Brian Krock: The Cardiac Kid

With his group Big Heart Machine, the saxophonist and composer is pumping new blood into the big-band sound

Brian Krock
Brian Krock (photo by: Desmond White)

Big Heart Machine, a 19-piece New York big band led by alto saxophonist and composer Brian Krock, generated a big buzz when they released their self-titled debut record last summer. The music was immediately distinctive: labyrinthine forms, lush arrangements, thick streaks of contemporary classical music and progressive rock. And it seemed to come out of nowhere.

Not so, says Krock, 29, who moved to New York in 2011 to earn a doctorate from Manhattan School of Music. If anything, the music came from everywhere.

“Immediately after I graduated [in 2013] I had the opportunity to go on tour with a Broadway show,” he explains. “I took that opportunity, and then the show ended up running for three years. It was a very long detour in my life, but it gave me a lot of free time on the road, during which I wrote and arranged the Big Heart Machine record.”   

On his occasional weeks off, Krock would return to New York, assemble friends and colleagues from his MSM class and elsewhere, and workshop the pieces. “It was a luxuriously long process,” he says. “I got to spend a couple years really nitpicking the music.”

Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, Krock played jazz sax in the style of Michael Brecker and Bob Berg; his first passion, though, was guitar, with dreams of playing in a heavy metal band. In high school,his guitar teacher had to break it to him that he was a better saxophonist than guitarist. Krock took it in stride. He also took up the flute, which enabled him to play in the school orchestra.

By the time he finished his bachelor’s degree at the University of Illinois, Krock had come to idolize pianist, composer, and fellow alum Jim McNeely, enrolling at MSM specifically to study with him. McNeely proved every bit the mentor that Krock had hoped, influencing him not just as a composer but as a pianist and a longtime member and observer of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.

“Jim said that their second alto chair was always a wild card,” says Krock. “Steve Coleman, Kenny Garrett, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Billy Drewes. That’s actually why I play second alto in my band: The first chair needs to have that leadership role, and the second gets to be the riskier component.”

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MSM coursework and the subsequent tour distanced Krock from the jazz scene, but he did start a quartet with trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, pianist Sam Yulsman, and drummer Jason Burger. The short-lived band was called Heart Machine. When he formed his large ensemble, he hired all three erstwhile bandmates (though none were able to make the recording session); the name seemed obvious.

“Instead of Heart Machine, it’s Big Heart Machine!” he laughs. “There’s nothing more to it than that. But it felt so right, and it took on more meaning because what started as a one-off project became this community that is the luckiest thing in my musical life right now. All of the people in the band have become a family of collaborators, and so in a very literal way it’s helped my heart.”

That family includes some of Krock’s more frequent collaborators. Krock worked with trumpeter Chloe Rowlands in her band the Westerlies, and is a regular member of vibraphonist Yuhan Su’s band. Guitarist Olli Hirvonen, bassist Marty Kenney, and drummer Josh Bailey are Krock’s “ride-or-die closest friends.” Composer/bandleader Miho Hazamawas Krock’s MSM classmate and acts as Big Heart Machine’s conductor (“She’s a member of the band—we don’t do gigs unless she can be there”). And another composer/bandleader, Darcy James Argue, produced Big Heart Machine and helped iron out some of the musical issues.

The album’s success has surpassed even Krock’s hopes, bringing him commissions to write for ensembles around the world and allowing him to make a record with a small ensemble. Liddle, featuring a quintet (Hirvonen and Kenney, along with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell), suggests that the density and complex development in Krock’s music doesn’t depend on having 19 musicians play it.

“I can’t turn off the composer brain,” he says. “I’ve thought about the flow of every second of that record, and we’ve worked really hard to make sure that there was great variety and a huge dynamic range. If you listen to it from beginning to the end you’ll go through a hard-won journey.”

He’s also got an ambitious concept, an operetta, in mind for the next Big Heart Machine project. Like the first one, though, he needs time and resources to execute it.

“I don’t think there will be a Big Heart Machine record for a couple years at least,” he says. “But the next one is something that people are going to be excited about.”

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.