When you hear there’s an experimental 19-piece big band playing in a theatre near you, you go. It’s as simple as that. For the spectacle alone, you go.
And so, when I heard of Space Elevator, the newest showcase of local saxophonist/clarinetist/jazz-head Mike WT Allen’s compositions for big band, I was immediately on board. I wasn’t alone, either.
On a rainy Thursday evening, the Fox was crammed to capacity, not counting the 20 musicians who crowded the stage. “Did you bring ear plugs?” an older woman who had managed to find a seat at one of the few tables in the venue asked me. “My son’s performing and he warned me it’s going to be loud.” I hadn’t but I wasn’t worried. I’ve been to plenty of loud punk and noise shows before, and this was just a big band.
Opening act Only A Visitor ran through a handful of light, intricate, and carefully composed songs to start the night off. Playing to an already crowded room, the avant-pop quintet glided through their seemingly quaint, but musically intimidating set. The three part vocal harmonies, mixed with restrained upright bass and drums, and classically-tinged keyboard lines made me feel as though I was seeing the Dirty Projectors playing a renaissance fair somewhere in the woods. Definitely enjoyable, and definitely no need for earplugs there.
After a hearty round of applause, and a surprisingly quick stage overhaul—19-piece bands have a lot of things to set up—Space Elevator was up. With Allen front and centre, he primed the audience with a joke-riddled introduction to his compositional tour-de-force to come, pulled out a bulk box of earplugs and threw them into the audience, put down the microphone, raised his hands, and began conducting what was one of the most awe-inspiring demonstrations of musical prowess that I have ever experienced. While quantity was definitely present in the compositions, calling for five saxophones, four trumpets, four trombones, two guitars, two full drum kits, one bass, and one man playing five synths, quality was not overshadowed. Each song was a display in both the musicality of the players as well as Mike Allen’s compositional and organizational skills. In addition to the masterful solos by some of Vancouver’s most talented jazz musicians—notably Brent Mah on saxophone and Nikko Whitworth on bass, to name a few—Allen presented interludes between songs, designed to highlight the various instruments and players that made up Space Elevator.
Allen got to flex his compositional muscles throughout the performance, but he certainly flexed the hardest for “Bagel”, the loudest, most complex, and most impressive piece of music of the evening. With every one of the nineteen band members playing their instruments as if for the last time, “Bagel” was a thorough demonstration that the big band isn’t just for swing dancing, and that I probably should have brought ear plugs.
– Jasper D Wrinch