A statement from the New York Symphonic Jazz Orchestra's musical director Sonia Jacobsen:

I have for many years wanted to start an orchestra where a big band is mixed with a string orchestra and all the musicians including all the string players are experienced jazz musicians. I have been building repertoire over the years comprised of both my own works and those from other composers. I am thrilled that we have received tremendous interest from composers worldwide (Australia, Germany, Finland, Denmark, England, Holland, Venezuela, the US...); from string players from the growing improvising string community in NY; as well as from musicians of instruments typically associated with big bands. Many of the participants are of world-class stature, and all, including the composers, are donating their services to help get this project off the ground.

Another way of thinking about the instrumentation is to take a symphony orchestra and replace the woodwinds and brass with those of a jazz orchestra (with various doubles on flutes, clarinets, and double reeds). The percussion section includes classical percussion, ethnic percussion, mallet percussion and drum set. The similarity of the instrumentation with a symphony orchestra makes it easy for the compositions to be adapted to classical orchestras. However, the biggest difference is in the experience of the musicians and their understanding of rhythm – a subject that all of the composers involved, who also have worked with classical orchestras, have brought up. It is no secret that the typical education of a classical musician is severely lacking in rhythmic training.

pic Sonia Jacobsen

Even though the boundaries between the styles are blurred, we believe we have already developed a stylistic identity. We have observed many attempts in bridging major styles fall between the gaps by merely being juxtapositions of flavors or simply watered down (or even cheesy) attempts to please everyone - and thereby pleasing nobody. Encouraging and selecting repertoire that is a true melting pot of different influences helps us define our aesthetic identity. Accessible but with substance, and with a strong rhythmic component are some of the attributes that describe our direction and vision.

As a jazz composer, opportunities are mostly limited to writing for standard big band or for a small ensemble led by the composer. If one should desire to write for any non-standard instrumentation or for a larger orchestra including strings, there are classical orchestras, who on occasion might venture into playing something influenced by jazz. These orchestras are filled with classically trained musicians who most often do not have the skills and understanding to play the music with, in particular, the right rhythmic feel and with improvisational elements. Although they might be genuinely interested, precious little rehearsal time often gets turned into workshops instead of working on the piece.

The big band medium is fine, but it is a tired sound in my view. I have since my ‘composer infancy’ desired to include strings in my writing. My music has influences from other than classical and jazz styles also. For example you can find rhythmical elements derived from funk music as well as from diverse ethnic/folk traditions.

Sonia Jacobsen