All Aboard the MS Connah

I always feel frustrated whenever I see Graham Connah and his big band perform. Why? Because I look around and wonder, “Where the hell are all the people?” Seriously. Where are all the people? It’s a mystery.

Last Sunday, I was amongst the privileged few at Berkeley’s Jazzschool to enjoy a concert with the one and only Connah and his ensemble, which goes by several names, including Ted Brinkley (the ensemble’s full title being Admiral Ted Brinkley’s Hornblower Cruise!) and Neptune’s Rogue Apothecary. On Sunday, it was Graham Connah’s NoPorkestra (and chorus).

Connah describes his own music thus: “Stylistically, rock and jazz strategies predominate, with superficial nods towards glee clubs, musical theater, traipsichore, and gratuitous indulgent abstract cacophony.”  Hell, I like it already! I have no idea what “traipsichore” is, but that’s okay. I don’t need to understand everything. Anyone who uses a phrase like “gratuitous indulgent abstract cacophony” to describe his own music is cool in my book.

Connah’s tongue-in-cheek cleverness, the dry, self-deprecating wit apparent in his writing, is just as evident in his music. Have you ever been to a performance where the music itself (not the lyrics, not funny asides between songs) makes you laugh out loud? And you take a quick glance at your neighbors and find them grinning impossibly, ear to ear?

Connah’s music is that good. Complex compositions, full of unexpected twists and turns, and improvisations that show off the immense talent of his band are par for the course. The ensemble is a veritable Who’s Who in the Bay Area jazz scene, with most of the members being composers and bandleaders in their own right. Ben Goldberg, Beth Custer, Aaron Novik, Lisa Mezzacappa, Vijay Anderson, Darren Johnston, Sheldon Brown, Dina Maccabee, and Sylvain Carton, to name just a few, are included in the all-star line-up.

Connah sits at the piano and every now and then during a piece he gets up, removes his spectacles, shuffles over to a band member and whispers in her ear. This is usually the cue for a solo improvisation, though sometimes he gives other directions that get spread from musician to musician in a line of whispers.

So much of what happens seems impromptu, yet the tightness of the large ensemble speaks against that. After the performance, my neighbor wondered how they were able to coordinate rehearsals with such a large group of in-demand musicians. My guess was that there were few, if any, rehearsals, but not because it sounded like they hadn’t rehearsed.

All these musicians play with multiple other projects, so the chances of finding times to rehearse together seemed slim. Also, the kinds of directions Connah intoned to the musicians before playing a piece suggested that this might be the first time they had played it together as a group. It turned out this guess was correct and that these performances are something akin to a public rehearsal. Knowing this just makes the musicians seem all the more remarkable.

This is clearly difficult music to play. As Connah promises (or warns?), there are moments of “abstract cacophany” where many sounds compete for attention. So much is happening at once, there’s so much to follow, and you have a choice—to try and chase the waves, or to let them just lap against your cheek. Either way is its own trip.

Speaking of trips, we are on a cruise ship. It’s 1959. There’s a strange and wonderful orchestra aboard, led by a roguish semi-retired admiral in reading glasses. When they play each evening in the ballroom, something happens. It is as if the music has enticed everyone, put them under a spell, and made them behave in ways they might never have imagined. Nobody ever remembers disembarking the MS Connah…

Where were we? Abstract cacophony. Yes.

There is one piece of abstraction in particular that stands out in my memory, toward the end of the concert. The musicians break up into pairs, with each group playing a different part together. While the cacophony is scripted, there is a wildness, an unruliness to the composition. The overall effect is rhythmic, albeit in an irregular, unpredictable way. Here and there, members of the audience laugh out loud in delight. All aboard!

I can’t help but notice the significant number of women who regularly play in Connah’s varied ensembles. This is not noteworthy in and of itself, but only because it is still rare to see women playing this kind of music. While I doubt Connah chooses his musicians for any other reason than that they kick ass, it is still appreciated that he is not blind (or deaf) to the many talented female musicians in the Bay Area.

Connah’s NoPorkestra (and chorus) will be playing again at the Jazzschool in Berkeley on July 3rd.

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