in performance: birdland big band

tommy igoe. photo by rob shanhan.

“Welcome to Birdland,” said Tommy Igoe, leader, drummer and very vocal frontman of the Birdland Big Band last night at the Singletary Center for the Arts. But Igoe also offered an almost immediate disclaimer that “we know exactly where we are,” referencing the fact that his immensely popular New York ensemble is currently in the midst of its first tour away from home. But there was likely a deeper meaning to the remark. “Where we are” could also be read as a mission statement underscoring the fact that the band prides itself on a somewhat contemporary repertoire, even though it is named for the New York club (where the band maintains a weekly residency) that is a descendent of a jazz epicenter from the 1950s and early ‘60s.

The execution of this game plan proved quite fearsome. The band played with near flawless cohesion, abundant energy and a sense of intuition that honored not only the arrangements its musicians worked from but the rich compositional sense that was at the heart of the tunes. Fine examples included Chick Corea’s Armando’s Rhumba, which magnified not only the composer’s piano/violin design but also the Argentine hand clapping that ran through last night’s version (both literally as well as through Igoe’s percussive chatter) as though it was the ensemble’s native tongue. Just as commanding was the Mike and Lani Stern ballad Common Ground, which established a gorgeous ensemble stride under an equally lyrical alto sax lead from Nathan Childers, and the cheerfully complete big band re-imagining of Josef Zawinul’s fusion staple Birdland.

The only drawback to the performance was its odd, self-congratulatory air. Igoe devoted extended passages between tunes extolling the band’s popularity, power and intent in tones that bordered on rock star bravado. There’s nothing wrong with figuratively blowing your own horn now and then. But for a band that clearly has the musical goods to stand on its own, the constant sales pitches from the bandstand seemed amateurish, distancing and wildly unnecessary.

Even in the Birdland of today, artists that perform let the music do the talking. That’s one element of tradition Igoe might want to retain.

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