Is the jazz big band a holdover from the swing era? Well, there’s still power in numbers and broader musical perspectives to explore. Despite the inherent cost, the art form has remained vital and evolving with such distinctive ensembles as The Maria Schneider Orchestra, The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, The Mingus Big Band, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, John Beasley’s MONK’estra and The Vanguard Orchestra. The Brian Lynch Big Band won a Grammy Award in 2020, led by the Milwaukee-raised trumpeter-songwriter frontman.
Add the Milwaukee Jazz Orchestra to this list, with their second album, Take it all. It reveals a full plumbing of orchestral resources with both an advanced contemporary aesthetic and an abundance of catchy grooves. The MJO barely came out of nowhere. For 12 years, bandleader Curt Hanrahan led the UW-Milwaukee Jazz Ensemble and the annual Woody Herman Jazz Festival, before retiring in 2017. At the heart of the new orchestra’s staff is the jazz band synchronous fusion of 30 years Opus. Between Hanrahan and his brother, drummer/co-bandleader Warren Hanrahan, they’ve played with many great bands of the past, including Arturo Sandoval, Glenn Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra Jr., Harry Connick Jr. , Lawrence Welk and Woody Herman’s band led by Frank Tiberi.
“I love all great bands and have watched, listened to and learned from many of them, but my main influence has always been the benevolent Woody Herman,” says Harahan. “The Milwaukee native has been on the road for nearly 50 years with various bands and ‘Herds’ and produced some of the most iconic and legendary jazz musicians, composers/arrangers this American art form has to offer. Our jazz festivals are inspired by his Woody Herman/Sister Fabian Fellowship and educational programs that began in the mid to late 60s.”
Perhaps there’s a hometown bias to Hanrahan’s affection for Herman’s “Thundering Herds,” but this big band leader has always forged bridges between swing orchestras and modern jazz. . Jazz historian Ted Gioia writes, “Herman’s evolution from soft music to traditional jazz and then to modern jazz is almost unprecedented in the history of music. For Woody, Herman is best understood…as a catalyst. His talent lay in empowerment – in stimulating those around him to their deepest creative currents, inspiring them, letting them “let go”. Herman’s second Herd debuted with the group “Four Brothers”, with a section of three tenor saxophones and a baritone, which provided a model for what would soon be called cool jazz.
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As a result, The MJO projects through a forward-looking lens, with arrangements that ease rather than weigh down soloists and ensemble flair. The title track “Take It All” opens with short, suspenseful phrases, then layers into dissonant yet seductive harmonies with a complex series of slamming ensemble accents. Tenor saxophonist Kyle Seifert delivers a measured rumination in solo until the soaring intensity of the second chorus carried by the large ensemble. Trumpeter David Katz provides skillful and warm counterpoint, à la Thad Jones, to a sumptuous climax. The second track, “We All Love Eddie Harris,” reflects saxophonist Harris’ penchant for a cool yet funky vamp that allows for sassy rhythmic licks from Seifert, and liberally quotes the swaggering, bouncy jazz classic “Freedom Jazz Dance.” of Harris.
The material that follows ranges from Oscar Peterson’s delicate adaptation of the vintage snapper “Sweet Georgia Brown” to “Covidity,” a Hanrahan piece reflecting “pandemic-era angst,” but inspired by Elvin Jones. . Living at the Lighthouse album, a hallmark of post-Coltrane jazz. “Souljourner” closes the album with a transporting swirl of deviant wood in a gritty jazz-fusion guitar solo by Steve Lewandowski. The MJO demonstrates how bigger is better when the result encompasses an array of moods and compelling stylistic effects, allowing the listener to “take it all in”.
For more information on the MJO, visit mjojazz.com.
The Milwaukee Jazz Orchestra performs at 6 p.m. on Sunday, August 21 at the Racine Theater Guild, 2519 Northwestern Ave., Racine.