Rob McConnell, a revered Canadian bandleader, valve trombonist, arranger and composer whose swinging versions of standards raised him to near cult status among his many global fans, died May 1st in Toronto. He was 75.
In an age when many big bands are viewed today as uneven relics, McConnell's crisp arrangements and straight-shooter stage presence helped him build a significant following. Part of McConnell's success was his ability to stand still and deliver what fans wanted. By clinging to a brass-centric sound made famous in the 1960s, the McConnell band was able to wait out the demise of its competition.
McConnell's arranging style was always deceptive. To the uninitiated, his renditions of Tin Pan Alley tunes and jazz standards often were misconstrued as Canadian Pops." But to the careful listener, McConnell's music revealed intricate and sophisticated patterns and passages--all wrapped in a swinging tempo. Deep down, McConnell remained a life-long fan of the dance band--the type that was popular on college campuses in the very late 1950s.
McConnell's stylistic approach was a blending of several major influences. In a typical McConnell arrangement, one hears the powdery elegance of Claude Thornhill, the brassy bickering of Gil Evans and the sectional swagger of Stan Kenton. There also is a dash of Les and Larry Elgart, whose bands also specialized in straightforward but smartly arranged versions of well-known tunes.
But the essence of McConnell's orchestral sound also owe a debt to the flamboyance of Maynard Ferguson's early 1960s bands and the finger-snapping arranging style of Sammy Nestico in the 1970s. In McConnell's hands, a song was sure to receive a clearly articulated interpretation, with an emphasis on the brass section.
Unlike many Canadian musicians, McConnell remained in Canada, even after a recording opportunity in New York with Maynard Ferguson in 1964. His decision not to relocate to Hollywood or New York was always remembered and admired by Canadians, who for years watched their nation's most talented artists leave for fame-building and moneymaking opportunities in the U.S.
McConnell grew up in London, and played with several Canadian bands before forming the Boss Brass in 1968. At first, the band did not feature saxophones, preferring instead to emphasize the power and excitement of the trumpet and trombone sections. But by 1971, the need for reeds as a sound softener was apparent, and McConnell added a sax section. In 1976, McConnell's band included 22 musicians.
For the next 34 years, McConnell's band turned out a steady lineup of big band albums, receiving a Grammy Award in 1984 for All in Good Time. The band also toured extensively, particularly in Canada, where it often was regaled by more fans than there were seats. Back in late 2008, several JazzWax readers sent me emails hoping I could tell them how to get tickets to a sold-out Boss Brass appearance in Toronto sponsored by JazzFM.91.
I couldn't. Even the VIP seats were long gone.
JazzWax tracks: One of Rob McConnell's finest albums is Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass Play the Jazz Standards. You'll find it at iTunes or here. Or check out So Very Rob: Boss Brass Revisited at iTunes or here.
You'll also find McConnell on Maynard Ferguson's Color Him Wild (Mainstream), which is at iTunes renamed Dues.
JazzWax clip:Here's the Boss Brass in 1981 at Howard Rumsey's Concerts by the Sea...
I was first exposed to jazz circa 1973, when I met a fellow who ran Kappy's Record Store over near 10th Ave., on 42nd St. in NYC. We really clicked and when I told him I played piano and went to Music & Art HS, and had just started at City College of NY as a music major, he asked if I liked jazz...I said yes but I didn't know much about it, but that I did have sheet music for many popular 1920's through 1940's tunes by noted composers (Porter; Gershwins; Irving Berlin; Rodgers & Hammerstein/Hart; Jerome Kern; Lerner & Loewe; etc.) that my mother had sung beautifully starting in the 1940's including tons of famous show tunes, and I played many of those songs already
I was first exposed to jazz circa 1973, when I met a fellow who ran Kappy's Record Store over near 10th Ave., on 42nd St. in NYC. We really clicked and when I told him I played piano and went to Music & Art HS, and had just started at City College of NY as a music major, he asked if I liked jazz...I said yes but I didn't know much about it, but that I did have sheet music for many popular 1920's through 1940's tunes by noted composers (Porter; Gershwins; Irving Berlin; Rodgers & Hammerstein/Hart; Jerome Kern; Lerner & Loewe; etc.) that my mother had sung beautifully starting in the 1940's including tons of famous show tunes, and I played many of those songs already. SOOOO... he started me off LP's by Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Errol Garner, Bill Evans, Monty Alexander, Charlie Byrd, and Dave Brubeck... does it get any better than that? ...No, it doesn't. I was hooked!!
I met and had a master class with the late music giant John Lewis, leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet! This was at CCNY in 1977. I was blessed! It was an incredible class... how could it have been anything else?!?!
The first jazz record I bought was...I bought numerous records from my friend at the record store, as mentioned above. He introduced me to nothing but music giants/legends! I think The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Greatest Hits, was actually the first one.
My advice to new listeners... study first--understand the rudiments--solfeggio, keys, scales, and basic chords. Read a book or take a class that includes the study of chord progressions, especially in jazz. It should ideally be a piano class so you can play multiple notes together. Have a good EAR or else it's not really worth it in my view...to become a musician, a good EAR for music is about as fundamental as breathing! Learn to read chord charts--i.e., lead sheets - wherein you play various voicings of the chords--major, minor, dominant 7th (alterations of these, you can learn over time - the basic chords are most important for starters), plus the melody, on the piano or keyboard. If you have to read the exact notes, then it's not the same as actually internalizing it & getting it all into your head. If you can do this, I think you're ready not only for listening to jazz, but understanding many concepts of it! Of course...anyone can listen to jazz... but I think it's so good to also have a grasp of it.