I love Jazz big bands and couldn’t have been more pleased when Roger engaged the AJO to play on awards night. It is more than possible that I had dropped a hint. Nothing underscores an occasion like a Jazz orchestra and having a 17 piece band in an intimate space is the best of listening experiences. Those surges of raw power always please, but it is something else that I look for. It is their collective agility , the tension and release and the quality of their ensemble playing. This is quickly revealed if the charts are well written, and they were.
People like to compare big bands and as a spectator sport it has some currency. I can’t help wondering however if eggs are always being compared with eggs. There are rehearsal bands like the Village Vanguard Orchestra (Thad Jones Big Band) who meet once a week (but with ever-changing personnel). Less common are the professional or semi professional units who get regular work and whose core personnel are less likely change (The WDR, Mingus Big Band, Roger Fox Big Band). Lastly there are all-star bands which come together for a recording, a gig, a concept or just for fun (Bob Beldens ‘Miles Espanol’ Jazz Orchestra, The Kenny Wheeler Big Band).
The AJO falls mostly into the first group but there is another dimension to what they do: they are a writing band and part of their reason for existence is to write charts and/or to create original arrangements. Quite a few in the band write and that gives the band an Auckland flavour. The compositions tell our city’s story. As a city we need to value them more and ensure that they get the work and the recognition they deserve. The City Council needs to have them on their radar and call on them for appropriate official functions? Knowing Jazz musicians pay packets, the public purse would be left largely intact if they did.
The AJO is a mix of seasoned players and new talent and this gives them a certain flavour. With their unfamiliar charts they perform a high wire act and because of that there is a hint of risk; to pull this off and at the same time entertain, requires a deftness of touch. The AJO has this as the co-founders Tim Atkinson and Mike Booth manage to inspire and guide without stifling creativity.
During the night we heard tight ensemble playing, a number of nice solos (particularly from Mike Booth, Theo Clearwater, Steve Sherriff, Andrew Hall, Callum Passells, Jono Tan and Matt Steele). Vanessa McGowen was terrific on bass and her presence was felt in just the right way. Andrea Groenewald on guitar demonstrated her soloing and comping skills. The latter added just the right Freddie Green touch to the overall mix. Swinging a big band is not always easy but this band swung.
There were two sets and thirteen numbers – among them were ‘It doesn’t Snow There’ – Atkinson, ‘On the Water’ - Booth, ‘All the things you are‘ – Kern/Hammerstein, ‘Those Nights’ - Hall. I have included a You Tube clip of there AJO performing Tim Atkinson’s composition and arrangement of ‘It Doesn’t Snow There’ – see below.
The AJO’s personnel are: Mike Booth (lead trumpet, arranger, composer, co-founder), Tim Atkinson (conductor, arranger, composer, co-founder)
Altos; Steve Sheriff, Callum Passells – Tenors; Andrew Hall, Teo Clearwater – Baritone; Andrew Baker – Trumpets; Matthew Verrill, Mike Booth, Jo Spiers, Oliver Furneaux – Trombones; Mike Young, Mike Ashton, Jono Tan, Darrell Farley – Guitar; Andrea Groenewald – Piano; Matt Steele – Bass; Vanessa McGowen – Drums; Cameron Sangster