In designing an ensemble that would represent one of the most prestigious and lasting jazz clubs in New York, Tommy Igoe knew exactly what he didn't want.
While mindful of traditions that fortified music staged night in and night out at the famed venue known as Birdland, he didn't want a band that bore the club's name to operate with a repertoire and work ethic that simply mimicked every large jazz ensemble that came before it.
After all, this was New York — one of the primary jazz epicenters of the world, a city that has heard a lot and seen a lot more.
"The line I keep saying over and over is that New York needs another big band likes it needs another pothole," Igoe said.
"Look, there are tons of good big bands. New York is full of them," he said. "What it is not full of are great big bands, bands that make you drop your jaw and forget about everything else. Great bands are capable of presenting a musical experience that touches you emotionally, not just intellectually. It works not just as a jazz history lesson. When we play a ballad, you should actually tear up. Or if we plant a groove, it should be so deep that you just want to dance out of your seat. That's what I'm obsessed with providing the audience. That's the mission statement."
Living with the past
Regardless of its resistance to being anchored to history, one can't appreciate the music of the Birdland Big Band without understanding Birdland itself.
The initial Birdland club opened on Broadway near West 52nd Street in December 1949. Nearly every jazz luminary of the day performed there. Among the artists to grace its stage were Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Lester Young, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and the saxophonist for whom the club was named, Charlie "Bird" Parker. Many of these artists also recorded live albums at the club or have had archival recordings of radio broadcasts of their sets released posthumously.
The original Birdland has even been immortalized in songs by two successive jazz generations. In 1952, pianist George Shearing penned Lullaby of Birdland, which would become a massive hit for Fitzgerald and a jazz standard that endures to this day. In 1977, keyboardist Joe Zawinul wrote the instrumental tune Birdland at the height of the fusion movement for his band, Weather Report. The song was reworked as a vocalese hit for Manhattan Transfer three years later.
Still, Igoe made sure such history would not dictate exclusively the direction or repertoire of the Birdland Big Band when it formed in 2006.
"To be honest with you, the history doesn't inform what we do a whole hell of a lot, other than the fact that the jazz we do better be great because it's going to be carrying the name Birdland," Igoe said. "That's how it's affecting me.
"It's funny. People can take the name Birdland and make this connection to Charlie Parker in almost two ways. They can look back and say, 'You should be playing Charlie Parker tunes and regurgitating that vocabulary from the '40s and '50s. I prefer to look at it as a tribute to what Charlie Parker was. Who was Charlie Parker? Well, he was probably the most progressive and fearless musician of his generation. He completely changed the vocabulary of what we do. It would be disrespectful, in my opinion, if we simply copied what he did, because what he did was completely not about doing that. His own career was dedicated to blazing new trails, new vocabulary. So that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to offer a completely unique musical experience, just like he did back in the '40s."
The original Birdland filed for bankruptcy in 1964 and closed in 1965. It second life began in 1985 and ran in Uptown Manhattan (Broadway and 105th Street) for 12 years before relocating to its current location on West 44th, roughly eight blocks from the original Birdland.
Since its formation, the Birdland Big Band has held a weekly residency at the club, playing every Friday night. Igoe performs at those gigs only on special occasions, as he now lives in San Francisco and leads a weekly big band residency there. But "special occasions" definitely include its current tour, the band's first trek outside of Manhattan.
"A tour like this can be a little scary," said Birdland Big Band trumpeter Glenn Drewes. "You never know what's going to happen. But I've learned one thing. You can't trick people into liking music. When they see the real deal, they go crazy.
"I met some folks last night, and they were all legit, classical-oriented artists — opera singers and stuff. And they were freaking out. 'We never saw anything like this.' So far, the audience appreciation has been over the top."
Birdland or bust
So what exactly does Igoe envision as the musical terrain of the Birdland Big Band? If the ensemble isn't going to be tethered to its illustrious past, what musical landscape can the band call its own?
The answer comes by way of a dynamic new debut recording, Eleven. Perhaps fittingly, it begins with a Darmon Meader composition called New Ground that shifts among vibrant orchestration, a swing-savvy tenor sax solo from Dan Willis and a percussion drive that regularly borrows from salsa music.
The rest of the album departs from the bop, cool and swing that lived like kings during the early days of Birdland. In its place are large ensemble looks at tunes by a comparatively newer generation of artists such as Chick Corea, Michel Camilo and Don Grolnick, and an expansive arrangement of an electric 1974 ballad by Herbie Hancock, Butterfly.
In performance, that repertoire is augmented by works from Paquito D'Rivera, Randy Newman, Antonio Carlos Jobim and, perhaps unavoidably, Zawinul's Birdland. Sure, a Duke Ellington tune might pop up as well. But mostly, the repertoire is as representative of a new jazz age as the Birdland Big Band is reflective of the newest Birdland club.
"The whole concept of the band is about looking forward," Igoe said. "We all know our history. Every musician in the band is extremely well schooled in the history of the big band vernacular. But we are not slaves to it and we certainly don't want to be a jukebox. That's not why we're here."
Added Drewes, "On a professional level, you want to play the best that you can play every night because you've got guys sitting around you, in front of you, on the side of you that really listen to what you play. And you don't want to be playing the same tired stuff every night. There is the pressure you put on yourself to play well and the pressure placed on you for your peers to hear you play well.
"You know, Joe DiMaggio was asked once about why he played so hard. And he said, 'There are people out there who have never seen me play.' So you want to carry on that tradition, and it's for all those reasons. So, it's a personal thing, it's for your peers and it's for the audience. You don't want to be going out there not bringing 100 percent."