Medium But Well Done, Groenewald Edition

Five years ago, I started what I intended to be a series of Rifftides pieces about little big bands. This was the rationale:

Six to eleven pieces allow arrangers freedom that the conventions and sheer size of sixteen-piece bands tend to limit. Medium-sized groups have been important since the beginnings of jazz.

For reasons I don’t remember—sloth, possibly—the series stopped after this installment and this one. A new ten-piece band has reignited the idea.

Oliver GroenewaldThe tentet’s leader is Oliver Groenewald, a trumpeter, composer and arranger educated at Hochschule für Musik in Detmold, Germany. Groenewald studied trumpet with Art Farmer in Austria and Willie Thomas in the US, composition and arranging in the US with Chuck Israels. He has written extensively for World Brass, Canadian Brass and other ensembles. He now lives on Orcas Island in Puget Sound near Seattle. He is rehearsing a band of Pacific Northwest stalwarts that includes stars of the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra. Here, they run through Groenewald’s arrangement of “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Brad Allison has the flugelhorn lead. Jay Thomas is the alto saxophone soloist. The video closes with names of all the players.

There was a sort of followup to the Medium But Well Done venture. To see it, go here. If you would like more on the topic, let me know, and we’ll put the slothful Rifftides staff to work on it. To send an email message, click on the word “Contact” in the blue band at the top of the page, or submit a comment using the “Speak Your Mind” box at the end of the post.

Just for fun, here’s World Brass with a witty Groenewald arrangement of “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” of all things. Let’s hear it for the drummer.

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  1. Dan Kelly says

    Groenewald’s group is tight, smooth and clear as a bell.

    I have never understood how humans could play the Flight of the Bumble Bee. Wow!

  2. Doug Stewart says

    A quick response to the interesting big little band theme.
    The Cy Touff-Richie Kamuca Octet blew my mind with the Forum theatre performance in 1955(?) “Keester Parade” is a masterpiece of swing,solo excellence and ensemble precision. Think Johnny Mandel did the chart…….what joy that guy has given the world.

  3. says

    Oliver Groenewald did an entire album of charts for Mark Murphy then he met Chuck Israels and he was interested in getting some of the Hall Overton arranging techniques from Chuck. I met Ollie when he was hanging out with Willie Thomas. I’m not sure what year that was…hmmmm time flies when your having fun. Oliver got to be good friends with Art Farmer and many xpats living in Europe. The music is fresh-sounding and still has a connection to jazz that I dig. We (the band) are all excited to play his music, and the ensemble immediately has a lot of personal chemistry!

  4. Joe Lang says

    I have always been fascinated by groups in this size range. There are a few currently active in California, the longstanding Dave Pell Octet, Octobop and the Phil Norman Tentet carrying on the tradition.

  5. says

    It’s not an exaggeration to say that every little town and village in Germany and Austria has a town band — which helps explain Oliver Groenwald’s background. Brass bands represent a rich tradition of folk music, but they also especially love playing jazz. Austria’s Mnozil Brass is an example that has been taken to exalted heights. Here’s a video of Mnozil playing with Wycliffe Gordon – one of the greatest jazz musicians alive:

    These town bands use a wider array of brass instruments than commonly employed in the USA. Wagner tubas, tenor horns, rotary valve trumpets, and bass trumpets are more common – as seen in the rotary valve trumpet and the bass trumpet in the above video. Their instruments tend to be more conical and mellow which seems to better lend itself to ensemble blend. Even playing jazz, you can sense the folk tradition in their brass styles.

  6. Tony Burrell, II says

    I liked the performance by the Oliver Groenewald nonet very much. Rather tasty. I’ll have to remember to look them up the next we visit Seattle to see the grandkids. First time that I have seen an instrument that was called a bass Flugelhorn. Kinda reminded me of the old King marching trombone (aka Flugabone) Kanstul also made a Model 955 Flugelbone. It piqued my curiosity enough to do a web search for the instrument and found a Voigt Bass Flugelhorn that goes for around € 2.740,00 these days (About $4,000.00+/-)

    Anyway, your posting on the medium sized groups made me think immediately of the Rod Levitt posting that was done a little while back. (I had the original Riverside vinyl LP The Dynamic Sound Patterns of the Rod Levitt Orchestra way back when and will probably search out the CD reissue one of these days.) “His Master’s Voice” was a favorite cut that I enjoyed listening to quite a lot back then
    as well as “El General,” which featured Gene Allen on bari.
    The personnel on that album was:
    Rod Levitt – trombone, arranger, conductor
    Rolf Ericson – trumpet
    Buzz Renn – alto (and soprano?) saxophone, clarinet
    George Marge – tenor saxophone, clarinet, piccolo
    Gene Allen – baritone saxophone, clarinet
    Sy Johnson – piano
    John Beal – bass
    Ronnie Bedford – drums

