David Theak on Jazzgrooving with Chris Potter

US saxophonist, world-class soloist, accomplished composer and formidable bandleader Chris Potter is a regular collaborator with bassist Dave Holland, Mingus Big Band. Chris is the first call saxophonist for many of the worlds leading jazz projects. For his June 2012 vist to Australia, he has composed and orchestrated a stunning collection of tunes featuring himself with the Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra.

Over the last decade the Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra has garnered an international reputation with the worlds leading contemporary composers, partly due to its willingness to experiment with new concepts and its respect for ensemble playing, raw power and tradition of the big bands that have proceeded it. Recent guests include  Jim McNeely, John Hollenbeck, Bert Joris, Alex Sipigain, Bob Sheppard, Dave Lisik, Charles Tolliver, Kristin Berardi and Florian Ross.

We talked to David Theak about the upcoming collaboration between Chris and the JMO. You’ll be able to hear Chris Potter with the JMO at the  Melbourne International Jazz Festival and in Sydney and Wollongong (see the bottom of the article for tour details) – oh, and we talked to Chris Potter as well – read his interview here >

Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra | Photo © Natasha Blankfield 'The Shot'

Jazz-Planet: How did the JMO come about? Is there still a connection to Jazzgroove, other than in the name?

David Theak: Like many great ideas, the initial concept was formed in the back bars of Surry Hills, Sydney. It remained a ‘public bar’ dream, until the artistic directors of Jazzgroove, Lawrence Pike and Cameron Deyell suggested we stop talking about it, and put together a set for the 2003 Jazzgroove Christmas party. It was a great fun night, but honestly, the band sounded pretty rough. I recall we had different drummers for most of the rehearsals, and there were even some guys who attended all the rehearsals but couldn’t do the gig!! After the opening night, we decided the scene need a vehicle for large ensemble composers, and we continued to do occasional gigs for Jazzgroove and  SIMA (Sydney Improvised Music Association) for about the next two or three years.

The JMO and Jazzgroove are definitely linked. We perform at Jazzgroove’s new home, Venue 505, and their summer festival and we like to think of ourselves as the association’s large ensemble.

Although the artistic direction and constitutions of the two organisations are officially separated, we often discuss potential partnerships with Jazzgroove’s creative team and the band is made up of past presidents, artistic directors, and bandleaders for Jazzgroove.

J-P: What keeps JMO going? What are the challenges?

DT: Essentially it’s the band’s love of creative large ensemble music and a desire to see it not only survive, but to flourish. As Artistic Director, I feel that the Big Band plays a pivotal part in the history and future of our music. I view it as jazz’s Symphony Orchestra equivalent with winds, strings, percussion and brass, yet it has power, excitement and drive that only rhythmic music can provide – for the composer and listener. Being involved in Big Bands was an essential element in many of our developments as young artists, and large ensembles provide a positive team mentality and camaraderie.

The challenges of running a Big Band include a massive payroll, keeping steady personnel, managing the orchestra’s extensive library, and constantly keeping the members of the JMO engaged and interested by providing them with musical opportunities that hopefully compensate them for the time, effort and financial sacrifice they often have to make to be involved. A new, more recent, challenge is saying no to proposals that don’t fit in with our artistic vision. On a practical level we have a really strong core of Murray Jackson, Richard Maegraith, Lucian McGuiness, Jeremy Borthwick – and myself as Artistic Director – who put in the hard yards in terms of looking after the finances, logistics and guidance of the band.

J-P: In terms of musical styles, how would you describe JMO’s music?

DT: If I had to put a label on it, I’d call it Contemporary Jazz Orchestral music, but one of the things that I think has interested guest artists and composers in collaborating with us in the last 10 years has been the orchestra’s willingness to take a punt just about any version of improvised music that a composer is prepared to throw at us, and to treat all composers ‘creations, no matter how unusual or demanding, with the full respect they deserve. We have persevered with some incredible challenging music, because we want to help composers realise their often extraordinary conceptions. It doesn’t always work out, but we’d rather die trying!!

J-P: There are a few large ensembles like JMO around Mace Frances, WAYJO, Bennetts Lane Big Band… – what role do they play in a jazz community?

DT: Large ensembles are a great opportunity for young players to be mentored and network with established musicians. They give serious composers who want to write for more than a couple horns with rhythm sections a difficult but rewarding challenge, and they generate employment for horn players, who aren’t always seen as necessary in the line up of band these days. They also give audiences an experience that they cant get from a small group, and often we find members of our audience come from people who would simply love to see a big band but wouldn’t go to an cutting edge at gig at SIMA, Jazzgroove, COMA, MJAC etc but still find themselves enjoying our performances even though many of the confronting elements that are sometimes in our music, still exist at our gigs.

