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Artist Profiles

Vanguard Jazz Orchestra: A Band in the Vanguard

By Published: February 7, 2010
Composer-arranger Bob Brookmeyer
Bob Brookmeyer
Bob Brookmeyer
1929 - 2011
, who played valve trombone in the first band, was brought back by Lewis after Jones left to direct the band and contribute new arrangements to the book. He only directed until 1982, but his relationship with the band has been ongoing.

"We're continuing to commission new stuff from him," says Purviance, "and our next CD will be all new Brookmeyer music. He's already given us three new things and they are absolutely gorgeous and the musicians love it. It's going to be a monumental album from one of the great musicians of the genre."

One of the keys to the VJO's artistic success and individual sound, according to McNeely, who was in the piano chair from 1977 to 1984 and returned in 1996, is that the main writers for the band, from Jones on, "all knew the band inside and out and could write music tailor-made for the band. Even though the band has changed completely since 1966 the oldest tenured members were there with Thad and Mel and help keep certain things about the time feel and other aspects of the music going in the band's lineage. Kept it going but made it our own thing, because one of the main goals of the band is to avoid becoming a museum piece. It's a living organism that, on the one hand, respects the old repertoire but, on the other hand, develops new projects and keeps the music new and fresh.

"Thad's writing was a reflection of the era he formed the band, the post-bop era just as Dizzy's big band was an arranged reflection of the bebop era and the Fletcher Henderson big band was a written reflection of Louis Armstrong's playing. The first thing about Thad's music was his harmonic language; it had a density and spiciness to it, especially coming out of the Basie tradition. That's why Count advised Thad to start his own band. But while he had these sharp angles in the reed and brass sections and really advanced harmonies, at the same time he never lost sight of the groove. The music swung so hard not only because of the way it was played but also due to the rhythmic factor in the writing. Like Ellington and Strayhorn, Thad knew that people can tolerate dissonance in harmony and a lot of tension as long as the music keeps their feet tapping."

During his first tenure as the VJO's pianist, McNeely feels he enjoyed the best of two worlds, playing Jones' classic, groundbreaking arrangements and Brookmeyer's new contributions to the book. "Brookmeyer wrote some things specifically for me," he recalls, "and they were a nice departure from the usual big band piano scene where you get to play two choruses to introduce a blues. His charts were wide open, the band would play a chord and lay out and I could play whatever I wanted, completely solo."

Today, McNeely's writing for the band, with its thick harmonies, dense rhythms and stacked melodies, continues to expand the parameters of conventional—reeds, brass and rhythm—big band writing, just as Jones and Brookmeyer had.

The key to arranging for the band, says McNeely, "is to keep one foot in the tradition and heritage of Thad and Mel but take it in new directions. The goal is to write so that the band sounds good, but not regurgitate another guy. You have to respect what the musicians do well while also trying to challenge them. And musicians like to be challenged; they don't like to play the same thing over and over again. And they rise to the challenge. That's the way we all grow."

"Now that Jim's back in the band," Oatts said in 1996, "he brings a whole new feeling to his own music. He brings it alive when he plays, brings out the rhythmic dimension, sets down how it goes for all of us."

"One of the reasons I love this band," says Purviance, "is that as good as it gets, we're always searching, we take risks. For instance, we never do a set show [playing the same tunes in the same order], we do different sets all the time. We never know what we're going to play up until a few minutes before. When we were getting ready to record our last album [the Grammy-winning Monday Night Live at the Village Vanguard], we were going to record the last two days of the week, so common sense said we should play the tunes we were going to record for the first five days. But by the third day we didn't want to play them again and again, because as good as the music is it can get a little complacent and stagnant if you keep playing the same show.

"In Japan in December we were doing four nights, two sets a night and a stipulation of the presenters was that we not repeat any tunes, even in encores. We played all different sets, over 50 tunes. But our book has a lot more; the highest numbered chart is over 300, although there are some gaps, not many, in the sequence. We try to play them all at one time or another."

And they have an open-ended Monday night at the Village Vanguard to do just that.

Selected Discography: Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, The Complete Solid State Recordings (Solid State-Mosaic, 1966-70)

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