Monday, September 2, 2013

On big bands in small spaces: Getting close to the JazzMN Orchestra

The JazzMN Orchestra
Minnesota’s premiere big band, the JazzMN Orchestra, did something over Labor Day weekend it has never done in its almost-15-year history: play a club date. At a small basement jazz club, the Artists’ Quarter in St. Paul.

We were there Saturday night, and it was fantastic. The 18 musicians (19, including director/trumpeter/scat singer Doug Snapp) couldn’t all fit on the AQ’s stage, so the saxophones moved down to the floor in the front. A front-center table had been saved for us, but we decided not to take it. We might have gone deaf, plus Snapp needed someplace to set his beer.

A big band – unless it’s a bad big band, and JazzMN is a very good big band – is, by definition, exciting. All those musicians, swinging hard. Horns blaring. Hot solos. Great music by Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Mingus, Monk. And the sound. It’s big in a concert hall, tremendous in a room like the AQ. You don’t just hear the music, you feel it on your skin and in your bones. At one point during the evening, I was holding my purse and I thought my phone was buzzing. It wasn’t. It was responding to the low brass.

The mighty Dave Karr
The performance wasn’t perfect. As close as we were, we noticed the occasional gaffe and saw Snapp ask more than once, “Who’s taking the solo?” But jazz doesn’t have to be perfect. It shouldn’t be perfect. What it has to be and should be, more than anything, is alive. This was alive and breathing, kicking and swinging, real music made by real people, several wearing plaid shirts. There was a lot of plaid on that bandstand. It was the PlaidMN Orchestra.

Vibraphonist Dave Hagedorn played the vibes – and piano, sitting in for usual JazzMN pianist Mary Louise Knutson, who was on tour in Wisconsin. Dave Graf played his tenor trombone – and scatted. (Until that night, he told us later, he had only done that in the car, never in public. He’s pretty good.) Dave Karr, now in his 80s, took solos on Count Basie's "Lester Leaps In" that would make most young players melt down their saxes for bus tokens. We heard Ellington's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" with Wade Clark on bass trombone, and "Sophisticated Lady" with Dave Milne on saxophone. "Body and Soul," "Sweet Georgia Brown," Monk's "Rhythm-a-ning." Kathy Jensen tore up Mingus’s “Moanin’ ” on her bari sax, and the band cut loose in a joyous celebration of music and Mingus and playing together.

The whole night was joyous. We had cocktails. We posted pictures of the band on Facebook. Between sets, we chatted with band members and friends. We clapped and shouted after solos. We had a great time. It was relaxed and casual. More and more, people want that type of experience when they go out to hear live music. Less formal, more social. This may never work for classical orchestral music, or certain types of chamber music where hearing every note and nuance matters, or some jazz performances that really are the same as church. (Charles Lloyd. Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Randy Weston. Ahmad Jamal. Fred Hersch. Chick Corea and Gary Burton. For these and other musicians, the quieter you are, the more you are rewarded.) But it can work for a lot of music, and this was a good example.

Dave Graf on the bone
JazzMN is not the only big band to play a small space, of course: the Vanguard Orchestra has played at the Village Vanguard on Mondays for decades. Likewise, the Mingus Orchestra has had a long-term residency at the Jazz Standard. Most big bands in Minnesota – and, surprisingly, there are a lot of big bands in Minnesota – never see the inside of a concert hall. They play bars and bandshells, high school and community college auditoriums and the Eagles Club. (JazzMN’s usual home is the Performing Arts Center at Hopkins High School.) In recent months, tiny Jazz Central, in the far end of the basement of an office building in NE Minneapolis, has hosted the Bill Simenson Big Band, the Cedar Ave. Big Band, and the Explosion Big Band. The Adam Meckler Orchestra now has a regular last-Tuesday-of-the-month gig at the Artists’ Quarter.

On Wednesday, Sept. 18, JazzMN will play its second-ever club gig, this time at the Dakota, as a benefit for its educational outreach program. Learn more about that here, and if you missed the weekend at the AQ, you might want to think seriously about going. The AQ charged a $20 cover (barely over $1 per musician); tickets to the benefit are $50. Single tickets to JazzMN performances at Hopkins HS are $30.  If you want the small-room experience (though the Dakota is bigger than the AQ), the upcoming benefit is your best bet.

Chris Olson on guitar
Though we can only hope – and we’re going to lobby hard – for more club dates by this fine group of musicians. JazzMN’s annual season is short, just four concerts, and spread out; the first concert of the 2013-14 season is October 5, the final April 26, with nothing between Nov. 9 and March 16. Why the gap? As Snapp explained, it’s for the snowbirds, the people who get the heck out of Minnesota when the temperatures start to fall. Snowbirds = retirees. More club dates might have the added benefits of keeping JazzMN in the public mind and eye (and ears) year-round, and stretching the demographics of the audience. 

The 2013-14 JazzMN season is the only guarantee we have for now, and it looks promising. Our pick of the four planned concerts: Miguel Zénon’s appearance next April. He’s one of the most electrifying young saxophonists on the planet. Snapp says Zénon has had big-band charts made of some of his Puerto Rican music. That will be something to hear.

Photos by John Whiting

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