SOUNZ caught up with Thomas Botting to find out more about how his ensemble came together.
I’m Tom Botting, I’m a double bassist and composer working primarily in the jazz genre. I grew up in Hamilton before moving to Auckland to study jazz at Massey University’s Auckland campus. I’ve spent most of the last 9 years living and working in Sydney, but due to COVID ended up back in NZ for most of 2020 (which was lovely).
What jazz idioms do you most closely identify with? – are these reflected in this set of works?
I love and work within a fairly diverse range of jazz and jazz-related idioms, from trad jazz to bebop, freer styles and modern jazz. As a composer, however, I guess I’m more influenced by ‘modern jazz’, whatever that means. I tend to write what I think of as instrumental ‘indie’ music with elements of improvisation built into it, and the modern jazz that I’m most enamoured by tends to be similar. For example, one of my favourite records of recent years is Reinier Baas’ “Mostly Improvised Instrumental Indie Music” which says it all, really.
How did the Home Ensemble come together? – what has the Ensemble done so far and what are its plans for the future?
I first formed the Home Ensemble (although it wasn’t under that name as of yet) in January 2019 for a show at The Third Eye in Wellington as part of the Arthur Street Loft Orchestra series. I’d been toying with the idea of writing some music for a large ensemble for a while and my good friend Jake Baxendale, who curates that series, gave me the necessary push to get it rolling. Last year we performed at The Third Eye as part of the Wellington Jazz Festival as well as a show at the Rogue and Vagabond in June. At the moment I’m writing music for the ensemble with the addition of a string quartet with a view to recording that version of the ensemble hopefully in the near future.
Are you especially attracted to writing for larger ensembles such as the Home Ensemble?
It’s definitely something I’ve always been interested in. I grew up playing in brass bands as well as being obsessed with orchestral music and I’ve always loved the possibilities that larger ensembles offer in terms of orchestration, tonal palette, instrument ranges, dynamics and so on. I’d done a bit of writing for jazz orchestra earlier in my career (an example of which is the title track on the Auckland Jazz Orchestra’s album ‘Bloom’) but I often found myself overwhelmed with possibilities and choices. I ended up writing mostly for quintet for a while, trying to see how much I could squeeze out of that ensemble size before augmenting it. This collection of works for the home ensemble (beautifully captured thanks to the good folks at SOUNZ and particularly Phil Brownlee the engineer and Chris Watson the videographer) is the next step in terms of ensemble size for me. From here, as I say, I’m writing for the same ensemble with the addition of a string quartet; after that, who knows?
How do you find playing while concurrently directing the ensemble?
Extremely difficult! It’s been a pretty steep learning curve, especially making things clear enough to get clean takes for recording. Double bass is particularly badly suited to ‘cueing’ things, saxophones or trumpet you can use the bell of the instrument to cue downbeats, guitar necks work well too, drumsticks, piano head nods…I think in the end the rest of the band was taking the cues from my hair! The other aspect of directing that I’ve been struggling with is conducting some of the brass and woodwind chorale sections. My dad has been conducting brass bands and orchestras for as long as I can remember; I really should have been paying more attention because I have no idea what to do with my hands…I just flail them about and hope for the best. Luckily the performers in the ensemble are all consummate pros and make it sound great.
What are your next steps in your career?
The very next thing is releasing the second part of a live double album for my quintet, recorded at the Rogue and Vagabond in July 2020 with a grant from Creative New Zealand. I’m looking to record new works for the Home Ensemble + Strings in early 2022 so my current focus is on writing for that. I’ve also been working on some new works for solo double bass with a view to releasing a second solo album.