Russ Spiegel’s Band Is Bigger Than Yours
By far one of the biggest channels shaping up here at earbits is our jazz station. We’ve got close to 100 great artists already on board and we’re adding more every day. One of the exciting artists we’ll be featuring is The Russ Spiegel Jazz Orchestra. Led by Russ Spiegel, a killer composer, arranger, and guitar player, this 17-piece Jazz Big Band knocks out famous tunes by Duke Ellington, Paul Weston and more, using Russ’s original arrangements, as well as some high-energy originals composed by Spiegel himself. You can check it out on their latest album, Transplants, available on CDBaby.
I’ve had the pleasure of playing with Russ in my band, The Capitalist Hippie Complex, a 9-piece group playing funky jazz hip hop. If that doesn’t speak to the diversity of Russ’s guitar playing, and his ability to jump into any musical situation, I don’t know what does. Since composing and arranging for and producing a big band is such a different animal than other types of jazz (or just about any other group in general), I thought we’d focus our interview on that.
earbits: Hey Russ, thanks for chatting with us today. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it looks like Transplants is your first studio album producing a Big Band. What led to focusing on Big Band Jazz and do you think you’ll keep your focus on big bands for awhile?
Russ Spiegel: Hi Joey, it’s great to have the opportunity to speak with you. Yeah, that was a nice time with CHC – I really enjoyed playing with you guys. Really cool, fun music and musicians!
Many years ago (too many, I’m afraid to say) I was living in Germany and touring with one of that country’s top jazz artists, the organist Barbara Dennerlein. I was living in Frankfurt and was very much a part of the jazz scene there. I had relocated there in 1988 after studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. It was funny to call Germany home, but that is where my parents had moved after my father was offered a job with the Department of Defense. I had gone there while still in high school and had even done some college there. After my time at Berklee I was pretty broke so I went “home” to see how I would do in Europe – Berklee had a real name there and there was still the bonus of being an American in Germany.
Frankfurt is a communication center for the region in Germany called Hesse and they have TV and radio studios based in the city. They even have their own radio big band and I often went to their concerts. At one concert I attended there was a guest artist – a guitarist – and neither the arrangements nor the playing really knocked me out. I said to myself, “I can do that” and took my knowledge of arranging techniques I had learned at Berklee and wrote my first big band chart, appropriately titled “Number One.” When it was finished, I offered it to the Hessische Rundfunk Bigband (as the radio big band is called). They bought the chart, I made a nice chunk of change, and went straight on to my second chart, “Kangaroo,” which they also bought.
A couple of months went by and then I didn’t hear anything else from the radio station and went on the road with Barbara. I spoke with the saxophone player in the band as I was a little frustrated because I had never gotten to actually hear my charts performed (I had just given them the parts and the score). He suggested I form my own group if I want to hear my music. When I got back I made some phone calls, got some help from some of the local musicians, found a gig at the local jazz club and suddenly I was leading a big band. Now I didn’t have enough charts for an evening and realized I had better get writing.
After a couple of years I got a lot of notoriety as this crazy American running a big band in Frankfurt. I had a good number of charts written and a steady once-a-month gig with an established core group of local musicians. Later on the city gave me a cash award for my efforts in jazz, and my band was a featured performer at the German Jazz Festival in Frankfurt in 1999.
As to the question as to whether I will keep my focus on big band writing in the future, I would have to say that composing and arranging for big band is something I have found that I can do well. I believe I have an individual voice in this genre and it helps making my way in the world of jazz. I have begun giving workshops and seminars as well as getting requests for my charts and have been invited to be a guest artist at various high schools and colleges around the country. It’s all very rewarding professionally, but it’s not usually enough to keep putting bread on the table. Running a working big band is very labor-intensive and usually doesn’t pay off financially, and besides, I’m not the kind of guy who just likes to do one thing. I freelance doing gigs in various formations – from solo to big band – plus teaching, and the occasional commission to write or arrange. I also have developed an interest in film and have written and produced my first short film, which I will be doing the score to, as well as finding myself acting in the movies and TV, generally as a musician or an extra. Nevertheless, I would say big band writing and arranging is the thing I excel at. I’ve been very fortunate to have a great group of musicians here in New York who are willing to perform for ridiculously low pay just because they believe in this project and have fun playing my music.
earbits: Tell us a little about composing and arranging pieces for a big band. I imagine its easy to muddy the sound with so many instruments, but your music is punchy, clean and very well arranged. How do you make sure to leave space and keep things dynamic in your big band compositions?
