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Twin Cities composer brings big band sound to 21st century

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Adam Meckler
Twin Cities trumpeter, Adam Meckler aims to bring big band music into the 21st century with works that appeal to young people.
Courtesy of Adam Meckler

In today's musical culture of electronic beats and computer-generated sounds, many people might consider big band music passe.

But the rich improvisational heritage of the music in its heyday lives on in today's bands under the direction of composers and leaders who know how to fuse tradition with contemporary styles.

Among them is a Twin Cities trumpeter who aims to bring the music into the 21st century with works that appeal to young people.

Indeed, the first thing a listener will notice about the Adam Meckler Orchestra is that it's not a throwback to an earlier era. The mission of the 18-member ensemble, which performs tonight at Jazz Central in Minneapolis, is to hook audiences with multilayered modern music.

The musicians take their lead from Meckler, a 27-year-old composer and trumpeter who draws on varied influences — from traditional jazz and rhythm and blues to acoustic rock, and rap.

"Jazz is an art that adopts all the things around it," said Meckler, a St. Paul native who grew up in the Chicago area. "We could do anything, as long as we have improvisation involved."

After studying music at Bethel University in St. Paul and Lawrence University in Wisconsin, Meckler returned to the Twin Cities four years ago, eager to find work in local bands.

It wasn't easy at first, leaving Meckler plenty of time to write tunes, and compose big band charts. But after a while the bands came calling.

Meckler plays in about a dozen bands — among them the Jack Brass Band; the Pete Whitman X-tet; the Good, Bad and the Funky; his quintet and the quartet Lulu's Playground. He also performs in the Jana Nyberg Group, led by his wife.

For Meckler, playing four or five nights a week has allowed him to use all of what he's learned to do on the trumpet in performances. It's also paid dividends for him as a composer, helping him write tunes that showcase the talents of the musicians he plays with.

"Being a player informs my compositions and being a composer informs my playing," Meckler said. "We're improvising what classical musicians spend hours and hours and hours composing. As jazz musicians we're trying to do it on the spot, night after night after night after night, which can be totally exhausting artistically."

The orchestra affords him the broadest musical pallet, with trumpets, trombones, saxophones, piano, guitar, bass and drums. That makes for an infinite number of musical options — and challenges.

"It's appealing because there's so much power behind a band with that kind of instrumentation," he said. "The big band just opens up another world of possibilities in terms of orchestration and colors and tambers. Saxophones can play flutes and clarinets and English horn and things like that. I haven't sprung all of that on them yet, but eventually I probably will."

Today's large jazz orchestras owe much to masterful composers like Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, for whom the band was an instrument. They wrote music for key players.

Meckler aims to follow in that tradition, writing to the talents of the orchestra, as he does on "Song for B.B." a complicated tune that builds a tower of musical ideas. It rises to a rich solo by guitarist Evan Montgomery, just as Meckler had in mind.

"With the big band, my job as a composer is to inspire a great performance and to inspire great improvisations," he said. "So I need to make sure that the compositions that I'm writing are simply vehicles for that because that's what people are going to remember. That's what's special."

The orchestra offers surprises, lulling listeners into moments of calm before launching into driving rhythms. It reflects Meckler's affinity for black American music —  from gospel to his father's doo-wop records and the Motown sound. His composition "Sparkly Eyes," for example, develops into a soulful groove.

Although the orchestra is playing Meckler's compositions, listeners won't hear the same performance twice. If he can convince others in his generation to come hear the music, he says they might like it too.

"I do identify myself as a jazz musician. That's what I do," Meckler said. "But this is not your traditional jazz big band. This is something that I believe young people can really enjoy ... because I grew up listening to the same music that they grew up listening to. There's no reason why my music wouldn't speak to them as well. The hard part is just getting people out, getting people and the butts in the seats."