The big band theory: is the jazz orchestra seeing a renaissance?

Before bebop ushered in the age of trios and quartets, large outfits dominated the scene. Now a new generation of players are bringing back the tradition – and its sense of community

Most jazz artists have what could be called the Big Band Dream. That dream is to lead between 12 and 20 musicians, comprising a rhythm section (piano, bass, drums and, sometimes, guitar), as well as trombones, trumpets and woodwinds. Together they make a mighty sound. A big band, or jazz orchestra, serves no small amount of ambition.

“It’s always been a format that I was excited by, because it’s a challenge and inspiring to work with so many instruments,” says US saxophonist Steve Lehman. He recently collaborated with France’s 17-strong Orchestre National de Jazz to create one of 2023’s most adventurous releases, Ex Machina, a mesmerising album that deftly combines acoustic timbres with glitchy, computer-generated noise.

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