Aardvark Turns 40
An aardvark may be a snouted, big-eared African nocturnal marsupial, but it’s also a hearty Boston big band that, at 40, cops laurels as New England’s oldest and steadiest, its 18 members’ average tenure topping 25 years.
The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra welcomed decade No. 5 in front of a packed house at Boston landmark Scullers Lounge. Aardvark Musical Director and founder Mark Harvey typically calls a mixed set: This time, it’s standards for the band’s two vocalists, a local seasonal nod (“Early Autumn” written by Newton’s Ralph Burns for Woody Herman) and pointed political satire (“Rascals & Scoundrels”). An exuberant blues à la vocalist Slim Gaillard celebrated Aardvark’s unique genus, placing it, in Duke Ellington’s phrase, “beyond category.” Shedding a sometimes raggedy molt, the group was in sleek form, belting crisp ensembles and uproarious, semi-disciplined raves.
This durable ensemble’s history parallels that of its eclectic founder. Harvey wears many hats: composer, trumpeter, leader, MIT professor and ordained Methodist minister. He heads the flock but keeps a low profile, inextricably steering his ministry toward music that is both multi- and counter-cultural.
“Religion and jazz may seem only vaguely connected today,” says Harvey, “but humans though history enjoyed rituals of music and dance; fast forward to New Orleans, and Duke’s Sacred Concerts. Sidney Bechet speaks of jazz as a river, a life force. We’re deeply connected to Lester Bowie, Sun Ra, the Basie and Lunceford bands, and Charles Ives’ marches.”
Aardvark’s on-stage debut was a benefit Christmas concert on Dec. 23, 1973, at Church of the Covenant near its longtime venue Emmanuel Church. The event has since become an annual tradition for the group, with a program that features everything from brass carols and gospel hymns to Ellington’s “Sugar Rum Cherry.” Benefits, Harvey says, allow him to exercise his vocation by aiding the homeless and needy. His community action began in 1971, when he partnered with the nonprofit Jazz Coalition, which ran legendary Jazz Week and All-Night Concerts. Harvey also continues his advocacy in supporting the JazzBoston network. That being said, Aardvark’s mission extends beyond its music, and the group often collaborates with organizations such as Kip Tiernan’s Rosie’s Place and Poor People’s United Fund, Amnesty International, American Friends Service Committee and Doctors Without Borders.
As a Boston University ministerial intern, Harvey inaugurated annual experimental concerts. In 1974, he and trumpeter Claudio Roditi joined forces in a lively international big band alongside trombonists Raul de Souza and Hiroshi Fukumura and pianist Jacques Paoli. New England Conservatory studies with pianists Jaki Byard and George Russell later led to Harvey’s securing of Jazz Coalition commissions for Russell’s iconic African Game (Blue Note, 1985), as well as Byard’s Proverbs (1973) and Concerto for Jazz Orchestra (1986).
Harvey uses these experiences to choose Aardvark players, whom he selects based on their musical individualism and group fit. “It’s harder for us to perfect sectional stuff, but we have longevity going for us,” he says. “Guitarist Richard Nelson’s at University of Maine, Augusta, trombonist Bob Pilkington and bassist John Funkhouser are at Berklee, but most come from different walks of life.” While Aardvark is Harvey’s creative outlet, a “composer’s band” shaped by his vision, its collective identity has an ornery, distinctive sense of uncontrollability.
“The group mind is elastic, mysterious,” Harvey told Tom Hall on Improv365. “In any two-hour program, who knows what will happen? From day one’s Amen Chorus in 1973, I realized that the band was not wholly controllable. [I want to] respect mutual energy and engage it; conversations with old friends who pick up where you left off. [Saxophonist] Arni Cheatham or [tubist] Bill Lowe might start a riff, this or that player might jump in. Then, I have to figure out a way to shape it.”
Harvey’s spontaneous technique and flexology are evident in aleatory elements, hand signals and show cards, when he feels that a moment needs a certain color or long tone. “Some leaders would say, ‘Are you nuts?’” he says. “But it’s more fun when you don’t know where it’s going. It keeps it an adventure.”
Aardvark’s book of 300 pieces, half of which are Harvey’s own arrangements, includes commissions, music in honor of Mary Lou WiIliams and Duke Ellington, and a recent trove of transcriptions (like David Berger’s “Ellingtonia”). Most are big band charts, head arrangements, riffs and free forms that hark back to New Orleans collective improvisation.
“I’m constantly writing and reintroducing stuff, like symphonies do,” Harvey says. “Some pieces are fully written, some are conceptual. Everyone’s on his toes for the spontaneous.”
Harvey likens his style to free-form composer-conductors Butch Morris and Walter Thompson. Aardvark’s discography now has six releases on Leo (“Feigen’s adventuresome and supports long works”), two on Vinny Golia’s Nine Winds and three on AardMuse. Among Aardvark’s notable guests number Sheila Jordan, Byard, Golia, Jimmy Giuffre, Raj Mehta and Paul Lovens.
Aardvark’s Jazztet offshoot, often a sextet, spins off for smaller venues and Sunday church services. Another longstanding tradition, the free spring concert at MIT’s space-age Kresge Auditorium is a place for Aardvark to premier large works on a big stage with extra rehearsal. The orchestra’s odyssey will continue in 2013 with the epic Boston JazzScape at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in March.