Stompin' at Balboa

Phoenix Jazz Orchestra launches its assault on Tempe after only one rehearsal

As a kid, I went through a very brief infatuation with the clarinet after watching The Benny Goodman Story on TV with my dad. All these years later, it's as clear to me as the horn-rims on Steve Allen's ugly mug that this film was a ludicrously romanticized bio-pic typical of its era, an era which saw white bandleaders get way too much credit for popularizing the ideas of people like Count Basie and Duke Ellington. I mean, are we actually supposed to believe that Eubie Blake's "Memories of You" was composed by Benny as a way of telling his girlfriend that she brought a tingle to his reed?

Such misgivings aside, there's one scene from this piece of tripe that's always stayed with me: Benny and the boys are throwing down on the bandstand when the entire audience gradually stops dancing and begins to stare at the orchestra. Benny gets nervous, sure that something must be wrong, but at the end of the song the crowd erupts with the most thunderous applause the band has ever heard.

I thought of this scene last Tuesday at Balboa Cafe, while watching the wonderful new Phoenix Jazz Orchestra. I thought of that scene, because in its own hokey way, it offered a reminder that in its heyday, swing music wasn't simply dance music. It was also concert music. Swing might have been the most popular dance music America has ever produced, but even if you never left your seat, you could come away from an Ellington show feeling that you'd been transported to a better place.

It's a lesson that's been lost amidst the hype of the current swing revival, which is about pinstripe suits and dancing at all costs, with little regard for musical content. Forget for a second that the neo-swing boom shows no apparent understanding of the differences between the early big bands (which is what "swing" always referred to), the late '40s jump-blues groups and '50s rockabilly. As long as you can fit a rock step in there somewhere, it doesn't matter if the horns are synthesized and the stand-up bass has been replaced by an electric, particularly if every verse is punctuated by a chant of "Go Daddy-O."

With the Phoenix Jazz Orchestra (initially known as the East Valley Big Band), this kind of thinking is thankfully turned upside down. Even if you wanted to dance to this band, you'd be hard-pressed to find room at Balboa, a small room made smaller with nearly half of the 17-piece group overflowing into the audience. But dancing's hardly the point. Sure, this band swings like a bruised pinata, but it also brings to the table a precision and virtuosity that rivals such prototypes as the big bands of Buddy Rich and Woody Herman.

In fact, their precision is so impressive that it's a bit jolting to learn that they've just been together for a few weeks, and they've only played together three times--one short rehearsal and two gigs. The band came together over some idle conversation one night between drummer John Neish and trumpeter Joe Herrera. Neish, a veteran of such free-form jazz groups as Lookout for Hope, had grown up besotted with big bands, but had never had a chance to play some of his favorite tunes from that repertoire.

"John and I were hanging out and he said, 'We should get together a big band,'" says Herrera, a 21-year-old trumpeter who moved to Phoenix three years ago from Yuma. "It seemed like one of those ideas that sounds cool, but never happens. But he gave me a couple of names; we came up with a tentative list; and I started calling musicians. Next thing you know, I called him up and said, 'I've got a band.' He was surprised."

The band that Herrera and Neish pieced together consists of many of the Valley's finest jazz players, including the brilliant trumpeter Wes Marshall and tenor sax powerhouse Bryon Ruth, who has played with Neish in Lookout for Hope. Herrera--who also plays in ASU's big band, the salsa-flavored Pan-Am Orchestra and his own small jazz combos--remains amazed that everyone he asked was so amenable to joining the project.

"I was really fortunate to have the caliber of musicians I have," he says. "Some of the cats in the band have been playing in Phoenix for years, before I was a twinkle in my mother's eye. It's really good that everyone came together considering that we're not getting any money for the gig. It's all for the sake of the music."

The band's sound is traditional but never reeks of nostalgia. Herrera is determined to push the band into what he considers a modern direction, following the example of band leaders like Bob Florence. In fact, one of the joys of the Balboa gigs is the way the band is able to sneak in odd, dissonant harmonics and make it sound unfailingly sonorous.

In a sense, the group is really a homage to the Valley Big Band, an ensemble led by ASU prof Grant Wolf from the mid-'70s to the early '80s. That band held court at the original Chuy's on Mill Avenue. "They were doing basically the same thing we're doing," Neish says. "They were a big band playing tunes on their off nights."

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