So I'm sitting here, working away, listening to an NPR podcast of the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble's performance at this year's Newport Jazz Festival. And I'm thinking: as I prepare myself for another season with my own big band - spending a ton of time lining up personnel, sorting out musician availability and trying to find funding, not to mention choosing music, updating the website, etc. - why, exactly, do I do this year after year?
(Aside: if you haven't checked out the extensive archive of recordings available on NPR - from live shows at jazz festivals and in clubs to tiny desk concerts, radio programs and more - I encourage you to do so. Go to npr.org/music and look around. And: if you haven't checked out the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, I encourage you to do so. His music is some of the most interesting currently being made, ranging from original composition to pop covers to spoken word, and he works with outstanding musicians. I was listening to this recording. And finally: if you haven't yet checked out the Newport Jazz Festival, I encourage you to do so. I haven't actually been there in person, but the lineup these past two years has been impressive, and I hope to get there soon.)
Back to big bands, and why I bother with them.
For me, the answer is easy: the music. In my mind, no other ensemble, no other genre can touch the excitement created by the 18 musicians in a big band playing together and swinging their butts off. When I stand in front of my band, I am so often uplifted, transported, inspired and amazed by what the musicians can do, and what they are willing to do, with the sheets of music presented to them. The range of sounds and emotions they can present is astounding and, if I'm doing my job correctly (which happens, depending on who you ask, anywhere from 0 to 90 per cent of the time) I can just stand there and enjoy it.
When I listen to a band like the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, I feel the same way. It sounds to me like he is so enjoying exploring all of the possible sounds his ensemble can make. He's pushing each instrumentalist - and the vocalists - to the extremes of their instruments. And they respond to the challenge in fine fashion.
Happily, I needn't go far to find examples of outstanding big bands. I was fortunate to be in the audience last Saturday night for John MacLeod's Rex Hotel Orchestra performance at Walter Hall in the University of Toronto's Faculty of Music. If I had any doubts about the future of big bands in general and their future in Toronto in particular, they were quickly put to rest. The band was on. Very on. Playing almost acoustically (only one microphone for each section, a microphone at the front for soloists and minimal rhythm section amplification), the band showed off what they can do as they paid tribute to legendary Canadian composer and arranger Rick Wilkins. Each arrangement sang, the soloists were outstanding (including a guest spot by Guido Basso), and the 18 musicians truly sounded like just one big instrument. It was a treat, and I congratulate all who were on stage that night.
During this summer's TD Toronto Jazz Festival, I sat down with Darcy James Argue as part of the Ken Page Memorial Trust workshops to discuss the state of big bands in today's jazz scene. As part of the interview, I asked him how he thought big bands were doing right now. To my delight, he was able to name a big band series somewhere in New York which had been running for more than 30 weeks, with a different big band each night. According to math (thanks grade 1!) that means there are at least 30 big bands up and running in New York right now, and there must be at least half as many right now in Toronto. For a big band lover like me, that's good news.
Let's face it: running a big band is a lot of work, and none of us is getting rich doing it. But as soon as the first downbeat of the night hits, none of that matters. The music takes over and I'm reminded - whether I'm in front of the band or in the audience - why I love this music.
Here's a list of some of the ensembles that have influenced my big band taste buds over the years:
Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra
What are yours?
P.S. - Speaking of great local big bands, you can catch a rare gig with the Don Thompson Big Band on Saturday night, October 8, 7:30 pm in the St. Michael's College School Centre for the Arts. Concert and ticket information are available here.