Sometimes, less isn’t more.
When Frank London fronted an Italian big band in Bari, Italy, for a recent Holocaust remembrance concert, the experience of preparing for that date inspired him so much that he has put together a big band of his own. That very large aggregation will play Monday nights at the Stone in February, beginning on the 4th with the group’s world premiere.
But that was merely the opener to a week of all-Frank-London-all-the-time. The following night, he kicked off a new klezmer series at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue with another one of his bands, the Klezmer Brass All-Stars; the night after that, London performed at Symphony Space with Lorin Sklamberg and Rob Schwimmer as the Zmiros Project.
The Shekhinah Big Band, to give it its proper name, is something new, born out of a somewhat unlikely set of circumstances.
“Italy has a day of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust in late January every year,” London explains. “For their celebration of that holiday they had the idea of hiring me to play as soloist with the Jazz Studio Orchestra, a big band down in Bari. They saw it a living jazz memorial to the ‘day of memory,’ as they call it, which is kind of a lovely idea. For that concert I prepared that big band program. But there wasn’t much time, so I took all my original jazz-klezmer compositions and had a dozen of my colleagues and friends arrange one piece each for big band. It turned out to be a good idea because everyone put their stamp on it, everyone had their game face on.”
But these new charts had to be road-tested.
“Before I went out there I wanted to hear how it sounded and so we put together a rehearsal with a bunch of musicians,” London continues. “It was so exciting, I called up [John] Zorn, and said, ‘We gotta do something here.’ That led to the big band residency at The Stone.”
The Shekhinah is a big, big band, with 21 players including London. But the leader dismisses the idea that there is something unusual about the group’s size.
“It’s essentially a classic big band,” he says. “We really only added three more musicians, with a percussionist and a five-piece trumpet section plus me.”
That’s what the band in Bari has.
“So we wrote everything for six trumpets and the percussionist,” London says. “The extra trumpet part is a little redundant, but the charts are written that way. The percussionist accentuates the Latin side of things.”
That makes the band a perfect New York musical experience, combining jazz with klezmer and other Jewish sounds, and Latin rhythms. Putting the entire blend together to perform at a John Zorn-run venue makes perfect sense too, because the personnel list sounds like a studio band assembled from the Tzadik Records label. Besides London himself, there are familiar downtowners like trombonists Jacob Garchik and Curtis Hasselbring, trumpeters Pam Fleming and Rob Henke, saxophonists Greg Wall, Matt Darriau and Marty Ehrlich, and guitarist Yoshie Fruchter.
Is Tzadik becoming the Blue Note Records of the new millennium, a creative gathering place for a core of musicians who can be counted on for a gig at a moment’s notice?
“It’s like Blue Note in a lot of ways,” London says. “There’s a common aesthetic, people know what the sound is. They know what they’re going to be asked to play. But this was true in New York fifty years ago in a different way. You had these Latin-Jewish big band records and projects like [vibes player] Terry Gibbs’s double quartet, which was four jazz players and four guys who played Jewish music. There were guys like Ray Musiker who knew jazz and Latin but played with Jewish wedding bands. That kind of coexistence has been in New York for quite a while. You play Latin gigs and Jewish gigs and jazz gigs. It is what it is. This is not a new story.”
London’s Zmiros Project is not a new story either, although, like the cross-cultural musical stews that had their birth in Central Europe, the material harkens back to an earlier century and distant lands. It would be hard to imagine a more extreme transition for a soloist than playing in a 21-piece band one night, a ten-piece brass ensemble the next and a trio with no rhythm section the third.
“The nice part about the trio is there’s a lot more space to play in,” London says. “You know your role. Lorin’s got the beautiful voice, my job is to support it, comment on it, something between being a sycophant and a trickster. As for Rob, Wynton Kelly or Red Garland once said that playing piano for Miles Davis, the job was ‘to make Miles’ wrong notes sound right,’ and that’s Rob’s job, to clean up after me.”
All joking aside, one might think that London would be a bit concerned about wear and tear, but he waves that aside.
“I was blessed to have some really, really good teachers and when I’m in situations like this I try to go back to their lessons,” he explains. “They taught me how to play the trumpet and having the mechanical thing to fall back on is invaluable. In Italy I kept trying to tell the trumpet section, through a translator, you don’t have to play it up in the [higher] octave in the rehearsals. The concert comes and I see them falling apart. I ended up playing the lead parts on the last couple of songs.”
That won’t happen at the Stone.
“I’m the worst [lead player] of the six,” London says with a burst of laughter. “And that’s the way I like.”
Frank London’s Shekhinah Big Band had its world premiere engagement on Monday, Feb. 4 at The Stone (East Second Street and Avenue C) at 8 p.m. The band will play there every Monday night in February. For more information go to www.thestonenyc.com.