An article from my old blog. Sunday, June 13th, 2010
Thank You Rob!
I have been very lax about getting off my butt and posting something to my blog. There always seemed to be something else to do, particularly writing music. Well, the recent passing of Rob McConnell has finally caused me to write something.
Thinking about Rob’s passing and listening to his music again has brought a few things to mind.
The day after I heard of Rob’s passing I hauled out my large collection of Boss Brass recordings and spent the entire day listening once again to some of my all time favourite big band arrangements - Just Friends, Body and Soul, Street of Dreams, Out of Nowhere, Portrait of Jennie, My Bells, Easy To Love, Autumn In New York, You Took Advantage of Me, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, A Time For Love, Take The “A” Train, Blue Hodge, Louisiana. In fact, I’m having a difficult time stopping this list. They are all great. Let’s just say that, much like one of my other favourites, Bill Holman, Rob never wrote anything less than a great chart.
I cannot remember when I first heard the Boss Brass. I could have been, and probably was, one the early brass ensemble pop LPs Rob recorded for the CTL label. But, it could also have been a Jazz Radio Canada program. Jazz Radio Canada, a CBC program that ran once a week nation wide in the 1970s, featured Canadian jazz groups in either live or studio sessions. I was addicted to the weekly program. Coincidentally, this was also the program on which I got my first professional writing gig, contributing arrangements for a Bob Hales big band program in 1976.
Listening to the weekly broadcast, it seemed there was an abundance of great big bands in the Canada, at least it seemed that way to me. From Vancouver we heard Bob Hales and occasionally Doug Parker, Edmonton had Tommy Banks. Other names escape me for the moment but I would be sure to have heard bands from Calgary and Winnipeg. From Quebec we heard Vic Vogel. There were groups from the Atlantic provinces and from the Toronto area we heard the big bands of Phil Nimmons and Rob McConnell. This program created a strong sense of Canadian jazz. It made us all aware that there were other players and writers out there creating some great music.
Of all of those bands, the one that struck me the most was the Boss Brass. I was probably 19 or 20 years old and, unlike my peers, I had grown up listening to the old big bands - Harry James, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman (yeah I know, I was a little weird). So the great sense of swing and the strong contemporary sound of the Boss Brass really grabbed me. I was a major fan from the first note I heard.
For starters, I was struck by the sound of Rob’s band. The virtuosity of the ensemble work, led by the stellar trumpeter Arnie Chycoski. Of course I simply loved the beautiful flugel horn playing of Guido Basso, who is blessed with a singular sound and style that is immediately recognizable (by me singling out 2 trumpet players you can probably guess my instrument of choice). No less wonderful were the saxes, playing those seemingly impossible solis, the beautiful trombone section led by Ian McDougall and the great rhythm section, particularly drummer Terry Clark.
I remember catching the Boss Brass on a CBC television special, probably in the mid 1970s, in which they played things like Mr. Tricky Nervous and Come Back To Jesus, Or I’ll Kill You which were never committed to disc. We also heard A Time For Love and That’s Right on the program (to be honest I only remember these exact titles because I recorded the program on cassette).
While all of Rob’s recordings are great, there are five Boss Brass recordings that stand out to me:
The Best Damn Band In The Land was my favourite easy listening Boss Brass CTL recording, and my first BB disc. Of all Rob’s early CTL LPs this was the jazziest, featuring a wonderful, but short, chart on Louisiana and an exquisite Santa Claus Blues.
The Jazz Album. The first Boss Brass jazz LP was an lp I eagerly anticipated and it didn’t disappoint. Great charts and playing throughout, but Rob’s arrangement of Body and Soul was a standout. This arrangement has it all - a great reharmonization of the original tune, a sax soli using rich 5 part writing, great ensemble lines and a powerful shout. While I think it’s a highlight of the recording I understand, from several sources, that Rob didn’t care too much for this chart. Portrait of Jenny is another great arrangement and features wall to wall Guido Basso.
