All Things Kenton Blog

Two or five trombones?

There has been a recent discussion online comparing the value of utilizing two trombones versus five in a big band setting.

I have a few observations.

1) From a musically pragmatic standpoint, a five bone section can do everything a two bone section can do, and a lot more. The reverse is not true. If an arranger wants to hear the sound of two trombones, they merely write rests for the other three. Or take two of the resting bones and create another two bone section to play in counterpoint. A five bone section can have timbres unknown with two bones, such as simultaneously combining three or more different mutes, or playing with the type of power that can only be obtained with numbers. Of course, a five bone section can play up to 5 notes at a time, something a two bone section cannot accomplish. Clearly, the color and harmonic palette available increases exponentially with every trombone added. WIN = 5 Bones

2) A section of two trombones takes up less room, allowing the band to fit on smaller stages. The payroll for two bones is less than half of the larger section, making it much easier to book. The section may potentially be better, as one is theoretically using the best two trombonists, not the best five. WIN = 2 bones

3) Since many jazz musicians are soloists/combo players at heart, the smaller the band, the more combo-like it is, with increased space for soloing. This can increase player interest dramatically. WIN = 2 bones

4) There is a notion that “real jazz” should swing and be buoyant by nature, and that five trombones, by their sheer weight, cannot tread lightly. No WIN; tossed out because it is based on two false assumptions.

5) Creating a harmonic unit with two trombones requires more precise handling and creative problem solving. It is easy to voice a Cmaj9(+11) chord for five instruments. Expressing that same harmony with two is a challenge. This can be very positive; composers like challenges. But, it can also be much simpler to assign notes to fewer instruments; the more instruments involved, the more intimidating it can be to many writers. WIN = 2 bones by a nose

4) The vast majority of available music for big band, both published and “traded,” calls for four bones, occasionally five. But rarely less than four. In a situation in which a band relies on outside music, this is significant. It could also be important to a writer who wants to get into the high school/college jazz band world. WIN = 4 (5) Bones

5) Fortunately, we can seek opportunities to continually stretch ourselves if we chose. Every composition, every new project, every work of art, is unique. We all have preferences as writers and listeners; there is no one-size-fits-all answer. The only wrong ideas are those that begin with “Jazz must…” or “Jazz must never…” The only jazz musicians that we admire today are the ones who did things differently, the ones who altered the definition of jazz. They created new paths that were frequently not understood until the passing of time. WIN = everyone
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My most recent CD utilized a nonet with two bones (La Chanson Française). The two before that featured a twenty-piece band with five bones (Progressive Jazz 2009 and Fleet Street). Mozart, Beethoven and Stravinsky, wrote for virtually every size instrumentation imaginable in their time, and then some. I think it would be extraordinarily boring to always write for the same group of instruments.