The economic model for the touring jazz big band has broken down since the days of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. So it was a rare treat to see the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra on Saturday night, bringing New York-style thrills to the Wisconsin Union Theater. The 16-piece band was a well-oiled machine with a human heart.
The VJO started in the mid-'60s as the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. The two founders have died, but their spirit lives on in the band's emphasis on subtlety and artful arrangements. Unlike the showy big bands common in the 1960s and '70s - Maynard Ferguson's, Buddy Rich's - the VJO doesn't rely on raw power to engage an audience. It's more concerned with nuances of harmony, rhythm and texture.
Take "St. Louis Blues," the W.C. Handy standard. You think you know what to expect - a brassy statement of the theme, followed by a string of solos, followed by an even brassier recap of the theme. Not in the version by Bob Brookmeyer, the orchestra's recently deceased arranger. It began softly and slowly, with piquant harmonies courtesy of plunger-muted trombones and a switch to flutes and clarinet in the saxophone section. This felt like a sophisticated rethinking of "St. Louis Blues" - at least until the soloists came up to the mike.
That's when the aforementioned "human heart" started beating. Trombonist Luis Bonilla, trumpeter Richie Vitale, pianist Michael Weiss and alto saxophonist Billy Drewes delivered personal (even idiosyncratic) statements, with the orchestra providing different colors and rhythms for each man. The arrangement harked back to Ellington and showed big-band jazz at its best: a balance of brilliant composing and improvising.
Not every arrangement was so ambitious. Sometimes the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra aimed straight for your pleasure center with screaming trumpets, blasting bones and wailing saxes, boosted by the loose-limbed rhythm section. If "St. Louis Blues" harked back to Ellington, "Central Park North" harked back to Basie with its overwhelming wall of sound. God bless both approaches.
Trombonist-director John Mosca proved a genial host, introducing every number with jokes and jibes. He got a laugh with a New York Giants/Green Bay Packers line, and he even took a moment to salute Wisconsin's political uprising. "What Wisconsin is doing here is of great importance all over the country," he said. "You've risen to the challenge, and we're all rooting for you."
That gave the big audience a jolt - just one of many on this electrifying evening.