Even though maintaining a jazz orchestra these days is about as profitable as running Amtrak, the surplus of great musicians in Los Angeles assures that there will always be local big bands. Away from their more lucrative gigs, good players need to work on challenging material, and good composers and orchestrators such as Gordon Goodwin, John Clayton, Mike Barone and Chris Walden need talented soloists and section players to help inspire their compositional ideas.
In the space of a handful of years, Alan Chan has asserted himself in the airy strata of these practicing masters. And while each of the aforementioned artists is a master with personal sounds, Chan is perhaps the most individual, drawing on elements of both European classical music and the sounds of his Chinese heritage.
The signature sound of the Alan Chan Jazz Orchestra will fill the Baked Potato in Studio City on Sunday. It’s a venue the band has worked at before, but with the recent closing of Santa Monica’s Typhoon restaurant, a home for jazz orchestras for 25 years, the Baked Potato could become an important big band showcase.
Not tied to the 4/4 of Basie or the other swing-oriented bands, Chan’s compositions owe more to Ellington’s palette of orchestral color. It swings emphatically, just in a more recessed way. You won’t hear the well-worn theme/bridge/solo/head format. Chan’s pieces tend to unfold slowly, revealing a subtle array of imaginative horn voicings: a trombonist may find himself playing ensemble passages with a trumpeter or saxophonist, and pianist Andy Langham may cart along a toy piano for special embellishments.
Sly humor and a sense of play are part of Chan’s book, too. He’s a composer with a large vocabulary who doesn’t have to fire all of his guns at once. The piano solo in “René’s Barcarolle” gives way to an intimate interlude, which dissolves into improvised polyphony from the whole band. “Rancho Calaveras,” inspired by Chan’s Altadena home, uses a banjo and a two-beat section that touches both Dixieland and country.
The Alan Chan Jazz Orchestra is stocked with some of the most renowned studio players in town: trumpeters Wayne Bergeron and Rick Baptist, trombonists Andy Martin and Paul Young, saxophonists Alex Budman and Jeff Driskill. In performance, all eyes are glued to the scores. Chan’s unorthodox writing can catch a musician by surprise.
The 36-year-old Chan is a Hong Kong native whose grounding is in European music. He began as a pianist and worked his way through the classical repertory; Mahler was particularly important to him for the use of narrative. At the University of Miami, he heard big bands and was attracted to the way jazz orchestration can tell a story. He found parallels to Chinese folk music in the wide range of big-band dynamics.
At USC, Chan studied jazz and classical composition with Shelly Berg and Vince Mendoza. The work of Thad Jones, who was able to say so much in a short time, caught his ear. For Chan, a jazz orchestra was the one place he could channel all his musical loves — classical, jazz and traditional Chinese music — and where he could most be himself as a writer.
A year ago he took time out of his teaching schedule at El Camino College (where Chet Baker and Brian Wilson studied) and wrote music with a Chinese New Year theme around horses. At the Baked Potato, he’ll unveil some rooster-inspired pieces. Expect music that’s a little louder and a little livelier than the usual Chan fare.
The big news is the inclusion of guest soloist Yazhi Guo, renowned Chinese virtuoso of the suona, a traditional double-reed horn. In Chinese folk music, it can often be used to approximate the sound of birds, and in contemporary classical music it lends itself to fast vibrato and extended techniques.
“I like to mix different elements,” Chan says, speaking by phone from Osaka, Japan, “to create something unexpected.”
Guo studied and later taught at the Central Conservatory of Beijing, before emigrating to study improvisation at Boston University and the Berklee College of Music. He invented and added a flexible core to his suona, which ordinarily has two octaves and a major second. When that sliding core is extended, it adds a half-step to each hole on the instrument.
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“The most attractive thing to me is improvisation," Guo says. "It used to be a major part of Chinese music, but lately, everything is mostly written down. I like to connect to traditional Chinese music through jazz. Alan blends both of them very well.”
Chan acknowledges that putting his "hybrid ideas" into practice can be a challenge. "I have no model," he says. "But I always find a solution when there’s a deadline.”
The Alan Chan Jazz Orchestra's "Year of the Rooster" celebration at the Baked Potato has early (9:30 p.m.) and late (11:30 p.m.) shows on Sunday, Jan. 29. Tickets available here.