Thursday, October 18, 2012

Big Band Bert … Joris and The Brussels Jazz Orchestra

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Until quite recently, trumpeter Bert Joris had a long and enduring relationship with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra [BJO] as its principle composer.

Bert recorded a number of albums with the BJO many of which featured originals compositions that he authored expressly for it.

Bert’s writing and arranging efforts on behalf of the orchestra culminated when it combined with the Royal Flemish Philharmonic under the direction of Danielle Callegari to perform a series of Joris’ compositions at deSingel in Antwerp, Belgium on May 27, 2006, two of which were commissioned as extended, original works.

A live recording of this performance was subsequently issued as a CD entitled Dangerous Liaisons: The Compositions of Bert Joris as Performed by the Brussels Jazz Orchestra and The Royal Flemish Philharmonic [Talent – Do Music DOM 2910 900 SP].

In his insert notes for the recording, Tom Janssens wrote the following about the commissioning of Dangerous Liaisons, the highlights of Bert’s career and the history of the BJO.

Given their comprehensive scope, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles did not attempt to improve on them, but thought it more appropriate to bring Mr. Janssens writings to you “as is.”

© -Tom Janssens, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Dangerous Liaisons

Bert Joris was commissioned by deFilharmonie (the Royal Flemish Philharmonic) and the Brussels Jazz Orchestra to write two compositions for large symphony orchestra and big band. The suggestive titles of these two works (Dangerous Liaison and Between Hope and Despair) already say a lot about the 'dangers' identified by Joris in the relationship between fixed note values and solo improvisations and the pitfalls of the creative process, in which artistic choices were weighed and reweighed and stylistic principles had to be thrown overboard.

Dangerous Liaison was Joris's first composition for large symphony orchestra and big band, and it strongly emphasizes the contrasts between the two ensembles: 'The colour palette offered by this combination is practically inexhaustible. Therefore I thought the most suitable starting point would be a long melody that returns in different settings. At the start, the symphony orchestra plays the female role and the big band the male role, but towards the end, they two become completely fused toge­ther. The structure bears the closest resemblance to the classic variation form we use so often in jazz music. Here, it is only interrupted once, by a modal passage.'

Between Hope and Despair has much less contrast than Dangerous Liaison. In this composition, Joris took the opposite approach and sought to achieve a uniform sound for a story about the caprices of human emotions. 'So as to make the orchestras blend as much as possible, I sought a tempo in which ternary and binary interpretation are compatible', explains Joris.

In Anna and Alone at Last, the two orchestras are both individually in­troduced and then completely fused. Once again, Joris creates a unique interaction between soloists, improvisers and sections. Anna was written imme­diately after the composer had met 'an extraordi­nary six-year-old girl' at a garden party. Its music was later used in the score Joris wrote for the film Dennis van Rita (by Hilde Van Mieghem). Alone at Last is a simple blues in C. This form has inspired me all my musical life and it keeps on turning up in my work. However, my own roots aren't the blues, and that's why I left out the C, which is the "root" of this blues, from the bass line, as a kind of joke.'

Bert Joris composer

Bert Joris started studying music at an early age. At first, he studied piano and violin, but eventually, at the age of fourteen, he settled on the trumpet. He had a classic education at the Antwerp music con­servatory, even though jazz held a greater attraction for him, being a style that was better suited to de­veloping his creative talents. From 1978 to 1987, he worked with the BRT Jazz Orchestra, which was led by Etienne Verscheuren. Initially, he played the trumpet there, but he also attracted notice as a composer and arranger and eventually became a guest conductor.

Meanwhile, Bert Joris continued to build on his reputation as a teacher. In 1987, this led to a teaching position at the famous Swiss Jazz School in Bern. At about the same time, he launched a jazz course at the Leuven Lemmensinstituut, which gradually developed into what is now the school's jazz department. From 1990 till 1992, he was a trumpet teacher at the Hilversum Conservatory.

In 1992, Bert Joris started up an intense colla­boration with the Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine. He has also performed with many other musicians and ensembles. He has toured Europe with the en­sembles of Rob van Bavel, Robert Jan Vermeulen,

Wolfgang Haffner, Ricardo del Fra, Michel Herr, Enrico Pieranunzi, Joe Haider and Act Big Band. In addition, he formed the Bert Joris Quartet (with pianist Dado Moroni, drummer Ore Pallemaerts and bassist Philippe Aerts). He is often invited as a soloist and/or as a composer-conductor by larger European formations and big hands like those of Klaus Weiss, Al Porcino, the Concertgebouw Jazz Orchestra, the Metropoolorkest and many others.

