Reviews, News and Commentary

Rodger Fox’s Big Drum Off

Reviewed by Malcolm Calder

Auckland Arts Festival

The Big Drum Off

Rodger Fox Big Band 50th Anniversary

The Rodger Fox Big Band

Leader Rodger Fox

With Gregg Bissonette, Dennis Chambers, Peter Erskine

Bruce Mason Centre

11 March

Reviewed by Malcolm Calder

As they say, time flies when you’re enjoying yourself.  Well, time certainly flew on Saturday night and both audience and performers enjoyed themselves equally at this outstanding concert.  And, rather amazingly, jazz afficionados have been saying that about Roger Fox’s legacy … for fifty years.

Billed as the Great Drum Off, this gig brought together three of the world’s most outstanding drummers – each of whom has made his mark and left a legacy – featured in three 30-minute sets that demonstrated what they are noted for and what they do.

First up was the agile and highly innovative Greg Bissonette, making his second return visit to our shores.  His musical career is both lengthy and amazingly diverse, extending from some early work with arrangements by the legendary Maynard Ferguson through to playing double-drums with Ringo Starr’s Allrounders.  On Saturday his set ended with a funky band re-arrangement of Billy Cobham’s Stratus that left me exhausted.  I had absolutely no idea where some of the double-rhythms and contra-rhythms came from as he made his kit dance almost by itself allowing his effervescent creativity full reign until he whooped and hollered the set to a conclusion.

Then Gentleman Peter Erskine stepped up using a smaller kit, and some well-chosen words, that highlighted his and Rodger’s common interests and their mutual commitments to jazz education.  Now an Emeritus Professor at the University of Southern California, Peter has performed with countless bands in concert and studio and his percussive skills have featured on albums by artists that include Diana Krall, Queen Latifah and Linda Ronstadt as well as several classical orchestras.  But he is at his best working with a band.  ee demonstrated this again and again through some standards that began with Stan Kenton and Ferguson, and then highlighted the American big band sound.  It was all so smooth and so easy I was in awe.  For me, his final choice – Neil Hefti’s Sunday Morning – was a memorable standout.

Finally, Rodger introduced a powerhouse in the form of Dennis Chambers who barely spoke at all.  Instead he kicked straight into a fire-breathing attack on the funky classic, Cissy Strut, rolled straight into some Santana, then set up some room for the horns and guitar to wail but allowed space for his own incredible driving leadership.  Like the other two guests, Dennis has been around for a while now and he is even better at setting stages afire with his scorching chops and unshakeable groove.

Rodger was there every step of the way, adding a couple of his trademark trombone solos, every inch the masterminding band leader, casually counting the band in and keeping things very tight indeed.  Over 50 years, some of the country’s greatest players are current or former jazz students at the New Zealand School of Music where Fox teaches and the current line-up sounds as good as ever.  Acknowledging an underlying theme of education, this concert followed a workshop earlier on Saturday.

This was an intelligent jazz audience too.  When Rodger asked for someone to give him a 120-beat from their head … someone responded.  That certainly brought smiles right across the stage.

Yes, time did fly.  And people did enjoy themselves – both on the stage and in the audience.

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By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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