Sunday July 24, 2005
King of the swingers
Nicholson Vienna Art Orchestra
Porgy and Bess Jazz Club, Vienna
For almost 30 years, the Vienna Art Orchestra has been making the world safe for dangerous music. During that time, it has a built a reputation as one of the finest big bands in Europe through the extravagantly idiosyncratic compositions and arrangements of its leader, Mathias Rüegg. Avoiding the rigid formulas most big bands live by, Rüegg plunders almost any style of music that he feels might work in the jazz idiom, from classical to African music.
This postmodern stance, which treats all styles as available and valid, has evolved since the Seventies as one of natural growth, rather than arbitrary juxtaposition. It’s a style that’s often been called avant garde, simply because it sounds European. So Rüegg, who rejects the avant-garde tag, has recently modified his musical thinking to take account of a more ’American’ approach, which is to say less Euro-eclecticism, more swing.
As a result, compositions by Mingus, Monk, Eric Dolphy and Mongo Santamaria received prominence alongside his masterful deconstructions of Satie, Strauss and Schubert. Ultimately, however, it was Rüegg’s scrupulously inventive originals, such as ’Off Beat Berlin on the Beat’ and ’Tango from Obango’, that got the standing ovations.
But despite a greater acknowledgement of American jazz’s core values - Ellington’s ’Take the A Train’ was an encore - Rüegg remains relatively unknown in the US. This is presumably because his music is always changing and growing. As Lennie Tristano, an unacknowledged jazz great, once remarked, that is no way to sell something to the American music business.
25 Years with The Vienna Art Orchestra
It’s hard enough to keep a band together for a quarter century. Keeping up a big band, and one that works a fringe terrain and has no specific institutional support system, seems slightly miraculous. But working its way across Canada last summer was the celebrated, virtuosic and zany Vienna Art Orchestra, celebrating its 25th anniversary. This was one of the VAO’s too-rare North American tours, and they showed how to seamlessly meld humor and serious intentions; and how to flit across jazz, classical and avant-circus idioms—among others—on themes woven into tight and complex charts that are among the most exciting and distinctive in the global big band canon.
The secret to longevity in a project like this is simple: It takes a fiendish singular vision at the core of the machinery, being founder/ composer Mathias Rüegg. One afternoon in the lobby of his Montreal hotel, Rüegg, nursing tea and cigarettes, spoke about his labor of mostly love, before the band put in a steamy performance late that night in the Salle de Gesu as part of the Montreal International Jazz Festival. This afternoon, dusted by the itinerant life, he appears both stylish in a gray suit, but also a tad disheveled, an effective paradox also detectable in the band sound, both crisply articulate and given to flights of improvisatory lunacy.
As Rüegg lays out a slick complement of promotional materials on the table, he seems highly organized in the face of the pressures inherent in running a big band. “You have more time to be chaotic and crazy if everything is very organized,” he says.
As heard on the aptly titled recent double-CD, Art & Fun—their first for the Emarcy/ Universal label after numerous albums for hatART, Moers, TCB and other European labels—the band is still up to its old and new tricks. Genres mix freely, including one entire disc of remixes (by VAO guitarist Martin Koller) as a handshake with the electronica world in Vienna. And, as usual, big band conventions are stretched with an abiding sense of, well, art and fun.
Keeping VAO alive and kicking for 25 years amounts to an impressive milestone, but Rüegg insists, “this was actually never planned. It’s the same for the future. I think in terms of one or two years, not more. If you think of 12 times two years, you reach 24 and then 25. I wanted to give up quite a lot of times. I get a lot of different offers, especially as a producer, director of festivals, much more offers than for writing. But on the side, I do quite a lot of classic composition. These are a lot of different activities on the side, but my heart belongs to the orchestra.
“With money, one bill looks like another. It’s interchangeable. To make money cannot be the goal of our life. The work with this orchestra, whatever lineup it is, is unchangeable. It’s something you cannot substitute. This is still the most satisfying work for me. It doesn’t look like a lifetime dream, but overall, when the band plays good, it’s a special experience. There is a very good mood in the band. The financial situation is, practically every year, difficult. There are some faults we have, like if we reach 50 years, then we’ll be a legend.”
Does the VAO, a quarter century into the experiment, qualify as an institution? Rüegg ponders this: “An institution in the philosophical sense, not in the practical sense.”
That night, heightened recreation and intense interest fuel a concert by the current 19-piece incarnation of the VAO, delivering on its promise. As strong as its discography is, the band’s live experience is gripping and inimitable. There is plenty of clownishness and shameless complexity, and a mixture of acoustic and electric instruments along the way, with some rigorous note-mapping reminiscent of Frank Zappa. Theirs is a walloping, gleaming sound, with the added attraction of the seamlessly gymnastic Italian-born Anna Lauvergnac on mostly wordless vocals, a VAO trademark.
