Thomas Steele is a Toronto-based saxophonist, composer and educator who has performed across Canada in both big bands and smaller jazz ensembles, sharing the stage with internationally acclaimed artists like Tim Hagans, Andrew Rathbun, Tara Davidson and more.
In 2019, Steele released a quintet album called The Bends. Now, his latest project 10Tet features a 10-piece jazz ensemble with some of the most engaging and lyrical musicians in Toronto.
For the New Music Spotlight, Steele joined us to talk about the new album and his compositional process.
How would you describe your style to someone who hasn’t heard your music?
I would say it’s about taking a big band and putting it into a more modern stream. We have instrumentation that’s a bit unique. We’re trying to push the boundaries of some more modern and contemporary styles of jazz.
You’ve been working with a quintet for a little while. Had you always wanted to lead a big band?
I was always really interested in large ensemble music. That’s kind of how I got my start in jazz, playing in the school big bands and then getting into the University of Toronto and playing in their school ensemble. I always had this ambition to start a larger project. That came about after I took an arranging course and I got a bit more used to writing for ensembles with bigger instrumentation. I got into experimenting with ensembles with no chordal instruments, and having that lack of harmony was really interesting because you had to replace the harmony that you’d get from the piano, bass and drums, and I’d weave that harmony and rhythm into the horns. It was an exciting way to experiment with larger ensemble music.
It sounds like when you’re writing for larger ensembles, you really have to think about music in a different way than with a smaller ensemble.
Totally. With a chordal instrument — a piano or guitar player — it’s easier to have a really grounded sense of the form and the chord changes. So, when we’re playing with just a horn section, a bassist and a drummer, we have to be really deliberate about making sure the harmony is there and that it doesn’t sound wonky. If you take a piano voicing, where there are seconds and thirds in there, and put that into a horn, it can sound jumbled and messy. We have to really experiment with the way we orchestrate for the ensemble, and the way that we write the rhythm and the harmony so that it sounds really cohesive.
What is your composition process like?
It depends on the day. Sometimes I’ll be playing on the saxophone, improvising over a drone or something, and then I’ll play a motif that catches my ear, and I’ll put it into a voice memo and later on when I’m at a piano I’ll pull it up. I have hundreds and hundreds of voice memos of 10-second little ideas. From there, I’ll try to pick a couple of ideas and see if I can make them fit together. I’ll sometimes make a lead sheet at first with just melody and chord changes, and then try to expand it to 10 people.
Have you ever had any of those voice memos where you couldn’t figure out where to put them, and they finally came together for this album?
I had that with one of my songs, Deja Vu. It was such a tough composition to arrange because the harmonies and changes in the song were really non-functional. If you looked at it on paper, it wouldn’t seem to make sense. It only really made sense when you heard the voice leading and you heard how the changes flowed from one to another. I was wondering how to finish off the piece and I was having trouble capping it off, because there’s this huge middle section and then it dies down into a more simmering, chill ambient section. I pulled up my voice memos, and I found a note that I had, and I thought, “This might be perfect.” I put it into a different key, and I reworked it, and that’s how the ending came about.
You’ve had the benefit of learning from some of the greats. You learned arranging from Terry Promane and composing from David Occhipinti and Christine Jensen. Is there a piece of advice that they gave to you that has stuck with you?
Christine Jensen told me to learn from the best. She gave me a bunch of resources to look at how a lot of innovative writers such as Gil Evans, Darcy James Argue and Maria Schneider took what seemed like a really basic big band form but turned it into their own. They do that with how they orchestrate the music and the way they write and voice different chord changes. I went back and, with Christine’s help, I was able to really study how these musicians I really look up to were able to influentially change the scope of what large ensemble music sounds like.
You touched on the song Deja Vu. What is that song all about?
I called it Deja Vu because when you’re studying jazz at university, you’re listening to and performing so much music, and I kept having these little fragments of ideas that I really wasn’t sure where I got them from. Listening back to performances, I realized that some of those little fragments of melody and pieces of harmony were things that we naturally came up with when we were improvising. When I was drawing from that, I wanted to call it Deja Vu because it’s basically something that I already played or already listened to, and I’m just reworking it into something new.
Do you have a favourite section of the song?
I really love the solo section in the middle. It features Kaelen Murphy on lead trumpet and Jacob Chung on tenor sax. That’s an amazing section. Those two are outstanding soloists, and the time and the feel are so amazing. Also, in the ending section, you hear a bit from our trombone player Nick Adama. I really like those solo sections because they just show how these musicians in my group are so talented and creative, and they’re able to play over really complex chord changes and make the time, sound and harmony feel so cohesive.
This interview has been edited and condensed.