ON THE PICTURE : NYChillharmonic on stage. Photo courtesy of Moers Festival
by Marina Dunbar
The past two years have been a time of isolation and introspection for those who dedicate their lives to music. For some musicians, this period has been an invaluable opportunity to contemplate their craft in solitude. For others, however, the technique and spirit of their art depends on other souls to share it with. There is perhaps no better example of this than a big band, and for many young people just discovering their love of shared musical experiences, that band is the NYChillharmonic.
This 18-piece progressive rock and jazz orchestra was founded and led by Brooklyn-based musician and arranger Sara McDonald.
“I went to the new school [in New York] for jazz and contemporary music and graduated in 2013. My parents are both classical musicians. I definitely come from a classical background,” McDonald says. “I started playing the piano around the age of 4. . . I started getting into musical theatre, then jazz when I was in high school, and ended up going to college for it.
This journey through different musical styles is reflected in the diversity of musicians McDonald recruits for his project. “I started doing big band arrangements when I was still in school. At the time, I wanted to challenge myself to see how many instruments I could arrange in one sitting, and At the time, the band was 22 musicians… We only had one unique gig, but it was such a good time that I kept going. And it was very slow at first, I just had a gig here and there for the first two years, but I stuck with it, and it ended up becoming its own monster.
The term “monster” is certainly a way to describe the heart of the musicians of the NYChillharmonic, whose immense musicality makes them titans of the New York jazz scene. The rhythm section consists of drummer Josh Bailey, keyboardist Eitan Kenner, bassist Adam Neely and guitarist Shubh Saran.
Beyond the core group, however, the project largely consists of different actors in different cities. This requires a huge amount of networking (and spending) on McDonald’s part. In addition to this incredible work ethic, NYChillharmonic also boasts a much higher ratio of female musicians compared to most other big band projects. But McDonald clarifies that it’s not so much about diversity in addition to ability, but rather that diversity is a natural outcome when looking for ability.
“I really try to branch out and meet new people,” McDonald says. “A few years ago I realized that I really needed to get to know more female musicians on stage . . . partly because I love making friends. I did a gig where all the women were at the bandstand. It wasn’t to make a statement; it was really just to see if I could pull it off… but now I’d say [recruiting female musicians] is intentional. . . I want my band to reflect the world we live in today.
The NYChillharmonic has won multiple accolades and toured to many cities around the world, and the upcoming show at the Grape on May 27 marks the orchestra’s first performance in Ventura. This jazz hotspot is known for attracting outstanding talent and is valued for its ability to build community – an aspect that McDonald’s appreciates.
“As far as music goes, I write and arrange everything,” McDonald explains. “It’s from my point of view, so from that point of view, it’s really me being introspective. But literally all the other parts are communal. This project wouldn’t exist if people didn’t want to play this music. … It totally depends on the community.
The NYChillharmonic performs Friday, May 27 from 8-11 p.m. at The Grape, 2753 E. Main St., Ventura. For tickets and more information, visit www.thegrapeventura.com.