How is the role of a bass trombone in a big band any different to the other trombones in the section? Is it simply the 4th trombone part, or something more? Listen to any good big band and you will hear the difference. In a big band, the bass trombone part should be approached by the player as a principal chair.
Good arrangers will pair the bass trombone with the baritone sax to deliver a crispy punch to the bottom end of the band. The lines will often be a counter-point to the rest of the band, or be joined with the bass to emphasize bass punctuation points. The bass trombone player should treat these as solo lines and bring them out, in spite of how loudly the trumpet section complains during rehearsals. (Just remember, on a gig, the trumpet players will most likely be positioned behind the trombones and won’t have a clue what’s going on in front of them anyway).
At other times, the bass trombone part will literally be written as a 4th trombone in a harmony, and we would want it to blend nicely with the rest of the section. That means no blats or over-blowing. Match the section and support the harmonies with the lowest voice.
So, the bass trombone player needs to be aware of his/her changing role in different circumstances. Blend when required in sectional harmonies and play like a soloist when written differently to the rest of the section.
Seat instruments together who play together
Ideally, the bass trombone should be seated next to the baritone sax. If the bass player can be nearby too, that would be even better. These three instruments will often feature together and provide the bottom-end support for the entire band. Note that the lowest common note the bass trombone and baritone sax have is a low Db. Any lower and the bass trombone is on his own.
The Bass Trombone Sound
There is a big difference between playing bass trombone in an orchestral situation and in a big band. To begin with, the sound will be significantly different and that is primarily due to the difference in roles in these different situations. An orchestral bass trombone should have a darker sound to allow it to blend with the brass section and the rest of the orchestra.
The role of the bass trombone in a big band is different. In a big band, there are fewer instruments and the bass trombone needs to carry more of the bass-end responsibility. We do not always want the bass trombone to blend with the rest of the trombone section. You’ll often hear a bass trombone in a big band have a brighter sound than an orchestral bass trombone. Three primarily factors impact the tone:
- The mouthpiece. A shallower cup will help produce a brighter sound with more punch. Finding the right mouthpiece for you can take some experimentation.
- The instrument. Different models will produce different timbres of sound. Some say a darker rose gold color will produce a darker sounds, while a brighter yellow brass color will produce a brighter sound. Check out which brands and models your favorite bass trombone players use and try them out for yourself.
- The player. Finding the right embouchure to consistently produce the sound you want will be a critical element to your playing. The basics need to be there, such as proper breathing, breath control and posture. Be aware that the louder you play, the more air will be required. So, learning to project your sound efficiently will allow you to play softer and conserve air, while delivering sufficient volume to the listener.
Great bass trombone players
See the video below for a terrific bass trombone feature with a big band by Martin van den Berg. Martin does an outstanding job – making his instrument speak consistently across the register with a great sound. Note that the bass doubles his solo line. You’ll also hear him play counter-point lines during the ensemble sections. Listen carefully as he occasionally drops an octave with a pedal grace note – a technique made famous by George “Mr Bass Trombone” Roberts.
You playing the role of the bass trombone in a band band
When everything comes together, playing bass trombone in a big band can be a very satisfying and rewarding experience. When done right, the audience will notice the difference. The bass trombone will poke right through the whole band when needed and blend back into the band when expected.
If you have the opportunity to play bass trombone in a big band, don’t waste the opportunity by simply treating as a 4th trombone part. Make a difference to the overall sound of the band.