Big Band Jazz. What’s not to like about this 2 disc recording? This was a limited direct to disc LP set (mine is #01204). While there are a couple of very minor performance glitches, they take nothing away from this great set. I played this disc over and over and over and over and over and… Every arrangement is a gem. I would class this as one of the best big band recordings of all time. The opening track of Just Friends with the unbelievably together stop time tutti, the tricky trombone line coupled with the bass, the solos and the big, powerful shout. Then there is Street of Dreams, Dirty Man, A Tribute to Art Fern, and Porgy and Bess Suite. Writing about the quality of all the arrangements, and the fantastic playing on this recording, could easily take up multiple blogs.
Present Perfect. First of all, the sound of this lp was fantastic. Rob always had first class engineers and the recordings were always sonic delights. You Took Advantage of Me and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes are real high points on another album full of highlights.
The El Mocambo: Live In Digital. This was the first time I saw the band in person and provided a real “ear opening” experience. With a friend, the late Pete Coulman, I went to hear the band at the El Mocambo club in Toronto. They played there for about 10 days and we were there almost every night. The virtuosity of the ensemble work was as stunning live as it was on disc. The dynamic range, even when I considered my previous experiences listening to Count Basie and Stan Kenton live, was breathtaking. Without microphones I could still hear every woodwind part. The entire band moved and breathed as one single entity.
All the subsequent discs, including those by the tenet, are equally wonderful, but the ones mentioned here are some of the first recordings I acquired so they have a strong place in my own musical identity.
Despite the great tradition of big band music, Rob McConnell managed to develop a big band style and sound that was all his own. Even his earliest recorded arrangement, that I am aware of, for Maynard Ferguson of Come Rain or Come Shine has some of those now classic McConnellisms - beautiful harmonization, great lines, great voicings, a great dynamic range and a superb sense of structure. Rob never wrote simple arrangements, consisting of a melody chorus followed by a long solo section with a few simple backgrounds and a return to the melody. His charts always had something substantial for the ensemble. Rob would often follow his opening melody chorus with some new, often virtuosic, ensemble writing. His charts would often have multiple climaxes. I found the same qualities in his own solo work, within his big band or small groups. Even the wonderful duet recording with Ed Bickert, Mutual Street, is loaded with great musical drama.
Certainly Rob, like all of us that write for big bands, borrowed and learned from the masters. However, I have always been impressed by someone that can create something singular, an identifiable sound, while still acknowledging the past. Rob, like Bill Holman and Bob Brookmeyer, fits this category. However, while Holman and Brookmeyer seem to want to reach beyond their past accomplishments, Rob seemed content to remain within his sense of the tradition. This does not mean that any one of these three writers is better artistically than the other. But rather there is, in my mind anyway, a place for all of them. Good music is good music.
If one had to single out one distinctive feature of Rob’s writing it would probably be his sense of harmony. His harmonic work really reminds me so much of pianist Bill Evans, always full of beautiful tension and release. He also maximizes these harmonic colours by using rich, full ensemble voicings along with a great sense of orchestral colour, especially with the additional french horns and woodwinds.
It’s not only Rob’s manipulation of harmony that allows him to stand out, he also had an equally deft hand with melody. And, although not known as a composer as much as an arranger, Rob’s own tunes that are scattered throughout his recordings, were always a highlight. Even his larger scale big band jazz originals were always tuneful. Check out the beautiful middle section of That’s Right.
Finally, on top of all of Rob’s qualities as an arranger, composer and player, there was always Rob’s sense of humour, which would often come out of nowhere in the music. A favourite moment is the return of the melody in Louisiana where he changes key after the first bar.
As much as I love the sound of any good big band, it’s the writing that always seems to draw me back repeatedly, to listen over and over. To this day, after more than 40 years, I can still hear the sounds of those early Boss Brass recordings vividly in my mind and I know those sounds have had a very big effect on the big band music I create for myself. I have been told I am a harmonically oriented writer, who loves to write virtuosic ensemble passages. Well, I’ve always known where that came from. Now you do.
I know I will go on for the rest of my life enjoying the sounds of Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass.
Thank you Rob!