Sunday, January 29, 2012

Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra Will Vanquish Winter's Chill

                             John Mosca on trombone, second row, second from right

by Susan Kepecs
Real jazz is a rebellious artform.  It pushes against conventional boundaries.  And as often happens in periods of popular resistance, there’s a jazz renaissance afoot – you can see it in the rising generation of talented leaders playing straight-ahead bop like Rudresh Mahanthappa and Ambrose Akinmusire, and even in the increase in jazz programming at Madison clubs and theaters.  There hasn’t been this much good jazz outside the Latin canon since the revolutionary 1960s.  Of course, the new wellspring of not-pop didn’t bubble up on its own.  Among the handful of robust currents that's borne the bop banner along unbroken is a big band, the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, which takes the Wisconsin Union Theater stage next Saturday, Feb. 4.  The UW-Madison Jazz Orchestra opens.
In the ‘60s, when the VJO got its start, there weren’t a lot of jazz orchestras left.  Miles Davis and John Coltrane, who usually worked in small combo format, produced a few orchestral works back then, and a few big jazz bands have formed since – the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra began playing in the mid-‘90s, and yes, the Madison Jazz Orchestra is even older than that.  But only the VJO – originally the Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Orchestra – is a direct link to those few whopping big bands of earlier decades that lasted past the World Wars; Jones worked with Count Basie for a number of years, while Lewis toured with Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman.  But rather than reiterate what you can find on the VJO’s website, (also take a look at the nice rundown on the band’s current players by Isthmus Jazz Series Coordinator Ben Ferris, himself a member of the UW-Madison Jazz Orchestra, on the Union Theater’s Green Room blog,, here’s my short interview with jazz educator and VJO lead trombone / director John Mosca, whose precise answers to my questions provide the whole story in a neat nutshell:  

CulturalOyster: You’ve been with the band since ’75 – both Jones and Lewis were still there then.  What was the music like when it was closer to the swing roots of big band jazz?

Mosca: I used to go to the Village Vanguard as a teen and stand in line to get in – that line ran down to the end of the block.  When I got into the band Thad and Mel were both still there, but Thad left for a job with Danish radio a couple years later.  Mel was with us till he passed in 1990.  One key thing they brought was the concept of swinging – it’s elusive but essential – it’s the ritmic feeling we generate that comes from Thad’s music and Mel’s drumming.  Now we have John Riley on drums – he was a tremendous student of Mel’s, and he keeps the swing consistent.  The band feels good playing that way.  There aren’t that many veterans of the original band left, but we do keep the music going in the same vein.
        Thad and Mel also pioneered changes in the way big bands work.  They gave equal weight to the written aspect and the improvised aspect.  That was a big innovation.   Thad took inspiration from Coltrane [Thad’s younger brother, Elvin, was Coltrane’s drummer when Jones and Lewis started their orchestra] and opened up the solos – they were a lot longer than they were with the old big bands, like Basie’s.  We’ve tried to preserve the original precepts we learned from Thad and Mel.  When somebody’s soloing with a trio it’s a bona fide small group experience.  But we also enjoy the big ensemble, and people want to hear the big band play, so we mix that up a lot.

CulturalOyster: What’s changed more recently?

Mosca: We’ve kept the older repertory current – we still play a lot of Thad’s stuff, that’s where the band lives.  But what’s different is that now more of our music is true composed.  This is a back and forth pattern that’s happened in big bands over the years.  There used to be much more written music before the ‘60s.  When [the recently deceased] Bob Brookmeyer came on [as composer/arranger] he went back to a more true composed idea, though with a very modern slant.
        And there’s a generational turnover – that’s one of the great elements, each generation adds different qualities.  In terms of arrangers, Jim McNeely, who’s a tremendous pianist, has really stepped up to take his place alongside Brookmeyer and Jones.  McNeely was there with Thad and Mel and there with Brookmeyer – he really absorbed their lessons.  He’s a great swinger and he can write that way, but he can also stretch out and do other things.  There’s never been a surplus of great writers – they’re treasures.  Though there are quite a few young writers doing good work.  I like some of the things Maria Schneider does – I’m feeling kind of optimistic about the future of orchestral jazz.  The big thing is the loss of performance and recording opportunities that nurture this kind of talent.  All of us have to devote a great deal of time to trying to do business and to generate places to play.

CulturalOyster: I’d always rather experience jazz in a nightclub, club, sitting close to the music with friends and a drink in my hand.  How do you feel about playing under the proscenium arch?

Mosca: The club is the generator where you work things out.  That’s where the music is created and polished, but sometimes it’s nice to bring it out, to have room to play, to blow into a bigger space.  We do try to set up up as close to the front of the stage as possible – we’ve run afoul of firelaws by going past curtain laws.  But we’re pretty successful at creating something of the Vanguard experience on the big stage.  This brings up another issue, though – now that so many club gigs are recorded digitally or streamed, the club engagement itself is in danger.  People are less likely to go out on a limb if they can sit at home and find everything for free on their computers. 

CulturalOyster: Is there anything else I should know?

