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!

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