Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Birdland Big Band's Tommy Igoe Talks to CulturalOyster

by Susan Kepecs
Today’s incarnation of Birdland, the famous midtown Manhattan jazz club, is not the place Jack Kerouac famously called a bop joint – just like today’s jazz bears only occasional resemblance to the bop traditions of the late ‘40s through mid-‘60s, the original nightspot’s heyday.  But Birdland, reborn in a new midtown location in the ‘90s, has had a hand in the current jazz resurgence – and like the club, the Birdland Big Band, which has played there every Friday night since 2006, serves up a new take on an old form.  The brassy, full-throttle music machine is taking its act on the road this month, and making a stop at Overture’s Capitol Theater this coming Tuesday, Oct. 23. 
The Birdland Big Band is the brainchild of drummer Tommy Igoe, who toured with Blood, Sweat and Tears and became the principal drummer and conductor for the original Broadway production of Lion King.  But Igoe was born to big band jazz – his father, the late drummer Sonny Igoe, played with Woody Herman and Benny Goodman.  I had a chance to ask Igoe (Tommy, that is) about his own 15-piece orchestra (for the lineup, go to last week.

Cultural Oyster: What made you decide to start a big band, in these times when there are so few large jazz ensembles working?

Igoe: The big band approach is in my background – when I was 18 I went on the road with the Glenn Miller Orchestra.  A slot opened up at Birdland and I asked them to give me a shot, to build something there that stood out – and they gave me the chance.  For a while I did Lion King at the same time – the band was only one show a week, and it didn’t conflict.

CulturalOyster: I read that you recently moved to the Bay Area, where you’re now doing a much buzzed-about Monday night gig.

Igoe: I go back and forth, and I have two bands – but this tour is about THE Birdland band, the exact same band that plays in Manhattan.  It’s grown beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, especially mine.  When we started there was nobody in the club.  Half a year out the club was about half full and within a year you couldn’t get in.  We’ve been the most popular weekly jazz event in New York for a couple of years now.

CulturalOyster: Your sound is so different from the other big jazz bands working today – in some ways it’s closer to the big Latin bands like Machito’s, or Tito Puente’s, than to, say, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. 

Igoe: We’re not trying to be a jazz band or a Latin band.  We’re trying to be a music event.  Being a jazz band is too narrow a scope, at least for me.  I want to play music from every corner of the world in one show.  If you bring someone who loves music, even if they’d never heard jazz or a large ensemble, they’d love the experience.  The problem is that people try to compare us with what else is out there, or they try to tie us to the big band legacy – so many bands look backwards and play the same old standards over and over.  We try our best to look forward while acknowledging where we came from.  We want to make our mark in the twenty-first century.  Music from everywhere – that’s our mission statement.

CulturalOyster: Is that because the world we live in is so globally interconnected?

Igoe: It’s that, but it’s also because I’m a drummer.  I like lots of rhythmic excitement, and I think the audience does too. People are hearing much more authentic music from around the world than ever before.  The days of playing a full night of swing and calling it satisfactory for a twenty-first century audience are over.  Today’s audience comes in with a much more varied expectation.

CulturalOyster: What makes you decide to add a tune to your repertory?

Igoe: Because I’m not a composer, I’m not locked into any dogma.  I get to pick and choose anything I want, from anywhere.  There are tunes I’ve always wanted to play that have never been done by a large ensemble, or haven’t been done justice to.  Our album [Eleven, the band’s 2012 release on CD Baby, up for four Grammys next year] is a perfect example of our artistic schizophrenia – it’s got music from Argentina, the Caribbean, a tune by the hot [Dominican-born] composer Michel Camilo, a Herbie Hancock piece – it’s literally all over the map, which is exactly the way we like it.  We do pay tribute to where we came from – like with Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin’” [a CulturalOyster favorite, recorded in 1958 by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers].

CulturalOyster: Is there a new album in the works?

Igoe: There’s always a new album in the works.  Once the Grammys are over we’ll go right back into the studio and make a new one.

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