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Big Band highlights improv night 

Chicago's Dragons 1976 joins local Hundred Dollar Orchestra

If it's true that inside every actor lurks a would-be director, then maybe it can also be said that inside every jazz player lurks a big band leader.

Well, it's an assumption you could make listening to local reeds man Brent Bagwell discuss the upcoming jazz improv night at the Room on Wednesday, Feb. 9. Bagwell plays sax in the jazz trio Eastern Seaboard and the experimental rock octet Pyramid, and together with the Musicians' Institute of Charlotte helped host An Evening of Improvised Music in September, '04. One of the aims of that evening was to provide a semi-regular arena for local improvisational players to cut loose with like-minded visiting musicians; this time around, in addition to the Bagwell-led Hundred Dollar Orchestra and the Pyramid "guitarists-only" improv offshoot of Joey Stephens and Ben Best, the out-of-town draw — and it's a good one — are the Dragons 1976, an alto-bass-drums trio.

So named because all three members were born in 1976, the Chicago-based trio has a handsome pedigree. Tim Daisy also drums for the Vandermark 5 and Triage; the bassist, Jason Ajemian, also in Triage, plays in a trio with Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker; and the alto player, Arem Shelton, contributes to a host of bands including Vandemark's Crisis Ensemble and Grey Ghost.

In other words, an established act whose new record, On Cortez, suggests an accessible but still challenging listen.

But from a local standpoint, the evening's most anticipated effort may come from the debut of The Hundred Dollar Orchestra, since for the majority of the dozen players taking part big band experience is hardly the norm. Perhaps more significantly, Bagwell's previous experience — writing or playing — is with much smaller groups.

"I've worked with nothing larger than a quintet in the past, but I've always wanted to work with larger ensembles," Bagwell says. "Certainly nothing like this, where, for example, I give five different notes to five different horns at the same time, and get the big lush chords."

In a typical jazz tradition, Bagwell has written several charts — basic tunes that act as frameworks rather than strict guidelines — that the rest of the group will use mostly as a reference point. But between his charts and the band's few rehearsals to date, Bagwell warns against expecting anything as structured as traditional big band fare or as densely improvisational as, say, Sam Rivers' Rivbea All-Star Orchestra.

"I wrote stuff that would be really simple for everyone," he says, "and hopefully they will knit together as a whole....they're hardly at all like typical jazz heads, they're much more textural things."

The nature of the writing was also determined in large part by the makeup of the Hundred Dollar Orchestra. In addition to Bagwell, Kris Baucom, Tony McCullough and Erick Payne will play reeds, Ben Kennedy plays the cello, Ron Brendle and Brent Dunn, bass, Derrick Hines, piano, Addul Khaliq, trumpet, and Chris Walldorf and Scott Wishart, drums. Joining the locals will be Chattanooga guitarist Trey Johnson. With so many elements, Bagwell tried his best not to over-write.

"My goal seemed to be always boiling the band down to smaller and smaller parts," he says. A song typically starts with one or two instruments, "then everyone trickles in...the horns and strings take a lot of writing, but the piano, the drums, the guitar, oftentimes the trumpeter are just turned loose over it. So there's always four or five people doing something relatively specific, then everyone else is going to catch on.

"Also, different people read (music) with different alacrity, so I sort of assessed that and figured out how we could best use everyone's resources," he adds.

Bagwell says he's been spurred on by the band's matching enthusiasm, as well as the professional nature of the rehearsals. He's also received a helping hand from veterans Brendle and Khaliq, who lead by example, he says. Brendle also contributed a song, a re-imagining of a Korean funeral march, that Bagwell hopes sets the tone for the future of The Hundred Dollar Orchestra.

"I would hope that going forward — if everyone likes it and wants to keep playing at least on some level, maybe a couple of times a year we can all manage to get together, because the scheduling's just been ludicrous — that a lot of other people would start bringing material, and it would truly be like a leaderless collective," he says.

The Hundred Dollar Orchestra, along with Dragons 1976, and Joey Stephens and Ben Best, play the Room Wednesday, Feb. 9.

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