Ben Schenk and the Panorama Jazz Band
A Phase of Evolution
New Orleans Style – the seminal idiom, traditional jazz, if you will – is undergoing an accelerated change that seems to redefine “tradition;” the idea of stability, continuity, music that doesn’t change.
“I always thought of New Orleans jazz as a phase of evolution that was over,” said clarinetist Ben Schenck, leader of Panorama Jazz Band, which is also a brass band with expanded personnel for the run-up to Mardi Gras, and when otherwise called upon.
“Pops and Jelly and Sidney Bechet had their day, it seemed. When I moved here in 1985 I realized it’s a strong regional style. Some people treat it like a museum specimen. But it’s not like we have to play ‘Muskrat Ramble’ in order to be a New Orleans jazz band. People like Michael White, Evan Christopher and Tim Laughlin see it as a point of departure for their compositions, a culture of possibilities.”
To that list we must add Tom McDermott and Aurora Nealand as stellar instrumentalists, adapters and composers who use New Orleans Style to reach back in time, as McDermott does in his “Bamboula” salute to Louis Moreau Gottschalk, or Nealand’s inspired tribute to Sidney Bechet on “The Royal Roses.”
The sheer range by these musicians is giving the jazz tradition a pump of adrenalin, proving that a mastery of the standards can be prelude to expanding the canon with new compositions that echo the root sound.
Schenck moved to New Orleans from the Washington, D.C. area after meeting White, who was on tour, and Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band. With Panorama he has carved out his own musical terrain, a sound that builds on Klezmer and Eastern European music, played by brass bands. “In my mind, it all goes back to the instruments.”
Panorama Jazz Band has six pieces, besides Ben on clarinet. Aurora Nealand alto sax; Charlie Halloran, trombone; Michael Ward-Bergemon, accordion; Patrick Mackey, tenor banjo; Matt Perrine on tuba; Doug Garrison on drums. All play with other groups and pursue other projects.
Panorama’s new CD, The Next One, is a mélange of songs from Venezuela, Martinique and Colombia, interlaced with the band’s signature Klezmer sound and gypsy stylizations from the Balkans. One notable cut, “Tolú,” is an adaptation by Schenk and Dr. Michael White from the song of “Lucho Bermúdez, a Colombian clarinetist, saxophone player and big band leader who took Cúmbia, a country sound, into the city.” Schenk added three saxophonists, two trumpeters and a flugelhorn player for the sinuous Latin dance beat.
It was the redoubtable Matt Knowles of Domino Sound record store on Bayou Road who handed Schenck a mixed tape of Lucho Bermúdez’s music and said, “You gotta play this.” Schenck obeyed. Here we are.
Panorama finances the studio time and disc unit costs with a recording-a-month to your computer for a fee of your choosing. “I discovered Bandcamp, a platform that facilitates subscription fees. You go to our website (Panoramajazzband.com) and follow the link to Song of the Month. It takes you to Bandcamp, you enter at whatever rate you’d like. We have people at various levels and gifts.”
Panorama plays weddings, crawfish boils and parties besides club dates at home and on the road. The monthly email from Bandcamp is accessible by i-phone app. All in the culture of possibilities.