This Month the Brussels Jazz Orchestra will celebrate their 25th anniversary with a series of special concerts in Belgium, the Netherlands and a unique performance in Vienna’s renowned hall of culture the Wiener Konzerthaus. The concerts will feature guest conductor Maria Schneider who will conduct a program of her compositions and arrangements specially selected for the project.
Europe has one of the best Big Band scenes in the world with professional ensembles resident in almost all EU member states. While many of these ensembles stem from state-subsidised broadcast organisations such as the WDR Big Band in Germany, The Danish Radio Big Band and the famous Dutch ensemble the Metropol Orchestra there are exceptions and the Brussels Big Band falls into this category. In 1993 the Brussels Jazz Orchestra was founded by Frank Vaganée, Serge Plume, Marc Godfroid and Bo van der Werf. Over the years the band has grown into one of Europe’s leading large jazz ensembles with a reputation that reaches well beyond its home borders. This is evidenced by the numerous awards including two Grammy Award nominations for the album “Wild Beauty’ featuring Joe Lovano, an Edison Award in the category “Vocal Jazz” for the album “BREL” with David Linx and in 2011-2012 a Golden Globe, BAFTA, César and Academy Award for soundtrack “The Artist.”
The band has toured and recorded extensively throughout its existence with major festival and concert hall performances in Europe and abroad. In 2015, the band notched up a major milestone with a residency at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center. These performances were indeed noticeable in the fact that although they have performed many times on US soil, the Lincoln Center performances were the first performances in the US without the addition of an American soloist!
As far as their discography is concerned the band has to date produced 12 CDs with a number of these recordings featuring guest soloists including David Linx, Joe Lovano, Bert Joris and Enrico Pieranunzi.
With the above, it’s clear that the band sports an impressive CV. However it can’t be overlooked that in an industry known for its volatility, maintaining a professional big band for 25 years is a major achievement in itself. I asked artistic director and co-founder of the orchestra Frank Vaganée what he believed was the secret to the band’s continuity. Frank replied “that from the very beginnings of the band every musician was focused on the music, and the atmosphere in the orchestra was one of a highly creative and ambitious nature, in mutual respect and friendship. We kept this basis alive over the years by playing interesting and challenging music, while at the same time being aware of the stylistic qualities of each individual player by letting them shine whenever needed.”
He went on to say about the band. “We’re always looking for a well-balanced workload by playing on average 30 concerts each year.” “This has been largely facilitated by an ambitious business model guided by our general manager Koen Maes (who’s been with us since 2000) and his team.”
Throughout its history, the Brussels Jazz Orchestra has worked with many international guest soloists and conductors including Kenny Werner, Toots Thielemans, Dave Liebman, Bill Holman, Bob Mintzer, Norma Winstone, Kenny Wheeler and Philip Catherine and this is just the tip of the iceberg. One of the first international guest conductors to lead the band was US based Composer and conductor Maria Schneider. Following this initial series Maria has returned a number of times and with this in mind, it’s clear that Maria was a logical choice to join the band for their 25th anniversary.
Frank commented “The first time we collaborated with Maria, it was an eye opener for the band. The band learned so much from her in terms of musicality, and the way to use a big band sound wisely. In addition, the way she led the band during rehearsals and concerts was completely new for us. Playing her music is more than just big band, it’s beyond that specific world. She uses that orchestral setup but creates another world.”
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Maria about the project and in particular what keeps her coming back to the Brussels Jazz Orchestra. “Well, I just love working with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra, there no doubt one of the finest Big Bands in Europe. They have great soloists, a wonderful ensemble sound and most of all there are passionate about what they do,” said Maria. She went on to say that working with the band has always “been an artistic and fulfilling artist experience.”
I went on to ask Maria about the repertoire choice for the series. “Well, we went over a whole list of options and together we decided to do mostly repertoire from my last album with the exception of one or two older pieces. I haven’t played this music as yet in Europe and it’s also music that I’ve not done with this band before. We wanted to pick pieces that were good for the orchestra and also at the same time getting a good balance to feature the soloists as well. You Know, when putting together a big band program it’s a bit like a rubrics cube, that features everybody, what’s new for the audience and what fits together well.”
As the discussion progressed Maria spoke of a number of her current projects. This provoked the question as to whether or not she felt the experience of conducting a project as a guest conductor felt different artistically than working with her own orchestra. Maria replied that the answer was a “yes and no”, she went on to say that the material she will perform with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra has been played and recorded with her own ensemble, and therefore she knows what’s coming. With the Brussels Jazz Orchestra, it’s new and this always brings a new dynamic. “It’s always fun to bring it alive with another group that’s a little more on the edge when they play the music because it’s new. It often adds a new aspect to the music, every group brings something new, a different rhythm section changes everything, different soloists, different band culture – it all adds to the artistic experience.”
All in all the 25th anniversary project from the Brussels Jazz Orchestra is shaping up to be something European Big Band fans should not miss.
Concert dates are listed below.
10 Oct – Flagey, Brussels (8:15 pm)
12 Oct – de Singel, Antwerp (8:00 pm)
13 Oct – De Doelen, Rotterdam (8:15 pm)
14 Oct – Tivoli Vredenburg, Utrecht (4:00pm)
15 Oct – Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna (7:30 pm)
More information on this project can be found at the Brussels Jazz Orchestra website.
Last modified: April 25, 2020