by CHRIS ROGERS
People talk about jazz like it’s one thing. But the catch-all genre encompasses everything from swinging blues to Afro-Cuban romps to bizarre experiments in dissonance. A jazz band may be simply piano, bass, and drums, or it might include a vibraphone, a vocalist, or a brushed copper flugel. It might be all of those things at once.
“I like the complexity,” Winona professor John Paulson said of composing big-band jazz music. “You can ask my wife; I seem to enjoy making my life complex. It’s a challenge because you’ve got so many colors to work with … There’s the horizontal part of music, the melody, but there’s so much to work with vertically, the chords and harmonies.”
Paulson has been composing big-band jazz music for years, and he and his 17-piece John Paulson Big Band will perform a free concert this weekend at Winona State University along with talented special guests.
“Just the sheer volume of sound that can be produced with a band like that is pretty amazing and can be overwhelmingly cool if it’s done in the right way,” one of those special guests — Minneapolis trumpet soloist and big-band leader himself, Adam Meckler — said of big-band jazz. Meckler’s own tunes are hip-hop, R&B, and soul-inspired. “John’s music kind of toes the line between modern sounds and classic sounds for big band in a way that I think is really cool,” he stated.
There’s another challenge to composing and leading a big band: getting everyone together in one room. “I call it the T-Rex of jazz,” Paulson said. “It’s big, cumbersome, and needs a lot of feeding.” When Paulson crafts a tune, he can listen to a computer-generated version of the full score with synthesized saxophones that sound like kazoos. It is not quite like the real deal. When he sends the sheet music and synthesized recordings off to the 17 members of his band, scattered across Minnesota and Wisconsin, they can listen and practice on their own, but getting the full band together for a rehearsal is such a logistical challenge that Paulson said they usually only rehearse once as a full group before performing. “Hearing it with real instruments for the first time — that really lights me up,” Paulson stated. He likened the process to spending an entire day stacking dominoes in elaborate patterns across the living room floor. “Then you finally tip it over, when you get to hear the music with live musicians, it’s just like that,” he explained.
As a musician in the big band, saxophone is Paulson’s main instrument, though he also has quite the affinity for a rare breed of B-flat flutes. “Jazz musicians are always looking for their own thing,” Paulson said. “I’ve been playing this B-flat flute for, well … longer than I care to think about.” Before the only manufacturer took his unusual, signature instrument out of production, Paulson bought a second one, just in case.
The John Paulson Big Band recorded its first album at a live performance in Winona in 2012, and lately, the band has been picking up steam, with an increasing number of shows, a trip to a national jazz convention last year, and a grant-funded residency at Red Wing High School and a performance at the Sheldon Theatre in 2016, as well. “Danger: success can be hazardous to your health,” Paulson joked. This fall, he won an advancing artist grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council and the McKnight Foundation to produce Sunday’s performance in Winona, record that performance for an album, and lead an upcoming residency at Rushford-Peterson Schools, where another former student of his leads the music department.
The title track on the soon-to-be-recorded album, “Five Years On,” is about both the big band’s journey since 2012 and Paulson’s personal success in surviving cancer. The song is underlaid with a swinging, “Hit the Road, Jack”-esque bass line. “It’s a celebration,” Paulson explained.
On Sunday, Meckler will be joined onstage by guest trombonist Dave Graf, whom Paulson called “one of the best players in the Twin Cities.” Also joining them — fingers crossed — will be folk songstress Ariane Lydon. Lydon plays everything from the bodhrán to the harp, but it is her voice that Paulson plans to feature on Sunday. Paulson wrote lyrics for her to sing on his homage to jazz legends, “They Still Have a Pad Downtown.” He explained his inspiration for the tune: “When you play, you need to be plugged into tradition, and the history of how we got here.”
Paulson said on Monday that Lydon had just come down with a head cold that might deprive the audience of her voice. If so, concert goers would have to make do listening to accomplished players from across the region that make up Paulson’s band, including WSU professor Rich MacDonald on drums. “He’s probably one of the top if not the best jazz drummers in the Midwest,” Paulson said. “Rich MacDonald is great. I love playing with Rich,” Meckler added. Scott Gerry, a Lewiston boy who studied under Paulson at Saint Mary’s University years ago before making a name for himself in the Twin Cities as a jazz guitarist who builds his own instruments, will be a special guest on Sunday, as well.
The John Paulson Big Band will perform at 3 p.m. on Sunday, January 21, at the Winona State University Performing Arts Center. The show is free, and more information is available at www.paulsonjazz.com.