Here’s an example of spectacular.
On screen, light shines on the sleeping, off-duty sailor. He awakens. In the theater, a big band plays, its score at this point cautious, curious. Other sailors awaken. There’s alarm. The big band score evokes apprehension but still curiosity, too. Sailors scurry, climb the riggings. The live music escalates. In the distance, a fleet of ships approaches. They’re the enemy. Will they attack? Music and movie mesh, the music building the stress and the sense of unknown, and underlying increasingly frenetic action. My hands are clenched, tight.
On screen, gun turrets are manned and raised. This single battleship prepares for an enemy fleet. They are the enemy, aren’t they? Why don’t they attack? The big band feeds the tension while foreshadowing nothing about how this will end.
I’m not going to tell you how it ends, either.
But I’ll tell you this: We’re hearing big band outside the box. This isn’t a lush auditorium with a guest artist. This isn’t late night in a club. This is Kansas City’s most original, inventive big band performing their score to the renowned 1925 silent film, Battleship Potemkin. The film plays to a few hundred people in the darkened theater, and the People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City is an inseparable part of the experience.
Last year I photographed the big band’s May 1st performance at the Record Bar (here) where they played excerpts from their Battleship Potemkin score to excerpts from the film. It was typically quirky and fun, but the highlight of the evening came later when vocalists joined the band to parody the works of Kurt Weill. That’s the kind of musical sarcasm which People’s Liberation Big Band (PLBB) pulls off so skillfully, and which plays through so many of their shows with intellectual yet visceral delight.
But the real delight of their score to Battleship Potemkin wasn’t revealed until last Tuesday, May 1st, in the lower level theater of the Plaza Library, where the film was shown on the big screen. The music, both the original score and its performance, complemented the film near-perfectly, as if this 1925 silent epic was always meant to be seen with this and only this accompaniment.
Our friend Plastic Sax has written about the plethora of big bands Kansas City today is blessed to enjoy (here). And the others, such as the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, are terrific, full of jazz masters over whom this city can unashamedly gloat. But few big band fans who relish a plush chair to enjoy the latest arrangement of a Basie or Ellington classic will also appreciate the risks taken by PLBB.
This is not your grandfather’s big band. It’s compositions pushing the edge through talent and wit. It’s unconventional voicing in unconventional settings. It’s accompanying, of all things, a Russian silent film lamenting workers’ rights on International Workers Day. Name another big band which has done that.
The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City takes chances, sometimes outrageous ones. And sometimes those chances don’t work.
But when they work, the results can be spectacular.
So you missed last Tuesday’s Battleship Potemkin performance. But you can still enjoy the People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City on a new CD.
They perform the first number, 12 Miniature Blues, 16 minutes of it, on Music for Owen/Cox Dance Group, Vol. 1. This may have been composed by PLBB leader Brad Cox for dance, but it stands on its own as a showcase for the big band at its best. From off-kilter cartoonish blues to Bob Fosse-style sleaze, to a sound cacophony, all wrapped in Brad’s unconventional whimsy, this is big band as you don’t hear big band anywhere else. It pushes boundaries and it’s fun.
You can purchase Music for Owen/Cox Dance Group, Vol. 1, here.
Bill Caldwell Tribute
From an email from Stan Kessler:
We are having a joyous celebration of the life of Bill Caldwell, May 20th, 2 p.m. at The Blue Room. This is for those of us who knew and loved Bill, but could not make it to the funeral. Please help us spread the word to the appropriate people.
Here’s the format:
Short set of tunes recorded by Bill by host band - Me, Kerry Strayer, Everett DeVan, Bob Bowman, Mike Warren, (Jerry Hahn?).
Remarks and stories by friends and family.
Tunes from Bill's CD projects played intermittently throughout.
The idea is for this to be fun and light, as Bill would have wanted it. This will last about 2 hours. There will be his CDs for sale, and part of the proceeds will go to his wife, Kim, to help defray funeral costs.
Hope to see you there.