BIG BAND for a small town

Posted: Thursday, May 01, 2008

Eighty-one-year-old Ron Maas has nearly completed his longtime goal of recording a studio album with the Thunder Mountain Big Band.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

"We wanted to do it for years and we never had what we felt was a full band," he said. "There was always someone on the road or we had a chair that wasn't filled or something, and finally we got together the full band and decided it was time to do it just to see how it would work."

The 17-piece jazz ensemble and vocalist Vicki Van Fleet have spent three recording sessions with Albert McDonnell of Studio A to capture a music style that has become increasingly rare. Big band ensembles were lauded in the 1930s and '40s for their thick blend of scripted jazz music consisting of trombones, trumpets, saxophones and rhythm sections.

Tenor saxophone player Doug Bridges said big bands are becoming more difficult to find, especially in smaller communities like Juneau.

"I suppose you could say it is dwindling but not disappearing," he said. "Let's say it's on the endangered list."

Maas has been the pioneer that has kept the genre going in Juneau for the last decade since he took over leadership of the big band after a couple former incarnations dissolved, Bridges said.

"I consider it a real important piece of American culture that has context through the generations," he said. "We're playing contemporary tunes, but we're also playing arrangements from the '20s and the '30s."

Big band ensembles mostly play from detailed sheet music traditionally known as charts. Thunder Mountain Big Band does some improvisation during solo sections, but the 17-piece ensemble works together to present an intricate blend of arranged music, Bridges said.

"A big band is one of the most exciting musical forms that I can think of," he said. "It's a place where arrangers and composers can really take off."

Bridges said the big band setup has a much thicker consistency than smaller jazz ensembles, describing it as "a great big stew of sound."

"With a 17-piece big band there are so many more colors and harmonies and counterpoints and things moving through the music that you can get that you can't get in a smaller group setting," he said.

Performing with a big band is a completely different sensation from singing with a small ensemble, vocalist Van Fleet said.

"The big band is exhilarating," she said. "I mean singing with the big band, it's about 17 pieces of instruments that kind of smacks me in the back of the head when they start. It's definitely a jolt of adrenaline for me to have that kind of music behind me."

Maas, a trumpet player for nearly 65 years, said the musicians keep the big band jazz flowing in the capital city by playing roughly 20 shows a year.

"We're working very hard to keep the big band genre going, which I feel is important," he said. "I was raised with the big band in my mind and I like to keep it going."

And getting all 18 musicians together to rehearse and record the new CD was hard work in itself, Van Fleet said.

"As you can imagine, trying to get 18 people with 18 different schedules together just to practice on a weekly basis is daunting," she said.

Some key local musicians that usually don't perform with Thunder Mountain Big Band also provided their talents for the CD, Bridges said.

"We weren't sure until the very end that we were going to be able get a full compliment of people, but different people stepped in who aren't normally with the band for the purpose of this project," he said.

The musicians on the CD include five saxophone players: John Haywood (lead), Bridges, Brian Van Kird, Bryan Johnson and Georgia Horton; four trumpets: Dave Hurlbut (lead), Maas, Debbie Maas and Jill Taylor; and four trombones: Paul Shannon (lead), Jack Hodges, Nathan Bastuscheck and Bruce Simonson; as well as Lincoln Farabe on bass, Bev Haywood on piano, Clay Good on drums, Doug Gregg on guitar and Van Fleet on vocals.

Although the band has finished recording its CD, Maas said they are still finalizing other details, such as the title. The CD will have around 12 tracks when completed, he said.

"We just picked tunes that we thought we could do well on and tunes that people might enjoy listening to," he added.

Maas said he hadn't really thought about getting the songs played on the local radio.

"Actually we're doing this for ourselves more than anything, just to say we did and just to accomplish something and send to our friends and relatives," he said. "We don't intend to make any money."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or

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