By Cameron Hughes
I saw the 16-piece Birdland Big Band last night at their weekly Friday 5:30 gig.
Formed in 2006 by drummer Tommy Igoe, since October 2017 The Birdland Big Band has been led by alto/soprano saxophonist David DeJesus. He brings to the ensemble a more traditional approach with a nod to the blues. This is the enjoyable material you expect and want a big band to play, and The Birdland Big Band handles these charts exceptionally well.
The Birdland Big Band plays it a bit safe. Not too adventurous, not too dynamic, they play an engaging set of songs with great skill. The repertoire is stellar, though the energy is at times subdued. Early Friday gigs might be a bit cursed with players warming up for the evening. But by the set’s closer, Storybook, they were truly firing on all cylinders.
This band is a smooth, tight machine. They play engaging charts with accomplishment, and some of the soloing is truly outstanding. Jason Marshall on baritone saxophone is an example. If you think a large saxophone like the baritone is slow and plodding, Marshall dispels that myth handily. His playing is fierce, quick, dexterous, and exciting; he leaves nothing on the table. If there’s a more engaging baritone player around, I’m not aware of them.
There were many great soloist moments tonight. The musician on the silver tenor sax was outstanding, playing thick and fast with great command and energy. The drumming was especially crisp and perfect. With a small kit, it shows it’s not the instrument but the instrumentalist that matters. Then there was the wonderful soprano sax solo by Nathan Childers during Blues For Capp, soft and whispery like a butterfly-wing. It was a perfect and delicate souffle and a highlight of the evening; a truly memorable moment.
The band paid tribute to Tony Bennett, who’d died earlier in the day. Bennett always identified as a jazz singer despite the pop hits, and recorded some excellent jazz albums during his long career, including some with The Count Basie Orchestra. Other standouts are the two records he recorded with jazz pianist Bill Evans. The Birdland Big Band performed a warm rendition of Bennett’s I Left My Heart In San Francisco during the set. It honored the original tune but added effective and tasty big-band flourishes in the engaging instrumentation.
This is a big band you’ll enjoy seeing. 5:30 might be a bit early to see jazz players at their peak, but you won’t find many large ensembles this good in the city at any time. They’re an easy band to recommend, and the 5:30 set is a great way to kick off any Friday night.
The Birdland Big Band Musicians Include: Glenn Drewes, trumpet; Mark Miller, trombone; Jason Marshall, baritone saxophone; Nathan Childers, alto saxophone; James Borowski, bass trombone; Sara Jacovino, trombone; Brandon Lee, trumpet; Raul Agraz, trumpet; Kenny Ascher, piano; Todd Coolman, upright bass; John Walsh, trumpet; David DeJesus, alto saxophone & leader; and others.
Carmelo’s By The Freeway (Bob Florence)
Greasy Sack Blues (Don Radar)
Willowcrest (Bob Florence)
I Left My Heart In San Francisco (George Cory & Douglass Cross)
Blues For Kapp (Marty Paich)
Big Dipper (Thad Jones)
Water Lilly (Kenny Barron)
Sail Away (Tom Harrell)
Storybook (Mark Miller)
The Birdland Big Band is in residency at Birdland every Friday night at 5:30. In addition, they play two headlining week-long engagements each year. Birdland is at 315 West 44th Street (between 8th & 9th Avenues), New York, NY 10036. (212) 581-3080
Tickets are $20-$30 and are available HERE.