Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Deep End of the Talent Pool: Big Bands at Jazz Central

Adam Meckler conducts his orchestra at the Ritz Theater
© Andrea Canter

The vitality of the Twin Cities Jazz scene is a frequent topic of discussion, even debate. Each time a venue closes, angst surfaces. Each time a venue opens (or adds jazz), guarded optimism reigns. Let’s face it—like restaurants, jazz venues come and go, come and go. Audiences, too, seem to wax and wane. I don’t think the openings and closings of venues or music series is the best indicator of the health of our music scene, jazz or otherwise. Rather, I think one good barometer is the vitality of the Adam Meckler Orchestra and similar ensembles that not only tap the highest level of area talent, but  also the depth of that talent, day to day, week to week.

The new Tuesday Night Big Band series at teeny Jazz Central presents logistical challenges – squeezing 15-20 musicians into a performance space tight already for a quartet, and leaving enough breathing room for 30-50 listeners. And you would think a weekly big band series—and particularly one that emphasizes modern approaches to the big band concept—would squeeze the Twin Cities’ talent pool. After all, there are other venues presenting jazz on any given Tuesday night!

Adam Meckler
I’d heard the Adam Meckler Orchestra before, about a month ago on the theater stage of The Ritz, a stage intended for orchestras and full-scale theater productions. Beyond the obvious talent of composer/conductor/trumpeter Meckler himself, I was impressed by the artistry of his ensemble of 18, many of whom were new to me, probably new on the scene given the average age of the horn section alone was maybe 25? Each soloist seemed capable of drawing an approving audience in his or her own right. Each comes with stellar credentials. Each could hold his or her own with the area’s popular veterans. And yet most of us were asking, “Who are these guys?”

When the suburban Shorewood discontinued its own Tuesday Big Band Night, Jazz Central wasted little time offering an alternative—a rotating schedule of 4 or 5 of the metro’s cutting-edge, big band ensembles. Yes, the space was never intended to support big bands. And no, there is surely no room to improvise a dance floor. Jazz Central is presenting big bands the same way they present guest soloists with a small combo on Monday nights—as concert music, as a space for experimentation, as a launching pad for new collaborations. You can hear established heavy hitters like the Cedar Avenue Big Band, or relatively new ensembles like the Meckler Orchestra, or the debut of the cross generational partnership of Doug Haining and Scott Agster. And you can get blown away by the sheer immensity of the sound if you sit at one of the first-row tables. But take a chair closer to the living room wall or even in the adjoining back room if you really don’t want to feel like you are part of the horn section.

Nelson Devereaux
Last night, Adam Meckler introduced a few new members of his somewhat rotating cast—busy Graydon Peterson took over on bass,  Steve Hobert sat at the grand piano, and there was one gray-haired veteran splitting lead trumpet duties, Pete Davis. Otherwise the tightly spaced chairs were filled with many 20-somethings who have been with Meckler for the past year—including Noah Ophoven-Baldwin, Nelson Devereaux, Cameron Kinghorn, Jason Faubus, Tyler Anderson, Ben Doherty, Angie Hirsch.  Names we are just beginning to hear in other settings, other enembles, or names we most surely will be hearing more often, soon.

Maybe this is our version of the Maria Schneider Orchestra—an ensemble that mixes a few high profilers with some lesser known veteran players and some seriously talented up-and-comers, all under the leadership of a composer who isn’t afraid to push the band into harmonic and rhythmic territory seldom approached by big band charts, who offers wide-ranging ideas that never leave melodicism to chance. Yet I suspect that Meckler’s band will serve more as a starting point for future stars with a few steady anchors and otherwise a rotating cast –always reminding us that the depth of talent in Twin Cities jazz is ever growing and ever deepening.

Meckler solos with his orchestra at the Ritz
And with the Tuesday night Big Band series ongoing at Jazz Central, such ensembles will have a place to call home, to try out new material (and new musicians), to interact “up close and personal” with the most appreciative fans in town.

Remember to leave an appreciative donation in the “drum bucket.” We have a lot of mouths to feed.

Jazz Central is located in the lower studio level of 408 Central Av NE in Minneapolis. Guest artists and jams every Monday night starting at 8:30 pm. Big Band gigs every Tuesday at 8:30 pm. Sometimes other music. Usually no cover but donations recommended! Check the website; more on Adam Meckler Orchestra at