Jazz Members Big Band with John Von Ohlen | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Jazz Members Big Band with John Von Ohlen 

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JAZZ MEMBERS BIG BAND WITH JOHN VON OHLEN

Despite his gigs and recording dates with small groups, John Von Ohlen has never shed the title "big-band drummer." Nor should he: although a whiff of anachronism accompanies the phrase, it's an enviable distinction. Many otherwise excellent percussionists simply can't keep a 12- to 18-piece orchestra humming smoothly. A big-band drummer needs more than a full but crisp kit sound, indomitable precision, and a loose swing even within a tight arrangement; he's also got to have a sheepdog's knack for knowing which members of the flock have strayed and how to nudge them back in line. Beginning with late-60s and early-70s stints in the Woody Herman and Stan Kenton bands, Von Ohlen has managed all those tasks with the magisterial authority to make his nickname, "Baron," suit his playing as well as his aristocratic last name. In the 80s Von Ohlen led and recorded with the Blue Wisp Big Band, an especially good regional outfit based in Cincinnati, where he now teaches. Like one of his predecessors in Kenton's band, Mel Lewis--and unlike, say, Butch Miles of the Basie band or Chicago's most exciting big-band drummer, Joel Spencer--Von Ohlen doesn't go for showstopping technique. Instead he plays with economy and taste, occasionally receding into the background; his drum work drives the music so effortlessly you can almost forget the motor's running. This weekend Von Ohlen guests with Chicago's longest continually active jazz orchestra, the Jazz Members Big Band, in a tribute to the music of Herman and Kenton. Even though they no longer hold down a weekly gig, the Jazz Members remind us with every performance of their exceptional balance of exacting ensemble work, savvy soloists, and unusually demanding repertoire of originals and classics. The show is part of the band's first subscription series, but individual tickets are available. Sunday, 3 PM, auditorium, Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State; 312-409-3947. Von Ohlen and the Jazz Members also play a free, 45-minute open rehearsal at 12:15 PM Saturday at the library; call 312-747-4850. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.

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