The John Daversa Big Band

Catalina Jazz Club, Hollywood, Ca.

The John Daversa Progressive Big Band
Brandon Backhaus | December 12, 2016
Photos by: Brandon Backhaus/Andrea Calderwood

I never really liked the Beatles:

Maybe it was coming from a family that chose the wrong side of the cultural revolution? Maybe it was my anti-pop, anti-corporate bboy stance, a result of being raised by that same family and a well-developed commitment to anything my pubescent mind considered “establishment”? And by that time the Beatles, in all their hallowed glory and holiday boxed CD sets represented nothing more than that to me. 

I for sure don’t know shit about the intricacies of jazz: 

I am not a student of music. I wish someone had grabbed me by the ears, like the nuns did in Catholic school, for something other than petty theft or not tucking my shirt in, and made me do it. Also, I was lazy and prone to cutting corners. I still tend to gravitate toward the path of least resistance, more water than wind. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to assume that’s how I ended up becoming a rapper. 

These two things make me wholly unqualified to review this show. But, the tale of the John Daversa Progressive Big Band’s performance of its latest Grammy-nominated release, Kaleidoscope Eyes, needs to be told. 

The Progressive Big Band, led by the chair of studio music and jazz at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music and Jack Skellington stunt double, John Daversa, put out a record reimagining Beatles’ songs. On the surface that sounded mad lame to me. But as proof of my infinite ignorance, what Daversa and his cast created wasn’t anything like my expectation of Kenny G’d-out elevator versions of Beatles’ classics. 

Kaleidoscope Eyes stands as a paramount to both the brilliance of Daversa’s arranging and harmonic imagination, the Sisyphusian importance of jazz in the progression of music, and the razor-like precision of its players and producers. 

John Daversa has assembled a squadron of jazz superheroes that can save the world from an invasion of aliens who listen to boring music on their car radios.  To call it a big band is akin to calling the theory the big bang. 

Shit was HUGE! 

Piano, brass, woodwinds, strings, singers, a rhythm section of guitars and bass and drums and percussion. I mean there’s a bass saxophone AND clarinet for chrissakes. 

(Disclaimer: Pardon me if I left off a few things there or made a mistake. I have no idea what the fuck I’m talking about.)

A few that stood out to me in my extremely limited knowledge of these super humans were rap coconspirator and flutist brother-at-arms, Katisse Buckingham, that deity of drums that goes by the name Gene Coye, bass(ed) god Jerry Watts and vocalist Renee Olstead. There are other  towering names of the genre more familiar to those indoctrinated into the church that is this modern jazz movement. I am but an acolyte knelt humbly before the altar waiting for the long, long lonely winter to bring on the sunshine. I think the key is that I very much want to know. 

I did notice and very much appreciated the diversity of the band. There were young and old musicians. There were women represented in almost every section. There were black and white and brown. Some dressed like they just left the philharmonic and others a hipster olive oil store and others in kicks and lids. I’m sure Daversa knows his name sounds like diversity, and he proved it with this biggest of bands! 

What struck me most was the sound. Not a particular out note or reharmonization - I mean those are incredible and tickling in their own way to those in attendence who understood. I could see it on their faces how they felt it in their bodies. For me it was the range of sound, the towering cacophony  transforming fluidly to the single suspended note. It was the fucking face-melting rhythm changes between John singing, “She wouldn’t dance with another,” and Katisse rapping exclamation points. It was the IMMENSE FUCKING FUN THAT THEY CLEARLY WERE HAVING UP THERE! 

This big band doesn’t do one thing well, it runs a spectrum of mastery that made my balls drag on the carpet. To say these arrangements are anything short of virulently virtuosic is to not be there looking them square in the face! 

Daversa, all Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka, in his wildness and fervor, note by note, brought us into his imagination. He immersed us into his rapturous and frolicking interpretations of songs you thought you already knew. He did them justice, he liberated them from the confines of time and space. And for all his freneticism, it was his childlike wonder, his humbleness and grace, his genuine joy that made me want to hug him like I love him. 

This was a show that proved why a band, why an arrangement, why the musicians individually, have been nominated and won Grammies, and why Kaleidoscope Eyes should win a couple too. I left with my foot loose in my heart and my heart in my head and my head the clouds and the clouds were swiftly evaporating to a clear sky full of diamonds.