It goes without saying, that organizing a concert for big band is a heavy lift. You don’t just pick up a saxophone, gather a few friends and blow. The logistics, not to mention the finances, are daunting. So if you are a composer and arranger in the 21st century, and your “instrument” is an aggregation of 20, your gigs are few and far between. Such is the fate of David Sanford, a lauded, but under recognized master of the large ensemble, who gave a life-changing concert at the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity on Sunday. The event was part of Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares’ 11th season.
David Sanford, the Elizabeth T. Kennan Professor of Music at Mt. Holyoke College, was recently inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the highest recognition of artistic merit in the United States. But mention his name to the average jazz fan and you’re likely to get a blank stare. You will search in vain for Sanford’s name among the big bands in the Downbeat critic’s poll. But for my money, Sanford writes and arranges circles around better known ensembles led by Maria Schneider, Wynton Marsalis or Christian McBride. It has everything to do with exposure, of course. Sanford doesn’t have the resources of Jazz at Lincoln Center or the juggernaut that is the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Hopefully, the well-received release last year of A Prayer for Lester Bowie (Greenleaf), will help to elevate Sanford’s standing among big band royalty.
But on September 11, in sleepy Florence, Massachusetts, 180 of us heard an extraordinary mass of sound organized in extremely creative ways by the David Sanford Big Band. Drawing from jazz, rock, blues, funk and experimental music, Sanford’s writing had us leaning in with our ears pinned back.
In April at UMass, I presented Adam Rudolph’s GO: Organic Orchestra with Brooklyn Raga Massive. Rudolph’s 30-person ensemble emphasized strings, percussion and flutes, and floated through Bowker Auditorium on a world-music vibe. Sanford’s outfit was more like some hip, roaring Stan Kenton band: five trumpets, five low brass (trombones and tuba), five saxophones and rhythm section.
The energy tunes, including “poppit” and “Full Immersion”, brought us face to face with a powerful machine firing on all cylinders. The room was ablaze. On the latter tune, simultaneous tenor saxophone solos by Anna Webber and Lee Odom brought the house down.
There were lots of friends, family, colleagues and students of Sanford’s in the audience, who offered yelps of delight, dialogue, applause and laughter throughout the evening. “We love you, David”, rung through the sanctuary. In fact, it was a love fest all around. Sanford has long time relationships with many of the people in his band, about half who are original members from 2003. Some are among his oldest and closest friends. Others, like tubist Joe Exley, was a last minute COVID-related replacement. Lee Odom, who Sanford first heard playing at Ornette Coleman’s memorial, and Anna Webber, now living in Franklin county, are both more recent collaborators. Towards the end of the evening, Sanford introduced the members of the band with descriptions of his personal connection to each.
Then there is Hugh Ragin. The veteran trumpet player was a mentor of Sanford’s from his time in Colorado, and remains a valued collaborator. Sanford was deferential throughout the evening, happy to have his teacher on the bandstand. The 71 year old trumpeter led the band in his original, “The Moors of Spain”. Its catchy, loping melody was the most straight ahead piece on the program, and a perfect respite to the density of many of Sanford’s compositions. Ragin, who has extensive performing credits with Roscoe Mitchell and David Murray, was a dynamic soloist throughout.
There were other outstanding soloists, including trombonist Jim Messbauer and alto saxophonist Ted Levine. But the real star was the band itself, who executed Sanford’s vision as one precise and supple unit. They performed the night before in New York as part of the Festival of New Trumpet (FONT). If they sounded this good after one rehearsal and one concert, imagine if they were criss-crossing the country like the big bands of yesteryear, bringing the joy to towns large and small.