J-P: Jazzgroove (the organisation) seems to have a very collaborative and fluid approach, with leadership and other responsibilities shifting and adapting depending on the needs and availability of people involved. Does the JMO have a similar fluidity of leadership and direction?

DT: Jazzgroove (the organisation’s) fluidity has always been one of its strengths, but that’s not a model that I’ve found to work very well in my previous experience with big bands. On a musical level, the JMO is extremely collaborative with everybody being invited to contribute their individuality and experience to the music and in terms of the day to day running of the organisation we are also democratically run by a committee made up of members of the band, but I have been responsible for the artistic direction of the band since we started, with great support and suggestions other band members. We have had a couple of incredible musicians (and still great friends) drop off over the years because they didn’t like the artistic direction I had chosen, and this will inevitably happen with a band made up of musicians whom most of have strong ideas about how they want their music to sound. Leading the Mothership has been a balancing act, being mindful of practicalities and artistic purity, but with 18 bandleaders in one room… sometimes, someone just needs to make a decision, and that has fallen to me.

J-P: What is it about Chris Potter’s compositions or musicianship that’s inspired you to invite him to collaborate with JMO?

In August last year we recorded a CD called Walkabout (due for release on NZ label rattle this winter), with Alex Sipiagin & Bob Sheppard with music by Dave Lisik, an extremely interesting Canadian composer, now resident in Wellington. Both Alex and Dave independently turned me onto Chris’s big band writing and I was blown away!!! Chris has a phenomenal reputation as one of the most highly regarded saxophonists in the history of our music as an improvisor, but it was news to me that he could also compose and arrange for large ensemble. I immediately checked out the CD Transatlantic with the Danish Radio Big Band, and was impressed by how non-traditional Chris’ writing was. I have always been drawn towards lesser known, or emerging composers, whose music embraces something different from the traditional, and Chris’ writing seemed to explore that rare space between small group and large group that Big Bands are always trying to find. Plus, with all due to respect to one of my favourite jazz orchestras in the world, the DR Big Band, I felt that we would approach the construction of the music in an entirely different way (not necessarily better) and it’s this challenge that inspired me to invite Chris to collaborate with us.

J-P: How do you prepare for a collaboration such as this, where the composer lives on the other side of the world and you’ll have limited rehearsal time and face-to-face contact?

DT: The preparation is a touch boring really. The composer sends me the charts, I send them to the band, the band does their individual homework and learns the dots and then we get together for preliminary rehearsals and sectionals a week or so before we meet the artist. We talk about how to make things sound like the JMO, and in the case of new compositions that haven’t been recorded before by other jazz orchestras, we generally try a couple of different things for the guest to decide on when we meet them. I generally have a long list of questions for the guest, that sometimes get cleared up before they arrive, but often get dealt with when we meet the guest for a minimum of two rehearsals. The guys are great, they always work really hard on learning their parts before the guest arrives, and this makes it possible in such a short period of time.
European radio orchestras such as WDR, NDR, Brussels, DR Big Band usually have a solid week of paid rehearsals with the guest before concert on the Friday / Saturday night.

J-P: What can the audience expect from the concert?

DT: I think the audience can expect a little bit of everything. We have two extended compositions from Andy Fiddes and Dave Panichi (trombone) that feature Chris, as well Mr Potter’s repertoire from Transatlantic. One thing we always try to explore is the full dynamic range of the orchestra. Lots of people of surprised at how quiet (and loud) a big band can play, but it is going to be exciting either way. The band is dying to play with Chris in June.

Chris Potter / JMO Tour dates

June 2 – Melbourne International Jazz Festival (The Forum)
Saturday 2 June, 8:30pm – 10:50pm (Doors from 8pm)
A reserve: $55 / $48 conc

June 4 – Sydney (Blue Beat Bar & Grill. 16 Cross St, Double Bay)
Support Set by Kristin Berardi and WAYJO (Western Australian Youth Jazz Orchestra)
$45 table seating / $35 general admission / $25 student concession & JGA Members
BOOKINGS: MOSHTIX 1300 438 849 or call venue directly on (02) 9328 4411

June 5 – Illawarra Performing Arts Centre (IMB Theatre, Burrell St, Wollongong)
2 x sets of Chris Potter and JMO
$35 / $30 / $25 BOOKINGS (02) 4224 5999

Chris Potter / JMO Personnel

Chris Potter: Saxophone, Composer & Arranger

Saxes: David Theak, Murray Jackson, Richard Maegraith, Matt Keegan & James Loughnan

Trumpets: Darryl Carthew, Andy Fiddes, Simon Ferenci & Phil Slater

Bones: Jeremy Borthwick, Dave Panichi, Danny Carmichael & Justin Kearin

Rhythm Section: Carl Morgan (Guitar), Hugh Barrett (piano), Brendan Clarke (bass) & Jamie Cameron (drums)