I am an admin on the Woodwind Forum, run the Seattle Solid GOLD Big Band (formerly the Microsoft Jumpin' Jive Orchestra) a GOLD sax quartet, and enjoy time with family and friends.
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