Miles Hancock tells the story of the Northampton big band Jazz Colossus…
The situation that sparked the idea of Jazz Colossus was quite a simple one really. It was late 2014 and I was looking for a big band to play in. It seemed ludicrous to me that there wasn’t a big band already in the town, the place is full of musicians. Instead of travelling to play sax with a big band I realised I probably knew enough talented local players to form my own, so I decided to send the word out. Surely assembling a band of 20 or so of Northampton’s finest players would be simple, right..?
Well, we started off with a core band of around 10 or so and began rehearsing at The Black Bottom Club, who kindly lent us their room. It was a rocky start and took a while for the band to settle, some people came and went, however after around a year we arrived at the core band that has mostly remained since. It seems obvious, but a big band involves a LOT of people! As well as the 20 or so musicians we have on each gig, there are a long list of deps who can stand in when regulars can’t make it. Last time I counted we’ve had 85 people either rehearse or gig with the band and I’m sure there a few I’ve missed off that list!
Our first gig was really well received and we started to get a dedicated local following. After securing a quarterly residency at The Picturedrome, things started to really propel forwards. The old saying ‘success breeds success’ started to come into play: the better we got, the more people wanted to join the band. Safe to say we now have a bit of a waiting list!
The moment when we all felt like we’d really arrived as a band was when we were invited to perform in the International Big Band Competition in Hoofddorp, The Netherlands. The competition was part of MeerJazz Festival and gave us the opportunity to perform alongside top big bands from across the globe. The band was well-received by judges and audience alike and the experience really boosted the confidence of the band.
My vision for Jazz Colossus has always been to take the big band format in a slightly different direction. When many people think of big bands, they imagine an outdated band, playing a wartime setlist in an archaic format. The truth is, the big band has always been more versatile than that, and I wanted to reflect this with my vision for the band. We play a mixture of styles: funk, latin, jazz, soul as well as the some swing standards. However, performing the original compositions and arrangements of band members is where we really get a buzz, and it allows us to use the versatility of the big band format to connect with the local music scene.
Our latest gig ‘Made In Northampton’ is a really good example of how this can happen. It involved showcasing the original songs of local artists, arranging their songs for our 20-piece band and having them perform with us on the night. The gig really helped to broaden everyone’s horizons: singers who had never had a chance to sing with a big band before, audience members who may have never seen a big band before, traditional big band fans, all witnessed the versatility and accessibility that a big band can offer.
Today, after the demise of the classic big band era, people seem to have become accustomed to small bands, even horn sections are a rarity. However, many of the recordings of songs we listen to feature many more musicians than we ever see on the stage. For example, many Motown records feature large string sections… when was the last time you saw one of those with your local Motown covers band? Covering these parts on keyboard, or with backing tracks has become the norm. However, people still crave real live performance, which is why I think what we are doing has really caught our audience’s imagination.
I got into big bands early on, as I was lucky enough to be involved in the school big band at Sponne. I started to get into music more seriously when I began having sax lessons with Alan Wakeman. As a teacher, player and all-round nice chap he really inspired me to take my first steps into thinking about music as a possible profession, I certainly owe him a lot! I subsequently studied music up to masters level and got involved with big bands at University.
Since graduating, I mainly write music for film and TV. But as well as scoring I have been involved in a fair few band projects, all of which have involved large ensembles (I must be a glutton for punishment!) I also currently run an orchestra/DJ combo called Symphonica & Mr Switch (just the 17 musicians in that one!) It would take too long to list all the bands that have really inspired me, but I’ll try and list a few. I’ve always loved the work of big bands/large ensembles from the likes of Charles Mingus, Maynard Ferguson, Bob Mintzer, Michel Camilo, Bob Curnow, Quincy Jones and more recent ensembles like The Heritage Orchestra, One O’Clock Lab Band, Tommy Igoe and the WDR Big Band.
So, what does the future hold for Jazz Colossus? Well, we are in the process of recording an album, comprising of of our ‘Made In Northampton’ arrangements and original pieces by band members and featured local artists. It will feature big band arrangements of songs by Cousin Avi, Joe Miles, Ivor Johnson, Greg Coulson, Kristel Morrison, Repro Jam Squad, The Red Triangle, Jon Martin’s Italian Divorce, Anna Jaichner, Drizabone Soul Family and more.
We are hoping to take our ‘Made In…’ nights further afield, working with singers and musicians in towns and cities across the UK to showcase their talents and the creative musical possibilities that the band has to offer. After heading to Holland this summer, we decided to take the band abroad once each year, so plans are underway for our next European summer adventure.