Ten Years On The Edge

15 January 2013 | 5:30 am | Michael Smith

“I didn’t think we’d make it past one gig to be honest..."

This year sees the 18-piece Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra celebrate its tenth anniversary, which they're launching at the Tom Mann Theatre. It will be part of the opening night of this year's Jazzgroove Summer Festival, with a performance of arrangements and compositions by American valve trombonist and pianist Bob Brookmeyer featuring guest soloist, New Zealand born Sydneysider, saxophonist Roger Manins. Brookmeyer, who passed away aged 81 in December 2011, made his name as a member of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet and later Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band, but is best known for his contemporary big band arrangements. In his final years he led his own New Art Orchestra.

“Bob Brookmeyer, in my opinion,” explains co-founder and saxophonist of the Orchestra, Dave Theak, “is one of the four greatest jazz composers that ever lived, along with Duke Ellington, Bill Holman and Stan Kenton. He was really into experimenting with the sounds and the structures of the Big Band orchestra. Although he was an old musician with a lot of jazz tradition, he was very experimental in his writing techniques, so he's influenced pretty much every Big Band composer under the age of about 40.”

The heyday of Big Band jazz was of course the 1930s and '40s with the bands of Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, Count Basie and so on – that scene fading in the early '50s as the smaller, leaner trios, quartets and quintets of the bebop experimentalists came to the fore. So seeing young contemporary jazz musicians forming Big Bands in this day and age is rare enough, let alone seeing one make it to its tenth anniversary.

“Actually, I'm very pleased,” Theak admits with a laugh. “I didn't think we'd make it past one gig to be honest when we started, so it's been quite a lovely surprise that we've made it this far. I was sitting around in a bar in Surry Hills with a few other horn players and we were all complaining about the fact that there weren't that many gigs for horn players anymore, and so we thought, 'why don't we start a band with lots of horns in it?' which we did.

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

“And the guys I was sitting with were also Big Band composers, and there weren't many opportunities for us to be writing music for Big Bands in Sydney at the time. So we thought, let's give ourselves some gigs and also give ourselves a vehicle to write compositions for.

“While we all love the jazz Big Band tradition, we've tried to reconstruct that as best we can. So the music we play has always been more about being modern and sort of cutting edge rather than tipping our hat to the Big Bands of the past. So we've tried to surround ourselves with composers that are really innovative and try to push the boundaries of the genre.”

Which is why Brookmeyer is such an appropriate fit for the Orchestra, and why they've both collaborated with a variety of local and international composer performers, including US drummer John Hollenbeck, Belgian trumpeter Bert Joris and, in March last year, US saxophonist Chris Potter. Most recently, they commissioned Canadian composer Dave Lisik (now a Wellington, New Zealand resident) to write a suite featuring the group and US soloists saxophonist Bob Sheppard, who is best known for his work with Steely Dan and trumpeter Alex Sipiagin. Sipiagin is recognised for his work with UK bass player Dave Holland.

“Dave Lisik is not really a jazz composer,” Theak explains. “He's more like a twentieth century classical composer who's interested in jazz. So to try and take his concept and make it work for a jazz big band format was really interesting. It was lots of fun though!”

Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra play the Tom Mann Theatre Thursday 17 January.