bigBANG Jazz Gang

David A. Orthmann By

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bigBANG Jazz Gang
The Falcon Underground
Marlboro, NY
October 13, 2016

Last night I drove to Marlboro, NY, a sixty-five mile trek, to check out a band and a venue. The band was the bigBANG Jazz Gang, one of the local groups (a term I loosely use for a distance of seventy-five miles or less from my home in Northern New Jersey) that have escaped my notice. They are an ongoing enterprise, playing in public on the infrequent occasions when a gig can be secured. The hook for this show was the promise of mostly Thelonious Monk compositions performed by a few pieces shy of a standard-size big band. While these days everybody and his brother plays Monk tunes, there's still a certain novelty in doing so in a tightly arranged, large ensemble format.

The venue was The Falcon Underground, the recently developed space beneath The Falcon, a cozy, mid-sized room that serves food and drink, oozes positive vibes, and intermittently offers jazz in addition to presenting a wide variety of popular music on a nightly basis. In lieu of a music charge, The Falcon places a donation box in a prominent spot and, as a means of supporting the night's featured artists, a patron contributes whatever his/her conscience dictates. The Falcon Underground operates on the same principle. I've attended shows at The Falcon on a couple of occasions, felt comfortable there hanging out by myself, and was impressed with the way the place is run.

The scene at The Falcon Underground turned out to be pretty much what I expected. That is, the Underground was smaller and—somehow—even more listener friendly than its upstairs relative. About fifteen people showed up—unfortunately, it's rare that anything resembling a real crowd has materialized at any jazz show I've attended in recent memory. It was gratifying to notice that the customary boundaries between artists and audience were conspicuously absent. Prior to the start of the opening set, bigBANG musical director, bassist and front man Robert Kopec worked the room, greeting every patron and thanking them for coming out to hear the band. His remarks from the bandstand were frequent, funny and sportive—for instance, introducing one male band member as "the Thelma to my Louise." Most importantly, the musicians—who encompassed at least a couple of generations—played their butts off, and did justice to hip, knowing, well-crafted arrangements. There was an admirable balance between the ensemble playing and solos, and everyone in the band had ample opportunity to shine. Last but not least, it was good to hear eleven Monk tunes played over the course of two sets.

I had designated this as a non-working night, so except for a set list no notes were taken. I began to regret not jotting down some names when, after an extended break between sets, one of the saxophonists wandered in the direction of the bandstand, horn in hand, and began playing "Bemsha Swing." A charming way of warming up, I thought, until someone else joined in while the rest of the group still wasn't in any particular hurry to hit. With a disarming informality, one or two others started to play Monk's melody, and after what seemed like a minute or two the band was, once again, twelve musicians strong. There was, as Kopec later announced, no written arrangement for this selection. Instead, a bunch of experienced hands with faith in themselves and the possibilities inherent in Monk's line, made things work in an exemplary fashion. It was good to know that the bigBANG Jazz Gang could fly by the seat of their collective pants as well as bring the charts to life. In the living art of jazz performance, risk taking never wears thin.

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