What could be a nicer experience, sitting in the legion hall, sipping something, visiting with friends and listening to a big band. I mean big. Rob Frayne's Dream Big Band on Saturday night had 17 players in it, and that doesn't count the dancers.
Two of them came out during most the the tunes, interpreted the song in dance, and then danced off into the wings. People applauded, briefly, as if the dancers were jazz players and their solos were over. Not many bandleaders would think of putting dancers in the band, but then, Rob is Rob.
As with his smaller Dream Band of a couple of years ago, the music was complicated, yet accessible. There is a great spirit to it, and also the wonderful satisfaction for the listener of watching the musicians react to the challenge of it, both in the ensemble playing and the improvising. There was a lot of changing horns among the reed players, in the brass section a lot of shifting from trumpet to flugelhorn and back, a lot of putting in and taking out mutes.
Some jazz musicians are not fond of big bands, finding them regimented — all that reading — and lacking in solo time. That can happen, and has happened, in some bands. The best bandleaders build their arrangers around the soloists — think of Donny McCaslin with Maria Schneider’s band. The Frayne band was like this too. You wanted to hear more from some of the musicians, such as Mike Tremblay, who had no solos, but those who did solo did so at length.
What is sacrificed in solo time is made up for in the spirit, energy, colour and power that only a big band can offer. The arranging, most of it by Rob, with one gorgeous tune by drummer, Mike Essoudry, was far from the stereotypical blend of trumpet section, sax section and trombone section. Vibes were in the mix, also a piccolo, flutes and clarinet, a Hammond B-3 organ. There was even a bass clarinet and all manner of percussion. Like the best of jazz, this was an evening full of surprises.
The music demands a high level of commitment from the soloists and all of them had it. They really rose to the occasion — Zakari Frantz on alto, Roddy Ellias on guitar, Don Cummings on organ, Mark Ferguson on trombone and the two ringers from Montreal, Joel Miller on tenor and Bill Mahar on trumpet.
Rob's music constantly shifts rhythms, and sometimes time signatures. Mike Essoudry on drums handled all that with ease. As a trumpet player, I was also impressed with how the four-man section survived the demands placed on it by Rob's writing, particularly Nick Dyson on lead trumpet.
The Westboro legion hall is spacious but with a low ceiling. During the quieter passages, you could hear the country band playing in a room upstairs. Somehow that didn't spoil anything. Perhaps it added to the informal feel of the evening. Although the music was contemporary, it had its throwback moments, reinforced by the setting.
Somehow it made me think of what it was like in the '40s and earlier, when, on a Saturday night, dozens big bands bands would be in operation all over the region, mostly playing for dancing, but for listening too. A lot has changed since then, much of it for the better, but there's a lot to be missed too. People still dance, but too often it's to a guy with a Mac and big set of amps.
You can blame technology for that, as well as economics. A club owner today would sooner pay one guy with a Mac than 17 folks with horns. You can also blame the audience. People stay home and watch things on screens.
All is not lost. There are other big bands in town, in addition to Rob's, some good ones too. But they need places to perform and people to pay them. When someone goes through the ordeal of organizing 17 musicians, writing charts and finding a way to rehearse, then takes the financial risk of hiring the hall and hoping people will buy tickets, you have to admire him. But then, Rob is Rob.
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About this blog
Tune Up won't be a calendar of events — Ottawa Jazz Happenings takes care of that. But it will discuss events and issues of interest to the JazzWorks community. Journalist, author, trumpet player and a jazz camper since 1999, Charley Gordon is a former vice-president of JazzWorks.