When heard in the Americas, the VAO is most often found in Canada, whose festival circuit is famously more adventurous than its stateside kin. They were last in Montreal and elsewhere in Canada five years ago, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary. There remains the question of why the VAO isn’t better known in the States, and more to the point, why they have played here so rarely. They managed an American tour in the early ’80s, a period when they showed up in the TDWR Big Band category of the DownBeat Critics Poll. They also put in a week sting at the Five Spot in New York in the early ’90s, but have otherwise been unable to generate enough support or interest to warrant the struggle of hitting the road in the U.S.
Posed with that question of why the cold American shoulder, Rüegg appears frustrated, but is philosophical about cultural differences. “Vienna is a city with a long, long tradition of music,” he says. “Vienna supports culture instead of something else. In the United States, they are too young. Maybe in a hundred years, it will be different. New York will be a cultural museum for jazz, rock or whatever music and for dance, and L.A. a museum for film. But the art form is still young.”
Jazz big band culture in Europe has a strong, and lived-in, reputation, but the VAO exists off to the side of that world, both because of its offbeat artistic inclinations and the nature of the organization. According to Rüegg, “there’s something specific about this band. There are only soloists. Besides the first trumpet and bass trombone, everybody’s a soloist. It’s difficult to bring soloists together in a way that a section sounds good. In most cases, a section sounds good, but then you need a soloist. But here, everybody’s an excellent soloist and they also try to sound good in a section. This is why it works.
“George Gruntz is the same, but there, the sections never really work. You can hear that they don’t really care. They’re just there for the solos. Then, of course, there are a lot of good big bands—Bob Mintzer’s band, for example. He has good soloists. It’s difficult and it’s a long process in forming a band. You need players who will stay in the band for a long time, because they can learn the vocabulary and can lead the section, and so on.”
One signature sound in the VAO concept is that of virtuoso female vocal lines, often used as a humanizing element, but also doubling intricate linear parts. In the past, the vocalist chair has been filled by such musicians as the versatile Lauren Newton and noted jazz singer Ursula Dudziak.
“This was from the beginning,” Rüegg says of that unique female vocal touch, “and happened by chance. In the first concert we ever had, everything was more or less by chance. We had a singer who was an opera singer. We just rehearsed one afternoon, and then there was the first performance. She asked me, ‘What shall I sing?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. You sing only opera. You get a free solo and for the rest, you just join the first trumpet.’
“It’s not just doubling the first trumpet anymore, but maybe doubling inner voices, from saxophones to trombone and whatever. But Anna can do virtually anything. She sings so loose. She’s a good jazz singer, one of the few good jazz singers in Europe who understands what it means to sing a song.”
A Swiss-born musician who has lived in Vienna for 30 years, Rüegg’s close relationship to classical music is a natural byproduct of his musical training, as well as that of the musicians in the VAO. Among the many recording projects are tributes to musical heroes, including Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love (TCB) in 2000. But Rüegg has leaned into the winds of classical composers, as well, with tributes to the idiosyncratic Frenchman Erik Satie, George Gershwin and, somewhat surprisingly, Viennese waltz king Johann Strauss. Incidentally, the project “All That Strauss” was performed in Vienna’s Sofiensale ballroom/concert hall, where Strauss actually performed in the 19th century.
As Rüegg explains, just as he was more or less a jazz musician considering classical role models, these composers had their own tentacles in the jazz ethos. “Gershwin is close to jazz. Satie was living in Paris at a time when the classic musicians started to love jazz. There was a lot of misunderstanding. They didn’t hear the black bands, only the white ones. I don’t know who was touring at this time, but it was commercial versions of New Orleans jazz, but the spirit was there.
“A chart from Satie, a chart from Gershwin and a chart from Strauss look similar. If you look at piano scores and you just take the melody and the changes, you understand why Strauss was the first pop musician in the history of music. He gave a concert in Boston in 1867 and 110,000 people showed up. There were 20 orchestras with 20 directors, and he was in the middle. Johann Strauss more or less influenced Gershwin, because he was already using the written changes, especially in his mazurkas and polkas, as well. If you look at piano charts, they are like standards.”
As he points out, the jazz spin on classical models isn’t only a European phenom. “If you look at American history of jazz, there was Stan Kenton who did the Wagner album, and there was Stravinsky’s ‘Ebony Concerto’ for Woody Herman. So this trend already started quite early. But of course, if you are in Europe and you open your eyes, what comes first are the classical composers. I did something with Schubert’s ‘Die Winterreise.’ These are beautiful songs. But I’ve arranged a lot of standards, too.”
No doubt, there is something distinctly European in the VAO sound, even if the tapestry is woven largely from sounds of the jazz heartland on this side of the Atlantic. “I’ve tried to get more and more out of the European sound,” Rüegg says, explaining that his music is “like real jazz, but seen through European glasses. But the basics must be there. Often in European music, the basics are not there. It’s not really swing, not phrased well. It’s creative, but the grammar isn’t there.
“At the end, as to the question of being Viennese in jazz or European in jazz, I would like to be accepted as a universal jazz musician, not as a European one.”