Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

January/February 2015: big dig! band

Rob McConnell (1935–2010): Our 25th Year

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Rob McConnell is one of the larger-than-life figures in Canadian jazz. He’s crusty, comical, and a musical triple threat, for he is an exceedingly gifted valve trombonist, arranger, and composer.

For most of his professional life he has lived in Toronto, with the exception of a brief time in Los Angeles in the late 1980s. He’s been a member of Maynard Ferguson’s band and Phil Nimmons’s ‘N’ Nine Plus Six, where he was mentored by the clarinettist himself. As a leader, he’s formed various sizes of big bands, from the tentet all the way down to the trios and duos he’s fronted with bassist Neil Swainson, guitarist Ed Bickert, and multi-instrumentalist Don Thompson. He’s been nominated for a Grammy seventeen times, winning three, had multiple Juno nominations and wins, and in 1997, he was inducted into the Juno Jazz Hall of Fame. McConnell’s most defining musical moments are the work he did with the largest big band he fronted, the Boss Brass, a group he formed in 1968 and disbanded in the late nineties.

Although the Boss Brass was only ever a part-time effort, over the years it was in existence, the band was his main vehicle for jazz expression and for most of his impact on the international music scene. He turned standards into his personal property, and his compositions are fun and filled with unexpected changes. His writing makes tough demands of the musicians.

Our 25th Year [Concord #4559] was recorded in 1993 and features a twenty-two-piece big band that includes many of Canada’s most accomplished musicians, among them founding Boss Brass members Ed Bickert, Don Thompson, flautist and saxophonist Moe Koffman, flugelhorn player Guido Basso, and drummer Terry Clarke. Together, they nurture McConnell’s lyrical flights.

All of the songs are displays of effortless melody and polished group interplay. “T.O.2” is a swinging song dedicated to Ted O’Reilly, former host of the Jazz Scene on CJRT-FM and close friend of McConnell’s. McConnell’s swinging “Broadway” was inspired by an arrangement Bob Brookmeyer wrote for Gerry Mulligan in the 1960s. The song “4 B.C.” is a tribute to Benny Carter for his eightieth birthday and features both McConnell and saxophonist Rick Wilkins. Wilkins also contributed the arrangement for Bill Evans’s “Imagination,” a standard by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen, featuring Guido Basso on flugelhorn. Basso’s solos are central to the sound of the Boss Brass. “Imagination” delivers Our 25th Year’s exceptional moment of grace. There are lots of dark chords and a melody-rich solo by Don Thompson.

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