BuJazzO: That's German for Swinging Big Band Jazz

Jack Bowers By

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On August 8, my friend Wes Pfarner and I drove to Santa Fe for a once-in-a lifetime event: a performance by the German Federal Youth Jazz Orchestra, better known to big band enthusiasts by its more condensed and colorful name, BuJazzO. The twenty-piece ensemble, directed by Jiggs Whigham, an American trombonist and educator from Cleveland, Ohio, who has lived in Germany (most of the time) since 1965, was on the last leg of a two-week tour of the States and would board a plane for home the following day.

Before departing, BuJazzO made sure it gave the small but enthusiastic audience at the Lensic Theatre (the event was not especially well-advertised) an evening to remember. The orchestra played two sets with seven extended numbers in the first, five more (plus an encore) comprising the second. Whigham played trombone on one selection, "Steve," an elegy for a departed friend, composer / arranger Steve Gray, who died in September 2008 at age sixty-six. BuJazzO set the concert in motion with one of Gray's compositions, "Open the Box," and closed the second set with his strapping arrangement of the standard "Shine." Of course, the audience wouldn't let them off so easily, and Whigham surrendered to the standing ovation by calling for an encore. "We'd like to play a ballad for you," he said, seconds before the orchestra launched into a warp-speed reading of Francy Boland's sizzling "Box 703"—a lovely way to end an evening.

Preceding the grand finale, BuJazzO topped off the opening set with Stefan Zimmermann's "Dwarf Dance," Belgian trumpeter / composer Bert Joris' "Walkin' Tiptoe," the standards "Heart and Soul" (arranged by John Clayton) and "There Is No Greater Love" and one other original whose name I didn't catch before the saxophone section strode forward to ring down the curtain with a rambunctious version of Boland's freewheeling tour de force, "Sax No End," on which the chops-busting soli itself was worth the price of admission. While BuJazzO was strong in every section, the saxophones were especially impressive throughout, and should be applauded: Markus Harm, Katharina Brien, altos; Toni Amadeus Bechtold, Adrian Hanack, tenors; Florian Leuschner, baritone. Bravo!

The second half of the concert opened with a delightful reading of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "It Might as Well Be Spring" before moving on to one of the loveliest big band arrangements ever written, Ray Noble's "The Touch of Your Lips," wonderfully scored by Rick Wilkins for Rob McConnell's dearly departed and greatly missed Boss Brass. Whigham's earnest solo on "Steve" preceded Torsten Maas' frisky "Can't Stop My Neck," "Shine" and the fast-paced encore. As we've named the saxophonists, let's do the same for the rest of the orchestra, as they don't often pass our way. Trumpets: Steffen Mathes, Christian Mehler, Mathias Petermann, Johannes Roosen-Runge, Matthias Schwengler. Trombones: Timothy Hepburn (an Aussie), Lukas Jochner, Raphael Klemm, Janning Trumann, Juliane Gralle (bass trombone). Pianist Sebastian Scobel was superb, as were his mates in the rhythm section, guitarist Clemens Oerding, bassist Reza Askari-Motlagh (Iranian) and drummer Thomas Sauerborn. Last but not least, we mustn't overlook flutist Charlotte Ortmann, daughter of BuJazzO's managing director, Peter Ortmann.

It should be noted that BuJazzo's U.S. tour was sponsored by Germany's Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (why can't we have one of those?), the West German Broadcasting Corporation, the GVL (I can't say what that is) and the firm Daimler AG. Germany, it seems, wishes to present its young jazz musicians to the world, and so it does. What a concept! Of course, the U.S. sees no need for that, as jazz was born here and everyone knows we're Number 1. Instead, we've been sending another brand of "representatives" to assorted countries, and those staves they're carrying aren't musical instruments, more's the pity. But enough about that. BuJazzO, which was formed in 1987 by the renowned composer / arranger / bandleader / educator Peter Herbolzheimer, who served as its music director from 1988-2006, represents its country well, in concert appearances (more than 400 in twenty-four years) and on a number of excellent recordings. Young instrumentalists and singers must apply to become members of the orchestra; those chosen through auditions may remain with BuJazzO for two years up to a maximum age of twenty-four. The orchestra won the German Music Prize in 1997 and the West German Broadcasting Service Jazz Prize in 2010. Since Herbolzheimer relinquished the reins (he died in March 2010 at age seventy-four), BuJazzo's conductors have included Whigham, Marko Lackner, Bill Dobbins, Edward Partyka, Mike Herting, Neils Klein, Steffen Schorn, Maria Baptist and John Ruocco. Whigham now divides his time between Germany and Great Britain, where he serves as director of the BBC Big Band. No matter who's at the helm, BuJazzO keeps on swinging, and it was a pleasure to see and hear them doing exactly that here in New Mexico.

Farewell to a Friend


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