Boss Brass comes roaring back with a reunion to remember

Jazzman Rob McConnell may have earned his reputation as a trombonist, arranger and bandleader, but it's his skill as an entertainer that has helped him hold onto such a large and loyal audience.

So it was no surprise that tickets sold out in less than a day after it was announced that McConnell would reunite his big band, the Boss Brass, for three nights at Toronto's Old Mill Inn.

Sure, the Brass, which McConnell formed in 1968 and kept going for nearly three decades, was probably the pre-eminent Canadian jazz band of the seventies and eighties, but it wasn't just the lure of jazz history that packed them in.

Nor was it the fact that the crew McConnell assembled for this reunion read like a virtual Who's Who of Canadian jazz, thanks to the likes of pianist Don Thompson, trumpeter Guido Basso, trombonist Ian McDougall, saxophonist Andrew Ballantyne, drummer Terry Clarke, and guitarist Reg Schwager.

No, it was simply because a night out with McConnell and his band is a guaranteed good time, and Tuesday's show was no exception.

Although the playing was sometimes rough around the edges - McConnell joked repeated about how terribly rehearsal had gone - there was a buoyancy and good humour that lifted the music above the occasional wrong note or botched ending.

Some of that stemmed from the fact that the guys in the band were clearly having a good time - watching them, you'd almost imagine they were paying McConnell, instead of the other way around - but mostly it was because the leader himself made a point of keeping things light, happy and fun.

At 73, McConnell is no longer a brash and rambunctious soloist. His valve trombone spent most of the evening on its stand, and the few parts he did play were relatively sedate melody lines, like the dreamy statement that kicked off the show-opening Strike Up the Band.

Instead, the show focused on his prodigious gifts as an arranger. McConnell had jammed the stage with an unusually large big band - 21 players in all, including two French horns and periodic appearances by vibraphone and organ - and his scores made full use of that orchestral potential.

Some tunes, such as Gene Puerling's Nightfall or Bill Evans's Very Early, were presented as richly detailed tone poems, with flutes and clarinets murmuring against the dusky sound of flugelhorns and lower brass. That sense of lush balladry was even more intense when Basso was the featured soloist, as on A Christmas Love Song, where his flugelhorn brought such sweetness and lyricism to the melody you'd have thought it crooned.

The Boss Brass didn't just do warm and fuzzy; they could also roar when appropriate, and it frequently was. Ron Johnston's boppish Sixth Sense had the band screaming through serpentine, tightly harmonized unison lines at a seemingly impossible tempo, while The Shuffle Boogie Swamp Groove Blue - originally a feature for the late Doug Riley - showed just how loud this crew could shout the blues (organist David Restivo and tenor saxophonist Pat LaBarbera particularly shone here).

Perhaps the most dazzling moment, though, was McConnell's imaginative treatment of the standard All the Things You Are, which opened with chords dense and dissonant enough to have been borrowed from Olivier Messiaen, continued with contrapuntal brass lines worthy of a Bach chorale, and boasted a breathtaking piano cadenza by Thompson. It was as dazzling as big-band writing gets.

Rob McConnell's Boss Brass reunion concludes tonight at 8, at the Old Mill Inn in Toronto. The performance will be taped for broadcast Jan. 18 on Jazz FM91.