Rob McConnell: Boss of Bosses
Even though largely unknown to most of us south of the border, a number of world-class big bands have made their home in Canada over the years. For nearly three decades, however, there was one whose name and influence rose conspicuously above the others. That band was, of course, the incomparable Boss Brass, and the reason for its singular record of achievement can be summed up in two words: Rob McConnell. More than a superb composer, arranger and valve trombonist, McConnell, who died May 1, 2010, at age 75, was a paragon of elegance and unswerving good taste, qualities that were among the hallmarks of the Brass, which he founded in 1968 and led until he was forced by economic realities to disband in the late 1990s. He re-emerged a year or so later as leader of the scaled-down Rob McConnell Tentet, which recorded three well-received albums on Canada's Justin Time label. The Boss Brass was reunited in December 2008 for a series of three concerts in Toronto, all of which played to standing-room-only audiences.
McConnell formed the Boss Brass as an all-brass group (trumpets, trombones, French horns) with rhythm to produce instrumental versions of popular songs of the day. Saxophones were added three years later while McConnell gradually revised the book to encompass more jazz and less pops, and by the mid-1970s the Brass had become not only the foremost big band in Canada but one of the finest in the world. In 1976 the Brass added a fifth trumpet, raising the number of its members to 22 (the leader always kept the French horns).
McConnell, who won three Grammy Awards (he was nominated for 15) and a similar number of Junos, Canada's equivalent of the Grammies, was inducted in 1997 into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and the following year was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. The Boss Brass made its U.S. debut at the 1981 Monterey Jazz Festival and recorded more than thirty splendid albums for Concord, Pablo, MPS, Sea Breeze, Innovation and other labels including collaborations with singer Mel Torme (twice), the Singers Unlimited and alto saxophonist Phil Woods (the brilliant album Boss Brass and Woods).
For his part, McConnell always employed no less than the finest musicians eastern Canada had to offer, and a list of Boss Brass alumni embodies such luminaries as trumpeters Guido Basso, Arnie Chycoski, Steve McDade, Kevin Turcotte, Sam Noto, Erich Traugott, Dave Woods, John MacLeod and Dave Dunlop; trombonists Alastair Kay, Ian McDougall, Bob Livingston, Dave McMurdo, Jerry Johnson and Ernie Pattison; saxophonists Moe Koffman, Alex Dean, Rick Wilkins, Jerry Toth, Gene Amaro, John Johnson and Bob Leonard; pianists Dave Restivo and Jimmy Dale; guitarists Ed Bickert, Reg Schwager and Lorne Lofsky; bassist Jim Vivian; drummers Terry Clarke and Ted Warren; percussionist Brian Leonard and jack-of-all trades Don Thompson (bass, piano, vibes, arranger). There would be more save for the fact that several members of the Brass were with McConnell from start to finish.
It wouldn't be far amiss to argue that for three decades, Rob McConnell was the heart and soul of Canadian big-band jazz. He was certainly its brightest light, the leader everyone else looked up to and aspired to emulate. It was a sad day when he had to disband the Boss Brass, an even sadder one when he left us for good. Most artists, no matter how creative or talented, can sooner or later be replaced. A Rob McConnell, never. He truly was one of a kind, and we'll never see his like again.
Two More Giants Leave the Stage