The big band tradition is alive and well and living in Berwyn, judging by the proceedings Wednesday night at FitzGeralds's.
Though the eclectic club long has thrived as a presenter of everything from blues to funk to bluegrass, FitzGerald's also has become a bastion for large-ensemble jazz. On most Wednesday and Saturday nights, some of the top big bands in the Chicago area play the Berwyn club, with large audiences cheering them on.
Wednesday night's show was notable because Rob Parton's JazzTech Big Band, an unusually hard-hitting group, had brought in a guest soloist: noted trombonist John Fedchock. To hear an instrumentalist as accomplished as Fedchock teaming with a large band as technically and stylistically adept as Parton's JazzTech was to revel anew in the glories of the big band tradition.
Fedchock, a veteran of swing bands led by Woody Herman, is more than just a proficient soloist well-versed in big band idioms. The extroverted nature of his scores, the brisk interplay between his solo passages and his orchestral accompaniments and the radiant quality of his brasschoir writing amount to an unabashed celebration of the large-band format.
Smaller groups may have taken over the jazz scene in the '40s and '50s, but shows such as the Fedchock-Parton collaboration remind listeners that nothing can match the harmonic complexity, rhythmic drive and expressive range of a big band at full cry.
Though big band soloists often prefer demure orchestral accompaniments (the better to display the star's virtuosity), Fedchock took quite the opposite approach: He played his most effective solos when the supporting band was pushing him the hardest.
His arrangements of "Caravan," for instance, asked the band's horns to roar at the fortissimo level for long stretches of time. Yet Fedchock's solos cut right through the orchestral texture, even though he didn't have to overplay or over-project to be heard.
Rather, it was the penetrating quality of his tone, the fleetness of his improvised solos and the ingenuity with which he negotiated the orchestral passages that kept Fedchock ever in the forefront.
Even in a ballad such as Thelonious Monk's "Ruby, My Dear," Fedchock (doubling as soloist and conductor) urged the JazzTech band to indulge in a big and bluesy sound and a screaming approach to climaxes.
Somehow, though, Fedchock rode this tidal wave of sound without getting drowned out by it.
As for Parton's JazzTech Big Band, its opening numbers (performed without Fedchock) suggested that the ensemble playing was a shade less precise than on previous occasions. After a few more pieces, however, the band was back on track, articulating scores with the precision and accuracy of old.
If Kermit the Frog thinks it isn't easy bein' green, he should try leading a contemporary big band. In spite of what one may have heard or read, the big bands aren't dead -- yet -- but directing one of them nowadays is the sort of thankless task that makes selling air conditioners north of the Artic Circle look like a brilliant career move. There are a surprisingly large number of bands (a dozen or more) making lovely music in the Chicago area but only a few have a place they can call home. And none can be considered successful if one measures success in terms of dollars and cents. This is the first in a series of articles in which we will introduce you to these largely unsung groups that are carrying forward the proud tradition of big-band jazz Chicago-style.
It's Wednesday afternoon and trumpeter Rob Parton, the leader of the Jazztech Big Band, is on the phone calling piano players. The band is playing that night, and for a long while it looks as though they'll be doing so without anyone seated at the all-important keyboard. "The guys [in the band] are responsible for finding someone to sub for them if they're unable to play," Parton says later. "But in this case the piano player was fairly new, decided to wait until the last minute to find a replacement, and then couldn't find one."
So Parton made the calls, about 40 of them, using a file he keeps with the names and numbers of almost every competent jazz musician within driving distance of Chicago. "The guy we found was fine; he did a good job," says Parton. "But I wouldn't want to go through that again." "Hey, I'm not complaining," he quickly adds. "I love what I do. That's the only reason I do it. I'm certainly not in it for the money."
