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Birdland Big Band, New York, NY, December 28, 2011

Dan Bilawsky By

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The Birdland Big Band directed by Tommy Igoe
Birdland
New York, NY
December 28, 2011

Establishing a foothold in the world of big bands today is no easy feat. Strong label support and distribution (Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band, for example), constant touring, television appearances and festival appearances (as with Wynton Marsalis and the LCJO), the weight of big band history (in the case of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra), and/or a unique, high brow concept in musical presentation (thinking of Maria Schneider Orchestra) often help big bands looking to build a following, but The Birdland Big Band has managed to carve a place for itself without any such benefit. Its weekly Friday Happy Hour gig at its namesake club has become the place to be when the night is young, and the band has made it so through word of mouth about its high standard of musical excellence in performance.

The band's leader, drum phenom Tommy Igoe, joked that when the big band first started out, "they had eight people in the audience" and he "knew seven of them," and while that statement is helped along by hyperbole, it has a basis in truth. Charting the band's progress and seeing them perform about twenty times over the past four years, it's easy to attest to the Birdland Big Band's growing popularity and stature in the pantheon of New York bands.

While this group already had a "you have to see it to believe it" quality when it formed five years ago, it didn't have its own identity. Igoe tapped a few New York mainstays to join the group, but the majority of the roster was built around virtual unknowns and the weight of the performances almost always fell squarely on the drummer's shoulders. The Buddy Rich Big Band seemed to serve as a template for the group, which centered on Igoe's unbelievable technique, showmanship, and larger-than-life personality, and its choice of repertoire—which included "West Side Story Medley," "Time Check," "Norwegian Wood, "Little Train," and other Rich staples—seemed to confirm this line of thinking.

Ultimately, Igoe and company could have continued to turn heads by traveling down that road, but the drummer's insistence on always growing, evolving and improving has allowed the band to branch out in different directions and, through this process, it has also managed to breed some singular, indispensable instrumental voices while creating a cohesive group sound. Igoe still rules the roost and puts on a jaw-dropping drumming show of epic proportions, but now, people also come to hear Dan Willis' raucous, blustery tenor work, Christian Jaudes' stratospheric trumpet, Barbara Cifelli's robust baritone saxophone and Matt Hong's straight-ahead alto. Add to that the presence of legends like trumpeter Glenn Drewes and pianist Kenny Ascher, a revolving bass chair that's often filled by Tom Kennedy, Will Lee or any number of other bass big-wigs, the melodically brilliant Nathan Childers—who may be best-kept-saxophone secret in New York—and the occasional guest or two, and you a have a band that, like the best in the genre, has its own sound.

While the band is usually a Friday-only phenomenon, its increasing popularity prompted Birdland to place it in the week-long headliner spot at year's-end and it didn't disappoint. The first set on this particular evening was a ninety-minute thrill ride that focused on material from its recently released Eleven (Deep Rhythm Music, 2011), and featured many of the aforementioned musicians.

The show opened with a blowing tune that featured a half dozen musicians in the band, but they quickly switched gears with a NOLA-infused number, followed by the shuffling "Pumpkinette," which showcased Cifelli on the melody and Tom Kennedy's stellar solo skills. The Brazilian-flavored "Open Invitation" came next, highlighting Drewes' flugelhorn work, and the band continued its journey with a double shot of Chick Corea. "Armando's Rhumba," which featured some fine soprano soloing from Childers, came first, but "Got A Match?" really got the audience going. This furiously up-tempo number contained a terrific tantrum-of-a-tenor solo from Willis, a dueling alto feature for Hong and Childers, an extensive electric bass spot for Kennedy, and some back-and-forth solo banter between Drewes and Igoe.

As the set neared its end, the band slowed things down for Mike Stern's "Common Ground," which showcased Childers' melodic alto and reached its climax with a gleaming wall of brass harmonies, but things ended with a bang on Joe Zawinul's "Birdland," which featured an extensive, eye-opening solo from Igoe himself.

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