When the University of North Texas Jazz Singers look toward the podium on Friday night, they’ll see a new face holding the baton for the first time in 30 years. Tim Brent is the group’s new director, taking over for Paris Rutherford, who retired last year after three decades at the helm. During a recent phone conversation, he spoke about what it’s like to take over for a legend as part of the Art&Seek Q&A:
Art&Seek: So what made you want to come to UNT?
Tim Brent: Well, what made me want to come was there was a position opening. Paris Rutherford, who was the gentleman who started the vocal jazz program here 30 years ago, was retiring. So he retired last year, and an announcement went around nationwide for a search for a candidate to replace him. UNT has one of the top schools of jazz in the country, so of course when I saw that announcement, my eyes opened up pretty wide and I got really excited about the possibility to have a chance to work here.
A&S: What is it like replacing someone who had been in the job for so long?
T.B.: I’ll tell you what – it’s some tremendous shoes to fill. Paris is one of the founding fathers of the vocal jazz movement at the college level. So having to take over for somebody with that kind of tradition and the name associated with Paris and the jazz singers here at UNT, there was a lot of pressure that I felt to live up to his expectations, his students’ expectations, my colleagues’ expectations. So it was very challenging, and continues to be very challenging.
A&S: You got your masters and doctorate from the University of Miami, another well-known jazz school. How does UNT compare with Miami?
T.B.: One of the differences I think is Paris’ musical preferences are much different from Larry Lapin’s, who is the director at the University of Miami. Which is surprising, because their about the same age – I think Larry is about a year or two older, so they’re in their early to mid 70s. Larry loves the old swing music. He loves that stuff. So a lot of his repertoire was chosen from that older genre. With the arrangements that he writes, there’s definitely contemporary elements, but for him it has to swing. Here at UNT, from what I’ve observed, it seems that Paris has a much more contemporary focus of his music. So the biggest difference is in musical preference. One isn’t any more valid than the other, it’s just musical preference.
A&S: While living in Miami, you got into Latin music. Do you plan to introduce some of that Latin influence on the Jazz Singers?
T.B.: I certainly do. With this concert we’ll be doing two Brazilian style songs. One is a Brazilian song, it’s a bossa nova originally written in Portuguese, but the arrangement we’re doing has English and Portuguese lyrics with the traditional Brazilian bossa nova style. Then there’s an arrangement that I wrote of a Johnny Mandel/Harold Arlen song called “Out of this World,” where the accompaniment of the song is a Brazilian bossa nova style. … In semesters to come we’ll be talking about some of the other Latin styles.
A&S: How would you describe your musical writing style?
T.B.: I do much more arranging than I do composition. So I would say my arranging style is influenced by some of the great vocal arrangers that I respect. People like Gene Puerling, who unfortunately passed a couple of years ago. He was the godfather of vocal jazz arranging. He was one of the founding members of a group called Singers Unlimited. So I grew up on Gene, and I think my arrangements are heavily influenced by him, as well as arrangers like Darmon Meader, who is the musical director and one of the arrangers of the New York Voices. So to describe my style, I would say it’s contemporary just because I’m younger – but it’s definitely rooted in what people like Gene and Darmon introduced.
A&S: Jazz instrumentalists are known for improvisation. For someone who isn’t as familiar with jazz singing, what role does improve play?
T.B.: Well, it’s called scatting. Scatting is just vocal improvisation. Because improvisation is so ingrained in the jazz tradition, for all the students here – both in the ensemble and the vocal jazz majors – improvisation is a huge element of their studies. So in the ensemble, you’re going to hear a lot of vocal improvisation. We try to incorporate it, if not in every song, probably in 80-90 percent of the repertoire.
A&S: It seems like that would be harder to do singing as opposed to playing an instrument.
T.B.: It’s a lot harder with the voice, because as singers, we don’t have the use of keys like you do on a saxophone or piano – buttons you can push and you know what notes you can play. You can use theory to guide you through the harmony, whereas a singer must hear everything they’re going to sing. So to be able to hear all the chord progressions as they go by and to be able to choose the right melodic phrases to fit over the harmony is terribly difficult for a singer. We have only our ears to guide us.
A&S: Since moving to North Texas, what has surprised you the most?
T.B.: How nice the people are. Coming from Miami, which is a rather aggressive city, to Denton, Texas, the people are just extremely nice people. I’ve been greeted with smiles and, “Thank you, sirs,” and people opening doors for you. I’m just not used to that.