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Down to Brass Tacks

For 30 years, Rob McConnell has minded the details as boss of his 21-piece band: playing, arranging and--when there's time--writing.

September 05, 1998|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This year marks the 30th anniversary of trombonist Rob McConnell's Boss Brass, the powerhouse big band known for its smart arranging and sterling play.

"But I guess it was 32 years ago when the idea first came," Grammy-winner McConnell explained in a recent phone call from his home outside Toronto.

McConnell headlines Sunday when the West Coast Jazz Party concludes its three-night stay at the Irvine Marriott.

As the band leader states in liner notes to his latest album, "Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass Play the Jazz Classics," the group came together in 1968. But the inspiration for its formation came two years earlier, when McConnell heard the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra in New York.

Between 1966 and 1978, trumpeter Jones and drummer Lewis led a big band whose recordings and Monday-night sessions at New York's Village Vanguard were legendary. The group served as a vehicle for Jones' skills as a writer, much as the Boss Brass has served McConnell.

"I saw [the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra] within the first six months after they started playing," McConnell, 63, recalls.

"I love the things Thad wrote for that big band. He had a huge influence on all arrangers of the day. . . . I remember coming back from Toronto after seeing them [in 1966] and thinking, 'I can do that.' "

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The talents McConnell admired in Jones are some of the same now attributed to the trombonist. "Thad had the answer to the art-versus-fun question down. He had a musical sense of time and swing and joy in addition to his creativeness. . . .

"He was a wonderful musician, a wonderful emcee; he was universally loved by those who worked for him. Very few leaders, maybe only Duke Ellington, had all those skills."

In 1968, McConnell's organization was a brass-only band. But in 1971, the trombonist added a saxophone section. Covering pop tunes and standards, the 21-piece orchestra became know for its big sound and tasteful sonority, an effect achieved by front-and-center trumpets, trombones and French horns.

Much of the group, which features a host of veteran Canadians including saxophonist Moe Koffman and guitarist Ed Bickert, have been with him for decades, some for the entire 30 years.

The Boss Brass' latest album includes Jones' "A Child Is Born" as well as Dave Brubeck's "The Duke," Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" and Neal Hefti's "Li'l Darlin' ", all arranged by McConnell for the 21-piece ensemble with his usual ear for tonal and dynamic variations.

"I've always enjoyed the great arrangers and have been influenced by all of them," McConnell says, "but when I sit down to write, I don't think of any of them. I just think of the job at hand. I just think of the music."

Though he acknowledges that working and traveling with a big band have cut into his time for writing, he says he feels encouraged about the state of the art. On a recent trip to New York, he reported enthusiastically, he heard the big band led by arranger and fellow trombonist Don Sebesky at the new Birdland.

"The club has a strong big-band policy, and Toshiko Akiyoshi's orchestra is playing there regularly. There are some great writers and bandleaders working now. I love Don's band. Bill Holman and Bob Florence in Los Angeles have great bands and are finally getting some attention with their recordings. Maria Schneider has a good band."

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In addition to his reputation as an arranger, McConnell is known for his mastery of an unusual instrument, the valve trombone. Rather than using a slide to change pitch, the shorter version of a trombone has valves like a trumpet. Playing the instrument sets him apart from most trombonists, but he doesn't advertise its rarity.

"The valve trombone is not and probably should not be a popular instrument. I've always considered myself a trombone player who happens to play valve trombone. . . . It confuses people who don't know the difference. I can get into clinics with the milkman explaining what it is."

When he adds his valve trombone to a jam session tonight in Irvine, he'll be working with familiar musicians from all over.

McConnell lived in Los Angeles in 1988-89. As a guest instructor at the Grove School of Music in the San Fernando Valley, he played the occasional club and a studio date. His band for Sunday's gig, a West Coast version of the Brass, will include saxophonists Pete Christlieb and Lanny Morgan, trumpeter Sal Lozano, pianist Terry Trotter and drummer Joe LaBarbera.

McConnell, who spends most of his mornings composing, has focused this year on a 10-piece band, cutting by half the writing and copying and the expenses of transporting and accommodating.

"It's the lean-and-mean '90s version band," he says. "It's different than the Brass; I don't write down every comma and semicolon for the players. There's a lot of improvising every time we play."

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