Mosca: We’re looking forward to Madison.  It’s been a long time since we were there.  Hopefully, the weather will be – well, tolerable!
        [UW School of Music prof] Richard Davis is a VJO alum – we’d love to have him come up on the stage.  We still have some music written exclusively for him.
        And oh, yeah – you can add that we’re all good union members!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Picking Tickets: Spring, 2012

by Susan Kepecs
Ive been so excited about the Million Signatures, and so bummed out about the Packers’ loss to the Giants last Sunday, that I almost forgot about the performing arts this week.  But when the snow started to fly and the thermometer hit zero I locked myself inside with the websites for the city’s main performing arts palaces.  After poring over what’s on tap, I’ve compiled my ticket picks.
Among the several opportunities to see dance performance, only Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (Overture Hall, March 27) is on my list.  The Ailey company will look somewhat different than it did last time it was here, at the old Madison Civic Center in 2002.  Artistic director Judith Jameison, who took the reins from Ailey in 1989, right before he died of AIDS, retired last year.  Her hand-picked successor, Robert Battle, is controversial – never a member of the company, he’s an outsider of sorts, though he choreographed several works for it while Jameison was at the helm. Battle has brought in nine new dancers, plus a number of new repertory works – though there’s no new choreography on the pre-announced Madison program. By audience demand Ailey’s “Revelations,” modern dance’s greatest hit, is on the bill for every stop in the 2012 North American Tour, which begins in February.  The rest of the program changes up; in Madison it includes a lesser Ailey work from the 1970s, “Streams,” and two pieces Battle made for the company’s male dancers, “Takedeme” (1999) and “The Hunt” (2001).  I haven’t seen either of these works, but The New Yorker’s Joan Acocella – by far the best dance writer in the country – depicts them as heavy-handed muscle ballet.  I suspect this will not be my favorite Ailey company performance, but it’s an important one.  The reviews of Battle’s first season have been mixed, though he’s only beginning to reveal his hand.  What he does in the next few years will reveal whether modern dance, a twentieth-century innovation, has a future.  Among the greats, Merce Cunningham’s company has closed up shop; Martha Graham’s has become a mere legacy troupe.  Paul Taylor is still in command, though he’s 80-some years old.  Only the Ailey company, always bold, is striking out in a new direction.
From the bounteous music options, I’ll take five.  In the ‘60s, pianist Herbie Hancock (Overture Hall, March 15) was (along with Horace Silver) the potentate of hardbop piano.  The hippie jazz freaks of Miffland were head over heels in love with him; we wore the vinyl rings off his greatest hits, “Watermelon Man,” “Cantaloupe Island” and “Maiden Voyage;” all three are permanently etched in my memory banks.  In the ‘70s Hancock followed Miles Davis, with whom he played while becoming a leader in his own right, down the fusion rabbit hole. In the decades that followed, Hancock experimented with pop and hip hop and ended up with a pair of schlocky albums stacked with guest stars like Leonard Cohen, Tina Turner, Chaka Kahn and Juanes – River: The Joni Letters (Verve, 2007), an ode to Joni Mitchell (who appears on the album, which somehow won a Grammy), and The Imagine Project (Herbie Hancock Records, 2010).  So why is Hancock on my list?  Chalk it up to old times’ sake, plus advertising – the video clip posted on Overture’s website, which I think is from 2006, shows the veteran hardbopper playing, yes, “Cantaloupe Island.”  His band for this event is TBA, and there’s no telling what tunes he’ll choose, but there’s no doubt he can still just play jazz, when he’s so inclined.
On the other hand, the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (Wisconsin Union Theater, Feb. 4) – the very sophisticated Monday night house band at Manhattan’s eponymous West Village club – has always played honest-to-god jazz.  This big band, with its 15 heavy-hitting players, was born in ’66 of the fortuitous collaboration between two forward-looking orchestral jazz giants: trumpeter and composer / arranger Thad Jones, who’d been a soloist with swing king Count Basie, and drummer Mel Lewis, who honed his chops in Stan Kenton’s jazz orchestra.  The VJO brought big band jazz straight into the postbop epoch, and despite huge changes in the times and personnel, it’s still true to its own brand of big band swing.
The wacky, whip-smart, genre-busting jazz fusion band Bela Fleck and the Flecktones stops in Mad City (Union Theater, March 1) on its much-touted reunion tour.  Banjo master Fleck and the Wooten brothers (“Futureman,” inventor of the drumitar, and virtuoso bassist Victor) have been together since the band’s very first gig on PBS in 1988, but this is the first time they’ve played with pianist / harmonicist Howard Levy since 1992.  There’s a new album, Rocket Science (E1 Records, 2011), to go with the tour, though the promo lit implies the band’ll mix new tunes with hits from the three albums they made before Levy split. 
         Nigerian saxophonist / vocalist Seun Kuti and his high-energy brass and percussion rich big band Egypt 80 (Wisconsin Union Theater, April 12) blew the roof off the WUT on their US debut tour in June, 2007.  Kuti told me in an interview then that he’s not as wild as his father, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the late, legendary king of Afrobeat and revolutionary politics.  Maybe not, but like Fela, Seun is the consummate activist, taking the stage in support of myriad African causes.  This month he's been in the midst of the Occupy Nigeria movement, performing his take-no-prisoners political songs onstage in Lagos during mass protests against the end of the fuel subsidies that help keep prices down for the underpaid masses – President Goodluck Jonathan’s concession to deregulation demanded by the IMF.  A week into the protests Jonathan restored part of the subsidy, but count on Kuti to keep up the good fight. 
         I saved the best – my personal favorite – for last.  When the going gets tough, as it will when state GOP challenges to the Recall signatures plus all those right wing corporate-funded ads aimed at the national presidential race heat up, we get the orishas’ blessings, right on time.  Straight from Havana, Sierra Maestra – the group that rescued Cuban son from the dustbins of prerevolutionary history in the 1970s and has carried la musica forward ever since – plays Memorial Union’s Great Hall on March 23.  I’m listening to their latest CD, Sonando Ya (2010, SASA Music), right now.  It takes me to my happy place, despite the freezing fog outside.  Yo soy sonera de coraz√≥n – I live to dance to Cuban son.  You will, too.  Ach√©.