In 1986, he toured Europe together with the renowned drummer and band leader Mel Lewis, which led to an invitation to conduct Lewis's big band at the New York club The Village Vanguard, in a project with his own music. The sudden death of Mel Lewis put an end to this project. In 1998, he traveled to the US, where he scored a great suc­cess with the SJS Big Band, with which he con­ducted work of his own, e.g. in the famous Birdland jazz club, with Clark Terry as guest soloist. This success was confirmed in 2003 when he was in­vited to come and present his music, together with the BJO, at the most prestigious and international meeting of jazz musicians from all over the world: IJAJE in New York.

In 1998, Bert Joris received the Django d'Or Award and in 1998, he was voted the best Belgian jazz trumpet player by the listeners of RTBF and VRT and the French-language Belgian music press. As the house composer of the BJO, he has pro­duced three CDs: September Sessions, The Mu­sic of Bert Joris, and Meeting Colours with Philip Catherine.

Brussels Jazz Orchestra

The pianist-composer Kenny Werner is a big fan. The composer Maria Schneider calls them her favourite orchestra. The reviewers of the profes­sional magazine Down Beat voted it the eighth-best big band in the world and the best European big band.

In 1993, Frank Vaganee, Serge Plume and Marc Godfroid decided to set up a new professional big band. Shortly before that, the BRT big band had disappeared, and with it, the possibility for com­posers and musicians to perform big band music at a high quality level. The new ensemble was given the name of Brussels Jazz Orchestra (BJO), be­cause its first performances took place in the Brus­sels jazz club The Sounds, where the ensemble organized a weekly session. The core strength of the BJO consists of a traditional big-band line-up (five saxophones, four trombones, four trumpets, piano, bass and drums), to which more musicians can be added as required for different projects
Most of the repertoire of the BJO consists of productions of their own creation, ranging from concertante productions to soloist and multimedia projects. This has earned them concerts with many leading musicians, including Philip Catherine, Toots Thielemans, Chris Joris, Kenny Werner, Maria Schneider, Wallace Roney, Tom Harrell, Gianluigi Trovesi, David Liebman, Bob Mintzer, McCoy Tyner, Kenny Wheeler, Phil Woods, Gustavo Bergalli and deFilharmonie. The BJO works in close collaboration with the composers Bert Joris and Frank Vaganee, who are the house composers of the ensemble, but they also work with other Flemish and Belgian big band arrangers/ composers such as Michel Herr, Erwin Vann, Bob Porter and Gyuri Spies.

Meanwhile, the BJO has built itself a solid repu­tation at home and abroad. In Belgium, the band has played every significant jazz venue. Internationally, the BJO has been invited to the Netherlands, Lux­embourg, France, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Austria, Croatia, Italy, Sweden and the USA, invariably to great press acclaim.

BJO is also the driving force behind various educational projects, including the biannual BJO International Composition Contest, big-band work­shops for amateur musicians, and a big-band tour with the orchestras of the conservatories of Antwerp and Ghent and the Lemmensinstituut of Leuven.

The discography of the BJO currently comprises six titles: Live (VRT Radio 3), The September Sessions (W.E.R.F.), The Music of Bert Joris (W.E.R.F.), Naked in the Cosmos - the BJO Plays the Music of Kenny Werner (Jazzimpulz), Meeting Colours (Dreyfuss) and Countermove (W.E.R.F.). All these recordings were warmly received by the Belgian and international press.

More info, video and sound clips on

With the help of the ace graphics team at CerraJazz LTD and the assistance of the StudioCerra production facilities, we have put together the following video which uses as its audio track – Alone At Last -  the final selection from Bert’s performance with the Royal Flemish Philharmonic under the direction of Danielle Callegari in conjunction with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra at deSingel in Antwerp, Belgium on May 27, 2006.

Bert solos on trumpet followed by Dieter Limbourg on alto sax.

And here is a video from an earlier feature on JazzProfiles that features Bert’s playing on Happy Tears from the Meeting Colours collaboration between guitarist Philipe Catherine and the Brussels Jazz Orchestra.

After listening to these performances, you might agree with us when we assert that Bert Joris is one of the brightest and best musicians on today’s Jazz scene in either a small group setting [as noted in our previous feature] or when writing for and performing with a big band.

It’s nice to have him around.