Jazz Orchestra has emerged, since its formation in 2011, as one of the brightest lights on the Los Angeles jazz scene. Last year, Chan gathered a group of topnotch studio and jazz players—19 pieces in all, plus guest trumpeter Wayne Bergeron—and produced a two-day session. First to be released, in the fall of 2013, was the EP Rancho Calaveras. Next month, on July 15, the orchestra’s debut CD Shrimp Tale is due for release on Chan’s imprint, Crown Heights Audio Network.
“The way I write, I want to tell a story in every composition,” says Chan, 36, a classically trained pianist born and raised in Hong Kong. “My pieces tend to be open-ended. I go into different scenarios. They can read rough, jumping from one place to another, breaking grooves, but I like that kind of phrasing because in a way that’s almost like talking, the way we phrase and rephrase things.”
Most of his big band compositions reflect the modern world in affecting ways and, without explicitly incorporating ethnic forms, capture important aspects of the Asian-American experience.
“Compositions that unfold and morph, challenging structures, inventive voicings and ever-changing orchestral colors set this group apart. Chan has given Los Angeles a jazz big band with an utterly unique tonal personality,” wrote Kirk Silsbee in a Down Beat feature published earlier this year.
When Chan was growing up in Hong Kong, the country was still under British rule. Chinese music was marginalized there, and little jazz was available, so he was exposed mainly to classical and Chinese folk music. Even when he later immersed himself in jazz studies, he says, he never lost his connection to traditional Asian forms.
Chan went on to study jazz arranging with Gary Lindsay as an undergraduate at the University of Miami in the late ’90s (a time and place he nostalgically recalls on “Shrimp Tale”), but he never thought he’d lead a big band. As a doctoral student at the University of Southern California, he primarily studied classical composition. (He acquired his master’s in composition at the University of Missouri-Kansas City after being part of an exchange program at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna.)
But with the encouragement of two distinguished composer-arrangers at USC, Shelly Berg and Vince Mendoza, he became involved with jazz. And the more he listened to the work of artists including Thad Jones, Bob Mintzer, Uri Caine, Hermeto Pascoal, and the recently deceased Fred Ho, he says, “the more attractive jazz’s harmonic language became to me. It felt like a bold new world.”
In 2008, Chan became a member of the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop in New York City. Under the guidance of director Jim McNeely, he made significant advances as a composer and arranger, incorporating classical elements into the background of some of his pieces. That the musicians he worked with were so adept at performing his compositions from scratch gave him a major boost.
After receiving commissions from around the world and having his charts performed by such ensembles as the Brussels Jazz Orchestra, Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge, and the Millennium Jazz Orchestra of the Netherlands, Chan formed his Jazz Orchestra in 2011—the year he won the Dutch ArtEZ Jazz Composition Contest. He was also a finalist in last year’s Brussels Jazz Orchestra Composition Contest.
The Alan Chan Jazz Orchestra will be performing two CD release shows this summer, one on each coast. Their appearance at Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood is set for Tuesday 7/1 at 8:30 pm. A month later, Alan will debut his East Coast band at ShapeShifter Lab in Brooklyn, Monday 8/4 at 7:30 pm. Much of the new CD’s material was composed nearby in his studio in Gowanus. He’s especially excited to be performing this music in his beloved old Brooklyn neighborhood.