Anna Webber, Angela Morris Explore Big Bands’ Sonic Possibilities


Saxophonists Angela Morris (left) and Anna Webber engage “a form that comes with a lot of baggage” in the Webber/Morris Big Band.

(Photo: TJ Huff)

Canadian tenor saxophonists Anna Webber and Angela Morris push open the modern notion of large-ensemble music on the Webber/Morris Big Band’s riveting and mercurial debut, Both Are True (Greenleaf Music).

Far from being yet another collection of swinging standards, the album consists of compelling explorations into the sonic possibilities of big bands. The opening tune, “Climbing On Mirrors,” composed by Webber, is a dynamic burst with a tenor saxophone-flute dance, and the gripping title track, composed by Morris, is mysterious and dark with what sounds like electronic scraping in the background.

During a recent interview in Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium, Webber and Morris agreed that they were steering clear of writing traditional big band charts for their New York-based, 18-piece ensemble, which was formed in 2015. Meanwhile, the pair have pursued active solo careers on the improvised music scene.

“My lineage is pretty clear to me,” said Webber, who studied composition with John Hollenbeck. “Even so, as composers we’re both figuring out how to make the music sound more like ourselves than those in our lineage. It’s putting our youthful energy into a historic art form.”

“We know we’re engaging in a form that comes with a lot of baggage,” said Morris, who studied composition with Darcy James Argue. “So, it was exciting to meet Anna to make our own music in this setting.”

Earlier in their careers, neither Webber nor Morris had grand ambitions for expressing their voices in a large configuration. “There’s no way I would have started a big band on my own,” Webber said. “Having someone else there to support and motivate me was very important. Realizing we had this common interest, we knew we could work together along with a group of people we could call to join us.”

Both were involved with the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop formed by Bob Brookmeyer in 1988 and got to know other big band composers and conductors, like Miho Hazama and Brian Krock. “We’re all coming from a similar place, which I feel has helped a lot of creative big bands to develop in New York,” said Webber, who broke into the big band scene in 2011–2012 while pursuing her second master’s degree at Jazz Institute Berlin. “I had a big chip on my shoulder about writing for big band. As an undergrad, the big band was the football team of the music department, and I wasn’t very interested in being involved in that culture. But when I was in Berlin, I had to write a chart for big band, so I spent months listening to a lot of modern bands. That’s when I decided I wasn’t interested in writing traditional big band charts.”

Webber’s influences are in the 20th-century classical world of Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, as well as in avant-leaning jazz artists like Cecil Taylor, giving her a wider scope of how to work with Morris.

“This is a great opportunity for us to be working with a band that’s so good, with each player so good at disparate skills,” Morris added. “That’s the excitement, to bring together people to play music that’s so challenging. They’re reading the charts, but also making these weird extended improvisations over the changes, doing all these things that don’t often happen in a big band.” DB

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April 2024
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