Rob Parton has been a player in the big-band game since his high school days in Erlanger, Kentucky. There he first heard Maynard Ferguson and decided that he wanted to play lead trumpet in a big band. Parton studied under Vince Di Martino ("a great teacher and a great trumpet player") at the University of Kentucky. After graduating with a degree in music education, he decided to pursue a master's degree in trumpet performance at Northern Illinois University. "After a couple of months in the Chicago area," he recalls, "I started gigging around, meeting other musicians, meanwhile playing every Thursday night in De Kalb with my own Jazztech band, which was actually an NIU jazz ensemble we put together so we could play our own charts in the clubs."
One of the groups Parton hooked up with was the Bob Stone Big Band. "I played with Bob for about two years," he says. " We worked hard adn could do more challenging material than your average rehearsal band. When I found out that Bob was moving to Florida, I thought, 'Wow! I could put my own band back together using the nucleus of his band as a starting point.'" When Stone left, his ensemble became Rob Parton's Jazztech Big Band. They began playing on Wednesday evenings at the Moosehead Bar and Grill nearly four years ago.
With Parton at the helm and anchoring the trumpet section, the band honed its skills for a number of months before entering a recording studio to produce its first compact disc, the remarkably polished and irresistibly swinging Jazztech big Band, on Sea Breeze Records with special guest, trumpeter Conte Candoli. The band's second disc for Sea Breeze, The Count Is In, was released in September.
"The band has pretty much evolved into what I've always wanted it to be -- a band with the finest musicians in the area, as tight as or tighter than any road band. We know we can't be perfect -- there's gonna be a mistake here and there -- but we want to always be swinging and to keep the number of 'clams' (sour notes) to minimum. We've gotten some good jobs because of how well the band plays together.quot;
The band's precision is all the more impressive when one realizes that rehearsal is all but impossible. "We're mostly sight-reading," Parton says. "We did manage to rehearse a couple of times before going into the studio to record [the first disc]."
One of his goals, Parton says, "was to have a band that's two or three [players] deep, and I think we've gotten to that point now. We can have a sub come in and you don't know there's a sub there. When you're in the music business, that's a good position to be in."
Another goal, Parton adds, is to "promote Chicago-area arrangers and composers. That's why our CDs have leaned heavily on charts by Chicagoans, mainly (trombonist) Jimmy Martin." (Martin's composition, "Main Street News," is one of the highlights of the band's first recording.) "In this way," he says, "we can develop our own 'sound' instead of playing, say, all Count Basie charts, although we have nothing against Basie or any of the other well-known bands. We can play in a number of different styles, but we like to play compositions that reflect our Chicago roots."
Many of Parton's sidemen play in other bands as well. "I have no problem with that," he says. "I play in other groups too. The music isn't competitive; it's not sports. For $25 a night [union scale for a big-band gig], it doesn't make much sense to say, 'You're my man; you can't play anywhere else.' If I were paying someone a big salary, say $800 a week, it might be different. But no one can really make a living doing this. We do it because we love the music."
Parton says he has at least 800 charts in his library at home. "We have about 200 charts in the book at any one time, but I'm always taking 10 or 15 out and replacing them with 10 or 15 others."
The time-consuming work of leading a big band -- undertaken in addition to Parton's full-time position as coordinator of jazz studies at Chicago State University and the many freelance gigs he must take "to pay the bills" -- requires a good deal of patience and understanding from his wife of eight years, Tami, and the couple's four-year-old son, Joey. "Well, thank goodness she loves jazz too," Rob says.
The band suffered a setback when the Moosehead recently decided to go in another direction musically and severed their longtime association. "I've been busy trying to find another place for us to play regularly," Parton says. The band is now appearing once a month at Fitzgerald's in Berwyn.
After recording a third disc for Sea Breeze, Parton would like to take the band to Europe, "to tour the festivals there" and to appear here at home in the Chicago Jazz Festival, "a longtime dream of ours."
Let us cross our fingers tightly and wish that these ambitions are realized, for the Jazztech Big Band is one of Chicago's treasures.