Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Power of Positive Swing: Rob McConnell 1935-2010

As the soaring alto sax solo of P. J. Perry pours over me, I remember Rob McConnell with great affection for his drive to swing and his sense of humour. In the liner notes to the first Tentet album on Justin Time [Just 150-2], McConnell writes of the arrangement "Two Bass Hit," "This chart has evolved into our major saxophone feature (wanker)." McConnell always took life on the lighter side. Alas, the darker side, liver cancer, took his life on May 1, 2010.

Born on Valentine's Day in London, Ontario, Canada during the Great Depression, McConnell took up the valve trombone in high school. Unlike the classic slide instrument, it's an instrument you have to muscle your way through just to stay in tune. The valves allow you to sound just like a trombone without hurting yourself or anybody in front of you. McConnell formed the superlative Boss Brass in 1968, a band that did not feature saxophones for the first two years. McConnell wanted to focus on arrangements in order to create a bold new sound for the late 1960s. It was a time in Canadian music when rock and roll controlled the airwaves and small group jazz was sequestered to clubs with little radio airplay. To form a big band at that time took some artistic and financial courage. But the name caught on and with the help of Ted O'Reilly, one of Canada's best jazz ambassadors, the band became a staple in the national scene, later touring the world with its unique presentation.

McConnell's success was based on his personality: he didn't take himself seriously, only the music. Arranging, one of the most under-recognized art forms in music, was his forte. He worked tirelessly to construct musical arrangements that were accessible, contemporary and not like any other combination of sounds on the Big Band music scene. In 1980, the group recorded a live album from the cramped quarters of the El Mocambo club, a couple of years after Elvis Costello's triumphant debut. The club was small with a tiny stage and low ceiling not exactly conducive to great recordings, but the McConnell wanted the Boss Brass to it in a new format: digital. The album simply known as Live in Digital broke the band around the world. The arrangements and playing truly kicked in a new way offering jazz fans a new, identifiable sound, the sound of Rob McConnell & the Boss Brass.

The Boss Brass lasted 32 years, when McConnell, who felt a change was needed due to the cost and schedule of coordinating an ever-changing line up, created a new, smaller group called the Tentet. Arranging for 22 musicians is one thing, the challenge of arranging for 10 players is quite another matter. The result was the outstanding release of 2000, the one I'm listening to now as I write this essay. On this album, the cascading sounds of the horns supported by one of the best rhythm sections to grace any band anywhere, truly defines McConnell. He pays tribute to his favourite musicians of the past including Gerry Mulligan ("Theme for Jobim"), Jimmy Rowles ("Manha de Carnaval") and Percy Faith ("Maybe September"). The best tune on the album is McConnell's arrangement of "Speak Low" by Kurt Weill. This track defines the McConnell sound in ways that go beyond proper written description.

McConnell always had fun making music and his lightness of being touched everyone who played for him. His arrangements and compositions were about the power of positive swing. Without the Boss Brass, the Canadian jazz scene wouldn't have the internationally recognized names of veterans Ed Bickert, the late Moe Koffman, Guido Basso, Terry Clarke, Don Thompson to the younger generation of Mike Murley, Dave Restivo, Alex Dean, Ted Warren et al. continuing to push musical boundaries with determination and a sense of humour.

-- John Corcelli is an actor, musician, writer, broadcaster and theatre director.

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