Russ Spiegel: Thanks for the compliment. When I got into writing for big band one of the first things I did was get some books on orchestration. I made it a point to ask brass and reed players what was too high, or too low, what required too much breath, etc. I discovered musicians really appreciated good horizontal, melodic lines in their parts. I already had a strong grounding in harmony and at Berklee I had taken a class called “Chord Scales for Arranging” which was extremely helpful. I was also interested in Indian music so I had been looking into rhythmical concepts. Also, being a guitar player with absolutely no keyboard chops forced me to imagine a lot of the music in my mind’s eye. I discovered I could actually “hear” voicings and the sound of instruments in my head and found that this and my imagination all gave me insights into the music making process. It probably didn’t hurt that I come from a musical family and had been hearing all kinds of music since I was very young. Now this may sound funny to you, but I am actually a lazy guy. I would sit around and let the music run around in my head until I would know where to go next, then (and especially as I was writing music by hand) I would write just enough to get through the passage I had been working on. I definitely work using the concept, “Less is more”.
earbits: Is this an evolution of sorts, I mean, do you like composing and producing big band music more so than the smaller jazz ensembles you’ve had in the past?
Russ Spiegel: It is obviously a more involved process. Both require a strong compositional ability. I have found that, over the years, I do prefer music that is more “organized.” I think I have written and/or played so many “head charts” that I begin to miss things such as thematic development, and the harmonic richness of the larger group. Of course, there is more room for interplay in a smaller group but I do try to encourage that in my big band. That being said, in comparison to a small band, producing a big band is a bit of a nightmare as it requires a lot more time, patience and money to get a good sounding recording.
earbits: What was it like recording a 17-piece band? Where did you do it and how long did it take?
Russ Spiegel: It was a phenomenal experience! We recorded at Systems Two in Brooklyn. I can’t imagine a better place to record a big band. They have a huge main room, lots of isolation booths, great backline and all the microphones you could wish for. The place is state-of-the-art and they really managed to get the sound of the band down quickly. I had already done a number of projects with my engineer Jon Rosenberg – I recorded my first CD Monky with him way back in 1997 and I actually recorded my Steeplechase album Chimera with him a week or two later – and managed to record the entire nine tracks, plus some outtakes, in about 6 hours! I was as amazed as everyone else. Of course I only had so much money, so time was an issue, but the band was well-rehearsed and we had just done a couple of gigs. Everything really came together that day. I am extremely proud of the results and feel blessed to have had such amazing, experienced musicians working with me.
Once I had the basic tracks, it became an issue of editing, adding some overdubs – mostly me, as I couldn’t conduct the band and also fully concentrate on my parts – then mixing everything down. That was a long, and expensive process. I did it piece-by-piece whenever I had any money. The whole process ended up taking about three years and well over $10,000. I really didn’t want to compromise on the sound and felt this recording was going to be my calling card. I am truly proud of the results and I feel this was money well-spent.
earbits: Agreed. The album sounds terrific. Is there anything else about the Big Band experience that you want to share with our audience or aspiring composers out there?
Russ Spiegel: If that’s what you want to do, stick with your dream. Just keep in mind that it is a very time- and cost-intensive venture. Trying to find a gig for your group, especially a paying one, is a real challenge. Coordinating musicians, rehearsals, etc. will certainly also test one’s organizational skills. I think most young composers start off writing for their high school or college big bands. The challenge is to keep this up once one is forced to make a living. Financially, I’m probably pretty deep in the red, at least in the short term, in following this direction. On the other hand, it has given me an incredible amount of satisfaction standing in front of and leading 17 burning musicians playing their asses off on music that I have written and composed. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything.
earbits: Okay, last question, and it’s a random one. I just noticed on your blog that you were on the TV show 30 Rock, probably my all-time favorite show. Did I miss you? What part did you play, or are you talking about having music featured? I have to check it out!
Russ Spiegel: Joey, you know life sometimes throws you some interesting curves. A few years ago while I was in grad school I was asked by a friend to help out teaching some kids to play guitar for a movie these people were making. It was a fun little summer thing that ended up becoming the pilot for the hit Nickelodeon TV show, “The Naked Brothers Band.” Before I knew it, I had become one of the music instructors for that show. It ran for three years and during that time I got interested in acting. I ended up doing a role in one of the show’s epdisodes (“Been There, Rocked That”) and then got cast as a band member in the movie, “What Happens in Vegas…” That led to various background roles in a bunch of TV shows and movies, and that has turned into an income source allowing me to keep surviving as a musician in New York.
I have so far been on two episodes of 30 Rock, by the way: on “Black Light Attack” I am watching a basketball game sitting directly behind Alec Baldwin, so I’m very visible. On this season’s finale, “I Do Do” I’m part of the band in the wedding scene. I’m the blur playing guitar.
earbits: Haha! I will have to re-watch those episodes. To think, from leading an amazing Big Band to being the backing band for Tina Fey – now that is diversity. Thanks, Russ!
Russ Spiegel: Always a pleasure, Joey.