    Jim Cifelli had a nonet that made three different recordings which are still available on CD to my knowledge. On one recording the personnel was:
    Drums: Tim Horner
    Bass Mary Ann McSweeney
    Trombone: Pete McGuinness
    Trumpets/Flugelhorn: Jim Cifelli
    Trumpets/Flugelhorn: Andy Gravish
    Saxophones & Reeds: Joel Frahm, Cliff Lyons
    Baritone sax/flute/bass clarinet: Barbara Cifelli
    Guitar: Pete McCann

    Ray Vega headed a nonet that opened the SUNY Plattsburgh’s annual Jazz Festival this year that was basically basing its repertoire on Miles’ Birth of the Cool ensemble.

    Russian Born bassist Yuriy Galkin has a London(?) based Nonet that echoes the same instrumentation of Oliver Groenewald’s nonet (2 trumpets, 1 bone, 3 reeds and rhythm)

    Here are a few other medium sized groups to consider, although they might not have any recordings available per se, outside of the various web sites.

    German Women’s Jazz orchestra, led by Angelika Niescier:
    Silke Eberhard, alto sax
    Birgitta Flick, tenor sax
    Charlotte Ortmann, tenor sax
    Stefanie Deckers, trumpet
    Kristine Schlicke, trumpet
    Hannah Mütze, trumpet
    Lisa Katharina Stick, trombone
    Kerstin Meier, trombone
    Ulla Oster, double bass
    Carola Grey, drums
    Stefanie Narr, guitar
    Some of the women, I am very familiar with since they played in the now defunct United Women’s Orchestra a few years back, which was one of my favorite ensembles with its very original compositions by its two Co-Leaders, Christina Fuchs and Hazel Leach

    The Charles Mingus Orchestra which includes the following somewhat unusual instrumental chairs:
    (Too many different musicians to name here)
    Tenor and Soprano Sax
    Alto and Soprano Sax, Flute, Clarinet:
    Bass Clarinet
    French Horn

    There seems to be another group in Northern California with unusual instrumentation. Resonance is a jazz octet that is comprised of saxophone, flute, violin, viola, cello, double bass, keyboard and drums. They are appearing at Yoshi’s this week. Will have to check them out for sure.

    Mike Westbrook, who has had quite a few different permutations of his groups over the years, for a while toured with the following instrumentation in 1984:
    Tenor Horn (Not quite your garden variety jazz horn played Kate Westbrook, who also played piccolo and bamboo flute)
    Reeds (Chris Biscoe Soprano, Alto, Baritone Saxes, Alto clarinet and Piccolo)
    They got quite a full sound from this line up as well . Here is a tune of Mike Westbrook’s called East Stratford Too-Doo that seems to allude to some members of Duke Ellington’s band in the brief vocal by Kate Westbrook and Phil Minton.

    Also came up with another “traditional ” tentet:
    Harry Smallenburg’s group played a gig back in 2011 with:
    Glenda Smith and Ron Sewer (trumpets),
    Scott Whitfield (trombone),
    Charlie Orena (Oreña?)(tenor sax, clarinet and flute)
    Sharon Hirata (alto, soprano sax, clarinet and flute)
    Leanne Powers (bari sax, bass clarinet, flute and alto flute)
    Geoff Stradling (piano)
    Ernie Nunez (bass)
    Megan Foley (drums)
    Harry Smallenburg (vibes, arranger and composer

    And that’s it for right now, So, just scratching the surface, it looks like there are enough medium size bands around these days. (I did not include the SF Jazz Collective because it is basically a four horn band with vibes. But technically, it is an octet as well.) Certainly worth exploring more. This has been as fascinating (more than a) few hours spent researching this topic for me. Hope that the reply is not too long.

    • Doug Ramsey says

      Mr Burrell wins, hands down, the competition for longest comment in Rifftides history, with a special citation for keeping it relevant.

  7. says

    I hope some folk will look into Phil Nimmons’ work with his “Nimmons ‘N Nine” group. Phil’s first couple of records were reissued on CD by Verve a few years back, and are well worth looking for. It’s amazing how well music from the mid-late ’50s stands up.

