The Sound and the HTML: Introducing the AAJ Orchestra


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In many discussions about jazz's future, people have argued that the Internet will be the next 52nd Street for the music. Sadly, like many things Web, there has been more sizzle than steak. But not always—this past weekend I played a gig with the All About Jazz Orchestra (AAJO), a group that existed purely in binary code up and until the moment we performed.

The orchestra grew out of the lively online forums on the All About Jazz website, probably the oldest and definitely the largest jazz website in existence. It's a tremendous resource to the jazz community, a place to learn about the music's history, recordings, new releases, venues and individual artists. One of the best features of the site is the "forums" section, where hundreds of jazz musicians at all levels of development contribute, as well as many aficionados too (the influence and popularity of of online forums has been well-documented already). Want to know the difference between "hard bop" and "post-bop"? Having trouble with your Hammond keyboard? You've come to the right place.

However, behind the avatars are real people/musicians. One of the regular contributors, Jay Norem (a drummer from Atlanta) is probably the "father" of the the AAJO. A little over a year ago, Jay threw out the following challenge to the All About Jazz forum community (almost directly quoted):

"Okay I'm inspired. What could it possibly take to get every player on this board to participate in a mammoth session? I mean everyone... There are at least four, five drummers here. Lots of guitar players (no shortage of guitar players), many bass players, keyboard players, a great many brass and reed players... And a world-class arranger... Can you imagine what it would sound like if we all got together and played some music? Goddamn! That would be the sickest [stuff] ever heard! I don't mean next week or anything. But come on. This would be absolutely f*$%&*g historic... I'm putting this out to the AAJ staff and to every member who plays an instrument. Let's just do it."

The response was overwhelming. Over the next year—and through dozens of forum threads—the group began to coalesce around a few key contributors, and Jay, Jerry Engelbach (a pianist from Brooklyn) and trombonist Ed Byrne (though he had to pull out before the actual performance) took the lead logistically and musically. With the help of All About Jazz, and particularly through the efforts of Bernie Ente, the group secured a performance space and date: August 14, 2009 at Pier 66 in New York City.

By the time I got involved with the project it was already in its final stages (no pun intended). Jay, Jerry and Ed wrote and arranged roughly half a dozen pieces for a large combo/big band, though with flexibility in the parts given the difficulty of guaranteeing the attendance of a full big band They also reserved a web page where members of the band could go and download and listen to the final versions.

So, armed with that elaborate web preparation (and one brief rehearsal the night before), 11 musicians from all backgrounds, ages and walks of life showed up at Pier 66 this past Friday, having never played together or even met outside of a jazz website. It was a great night for it—one of the hottest days of summer, at sunset on the Hudson River (at least I think it was the Hudson, I still haven't figured out my NYC geography yet), and one of the best-looking crowds in the history of jazz. No kidding. I could have sworn that I saw Lara Croft... although the light may have been playing tricks on me... well, either that or the boat motion. We were playing at "The Frying Pan" an old barge turned into a restaurant, and it was rocking a little with the waves. Or perhaps the music.

Visual and perceptual distractions aside, it was a great set. The final roster of the AAJO included Chris Thompson and Scott Forrey on trumpets, Pat Clare on guitar, Alex Clough and Jerry Engelbach on piano/keyboards, Jay Norem on drums, Jeff Koch on upright bass, Yaron Elyashiv and Charles Greenlee on tenor saxophones, David Wise on tenor saxophone and flute, and myself (Peter Cobb) on alto sax. Our set featured 6 original compositions: "One for Mike" (by Ed Byrne for Michael Ricci), "Riffraff" (Byrne), "Estrada Seguinte" (Jerry Engelbach), "Small Ruse" (Byrne), "What Have I Done" (by Jay Norem) and "Shoulder of Fortune" (Engelbach). The Byrne pieces were all variations on the blues and served as great vehicles for the overall group dynamics as well as some fun solos. Jay Norem's piece was a sophisticated modal tune that offered the soloists a perfect canvas on which to construct their improvisations. Finally, Jerry Engelbach's two songs were delicately crafted sophisticated latin songs— easy to listen to but with some challenging parts to play! I know that I walked away humming the main theme from "Shoulder of Fortune," and I'm sure that many others did as well. As for the soloists, well, all I can say is that everyone up there was a superb craftsman on his instrument and brought an impressive enthusiasm and creativity to the stage...I hope that someone recorded it, because these guys played their butts off...

I should also add that the Vector Trio (featuring AAJO's own Scott Forey) began the evening with a set of totally original music. It was a change of pace from the style of the big band, but was nonetheless very beautiful and cutting edge music. I'd urge you to check out their site or find their videos online!

Finally, after the official set of the AAJO came to a close, the organizers opened up the stage for a jam session. Many of the original players stayed to play a fun set that featured Horace Silver's classic "Song For My Father" and the Joe Henderson staple, "Recordame." One wonderful feature of the jam session was that Ian Anthony was able to play electric bass during it. Ian is an exceptional musician and long-time contributor to the AAJ forums, and was also an integral part of forming the AAJO. Due to a hand injury he was unable to fully participate, but attended the rehearsal nonetheless and was a huge factor in getting the entire project off the ground. It was great to hear/play with him even on a limited basis!

So, kudos to Jay, Jerry, Michael Ricci, and to everyone else who participated in this project. The survival—and growth—of this music will depend on the efforts of those who love it to find one another and create a community. You all just did that through the web, and have taken a step that goes far beyond putting together a great show and evening of entertainment. Thank you all.

Photo Credit

Jay Norem by Michael Ricci

AAJ Orchestra by Bernard Ente

More photos from the concert

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