Bandleader and tuba player Kendrick Oliver forcefully rejects the notion that there's no audience for big bands. "I think it's all a question of what you bring on stage and what kind of attitude you have," the 28-year-old says. "We're seeing people from 12 to 75 years old at our concerts, and they're having a great time. But we're not just rehashing the music of the '30s and '40s, although we certainly respect and love it. We bring something new to the table, we're updating and adding our own things into the sound and we're finding out that there are many people out there hungry for this music."
It would be inaccurate to call Kendrick Oliver and the New Life Jazz Orchestra a "retro" unit. Indeed, the playing, arrangements and songs on the live Welcome to New Life (Sphere) are inventive, vital and fresh. The disc's 12 selections are notable in that each carefully balances solos with cohesive, shimmering section passages and complete band statements. Oliver and his 21-piece band constantly blend gospel elements, brass band references, Kansas City swing, jump blues, spoken word and traditional New Orleans numbers while delivering every song with an enthusiasm and disciplined yet animated approach that proves enthralling, inspiring and entertaining.
Houston native Oliver began playing the baritone euphonium at seven before switching to the tuba. After being admitted to a magnet school for the performing arts in Texas, he eventually earned a scholarship to Berklee College of Music, and he has since resided in Boston. But while he plays the tuba with ease, speed and impressive precision, Oliver doesn't take many solos on the record. He prefers talking about the big band, which he considers his real instrument.
"I remember playing in the school band and doing the theme from Hill Street Blues," Oliver laughs. "That's when I fell in love with the big band. The colors, the sounds, there's so much you can do with it. But I was determined that when I finally got a big band, I wasn't going to do the same old thing. [Saxophonist Jason Anderson] and I write most of the arrangements, and even if it's a classic Basie or Ellington tune, we'll do something in there that makes it more our style."
The New Life Jazz Orchestra emerged from a Berklee Black History Month project. "The idea came up of getting a band for the celebration that would have a headline artist. My name came up for the bandleader. Since it was my idea, we looked around and were fortunate enough to get Roy Hargrove." Hargrove, also a Texas native, quickly became a vocal advocate of the group, keeping in constant touch with Oliver after the initial engagement and continually urging him to keep things together. Oliver has managed to maintain the New Life Orchestra since 1995, although they weren't able to make their long-awaited debut recording until 2002.
New Life's not some loose all-star aggregation assembled solely for some gigs or a record. This is a true band, an ensemble that has thoroughly rehearsed and played the music. Besides Oliver and Anderson, there's trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, saxophonists Jimmy Greene, Walter Smith and Miguel Zenon, vocalist Monica Lynk and more-in total some 15 core members. Welcome to New Life is also augmented by a special guest, the extraordinary bassist Christian McBride, whose robust solo on the Milt Hinton number "Pluckin' the Bass" proves a disc highlight. Lynk sometimes shouts the blues with gusto ("The Comeback"), but her forte is the confessional saga with a torch twist. While she provides a credible rendition of "God Bless the Child," her vocal on Ellington's "Imagine My Frustration" more clearly spotlights Oliver's intention to not rework so much as reconfigure vintage numbers.
Kendrick Oliver cites Frank Foster, Quincy Jones and Ernie Wilkins as his three prime influences, though he adds he has great respect for both Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer. Unlike some in the jazz community who throw up their hands in dismay at the problem of getting more exposure for the music, Oliver takes an activist stance. He's received a grant from Berklee to run clinics introducing middle and high school students in New York to swing called "Sing, Swing, Stomp and Shout!" New Life has also toured jointly with vocalist Kevin Mahogany doing vintage Kansas City swing and blues numbers. "If you buy into the attitude that no one wants to listen to jazz or play the music, then you're responsible for spreading that vibe. I really think that the audience for this music is growing, and I'm not going to be scared off by surveys or people spreading doom and gloom. They should just come to our concerts, and they'll see that jazz is far from dead."