  8. Peter Kountz says

    Ted O’Reilly is right about Phil Nimmons and Nimmons ‘N Nine. We can also celebrate Rob McConnell’s Tentet, whose first CD was released in 2000.. McConnell has said that it was in this group that he could do his best work, in contrast to the Boss Brass. And then we should remember Marty Paich’s Dek-Tette, especially the collaboration with The Hi-Lo’s on And All that Jazz. And given Oliver Groenewald’s amazing breadth, represented by the “Flight of the Bumblebee,” with the World Brass, we should reference The Mnozil Brass, 7 wild, crazy, and gifted musicians from Vienna who could probably play the “Flight of the Bumblebee” in their sleep.

  9. Bruce Armstrong says

    When I was in high school in the very early 1960s I picked up the Jimmy Heath LP Really Big (Riverside label), which featured Jimmy and an all-star 10-piece band playing arrangements by himself and Tom McIntosh. That recording definitely stands the test of time and I think the CD reissue (which I own and play a lot) is still available. Highly recommended for those who like the smaller ensembles.

    Any small-band recordings by Marty Paich–especially those featuring Art Pepper–are high on my list as is the series of octet recordings led by Lennie Niehaus which he did in the mid & late 50s–especially “I Swing For You”–all of which have been reissued on CD.

    Kudos to Oliver for keeping the nonet experiment going into the 21st century. His writing definitely puts him in the class of those I mentioned.

  10. David says

    Oscar Pettiford’s 1954 nonet session Basically Duke, with arrangements by Quincy Jones and Gigi Gryce, is a classic. Reissued on Fresh Sound, with another excellent session from ‘55, as “Nonet & Octet.”

    Lee Konitz had a delightful nonet in the late ‘70s that recorded for Chiaroscuro. Arrangements by Lee and Sy Oliver and a fantastic personnel list.

  11. says

    This is great, and I’m looking forward to hearing them in person. I’ve always loved these little big bands, from John Kirby to the Birth of the Cool, Mulligan Tentette, Gil Evans + Ten, Shorty Rogers and the Giants, Cy Touff-Richie Kamuca, and the Woody Herman Octet, aka “The Las Vegas Herd” which also had Cy Touff. Phil Woods had an excellent Little Big Band, and Rob McConnell led a tentet in his last years and made three CDs with it. I’m currently enjoying another Toronto band, the Dave Young-Terry Promane Octet with 10 nice arrangements on their CD. I’ve featured all these bands and different times on my show.

    Keep ’em coming!

    • Tony Burrell, II says

      I forgot all about the Phil Woods Little Big Band as I have Real Life and Evolution in my CD collection as well..Thanks for bringing them up! I have two of the CDs by the Lee Konitz Nonet as well – the Live at Laren is a favorite that I need to revisit and listen to again.

      Also found a few vinyl discs in the basement while looking through them earlier today of the Bill Kirchner Nonet as well as the Widespread Depression Jazz Orchestra which later shortened its name to the Widespread Jazz Orchestra. Also found an LP by the Burt Collins – Joe Shepley 11 piece group Galaxy called Time, Space and the Blues. Got to get all of these LPs transferred to the PC one day.

  12. Jim Brown says

    Chicago has had its share of fine small bands. Ears, co-led by Cy Touff and trumpeter Bobby Lewis, including a rotating cast drawn from the finest of the town’s jazz players that typically numbered around eight. John Campbell, George Bean, Don Shelton, Joe Daley (the tenor saxophonist) and a couple of guys from the Chicago Symphony were regulars.

    Drummer Jerry Coleman’s Nine Burner included Daley and Ron Kolber, THE bari player in town who also had his own lovely sound on alto. Drummer Greg Cirgo led the Ellington Dynasty, a fine small band dedicated to Duke’s small group writing. It also included Kolber. And before my time, there was tenor saxophonist Sandy Mosse’s Pieces of Eight. i got to hear (and record) Sandy c.a. 1980 with Al and Zoot.

    It’s also notable that Jack Tracy chose Chicago as the place to record the classic “Chubby’s Back” small big band c.a. 1957.

  13. David says

    I find that I’m unable to let this topic expire without mentioning an excellent 2008 recording by the Frank Wess Nonet: Once Is Not Enough. Six of the nine tunes are Wess originals. Arrangements by Wess, Dennis Mackrel, and Scott Robinson. Superb lineup of players.