The Regattabar in Cambridge was closed for over three years during the pandemic, but the iconic jazz venue came roaring back last fall. On Feb. 5, the Regattabar is starting a weekly concert series called Big Band Mondays — and they're kicking it off in grand fashion with the Ken Schaphorst Big Band, a local treasure. The 17-piece ensemble is led by acclaimed composer, performer and co-chair of the New England Conservatory's Jazz Studies program Ken Schaphorst. He spoke about the upcoming concert with GBH's All Things Considered host Arun Rath. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
Arun Rath: So let's dig right in with this great music. In fact, the song we just heard, called "Mbira," we'll be hearing on Monday night. Tell us about the background of this tune, it's an original?
Ken Schaphorst: Yeah, I've always loved that instrument. Some people think of it as the African thumb piano, but mbira is the term that I learned somewhere along the line. I transcribed things I heard, I studied, I read books about it, and the piano figure that starts it all off was just something I came up with one day, and I composed the extended piece based on it.
It's something I enjoy playing, it's got a lot of room for soloists. So, I'm looking forward to hearing this band play it on Monday.
Rath: And on this recording, that sounds like an electric piano, right? And that's Uri Caine playing there?
Schaphorst: Well, actually that's me. I was playing the Fender Rhodes and he was playing the grand piano. I don't play a lot. I don't think I'm going to play on Monday. Tim Ray is the pianist, and I'm sure will play much better than me. But I do occasionally play a little trumpet and a little piano. That's something I have done often on that piece.
Rath: I want to talk about another one of your bandmates, collaborators and academic colleague, Ran Blake, who at this point, I think has gone from being a legend to a jazz god. For people out there who aren't as jazz obsessed, could you explain the importance of Ran Blake and what it's like working with him in a big band context?
Schaphorst: I first heard Ran's music when I was in high school and it was this very famous duo recording with Jeanne Lee.
When I came to study myself at NEC, I came here for grad school in 1982. He was one of the first people I looked for, and we found we loved a lot of the same things, like the music of Thelonious Monk.
It's been a real pleasure coming back as a faculty member because I've gotten to work with him and invite him into my classes. He was very close to not only Monk, but the Monk family. That all by itself is amazing to me. And he has great stories about so many of the musicians of the previous generation.
He was also very instrumental in developing the Third Stream department — which has now changed its name a couple of times — but this was an idea that Gunther Schuller had of combining jazz with other styles of music and other traditions. Ran has been, I would say more than any other person, instrumental in bringing that idea to NEC and to the education of generations of students.
So, anyway, it's hard to put it all into a short statement, but, in terms of the music and the big band, I think I learned after getting to know him better and after coming back to NEC that he loved big band music and I started arranging his music. In fact, we keep talking about maybe doing a whole record of it. I've done enough arrangements now that it probably would fit into a record, and we will play one of those arrangements. His arrangement of "Memphis" is something we're going to do on Monday. I think he grew up hearing big band music and just loved the sound of it. So, it seems like it's a good match.
Rath: Brilliant. I'm curious about how working with the NEC Jazz Orchestra and being there as a faculty member — I guess even going back to when you were a student, as well — how it has affected your compositions and your work?
Schaphorst: Yeah, that's a good question. I have to say it's a luxury to be able to rehearse as much as we do.
We did a concert of my music in December at NEC and some of what we're going to be playing with the student band on Monday night is from that. We're also going to do some Ellington, some George Russell. And the band that I'm putting together specifically for the occasion on Monday night, which is a professional band of my favorite players in Boston, basically, including Ran Blake and Dominique Eade, so many great players. The truth is, we just don't have as much time to rehearse. They have all this experience, and I know most of them well and they know my music, so maybe some of that compensates for the lack of rehearsal.
But at the same time, I love working with the students because we can really spend time to work on the details. I think that's affected my writing because I have time to experiment. "Maybe I'll try this instead of doing what I wrote. Why don't you play this?" instead of improvising in rehearsals. So that's been maybe one of the things I would point to.
Rath: I'm dying to ask you a question that was percolating in me as I was getting ready to talk with you. I love big ensemble jazz, but pretty much from when I was a kid, all through my adult life, I've been hearing not only that the age of big bands was over, but practically that it was a dying art.
Then I think here in 2024, people like Maria Schneider are going stronger than ever, [as are] Christian McBride, the Mingus Big Band, Christine Jensen, Ted Nash, Ben Allison and Evan Sherman. Locally here in the last year on the show, we've featured the Berklee Indian Ensemble, the Generation Gap Jazz Orchestra, your NEC colleague and our friend Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol had a big band recording out last spring, Kris Davis' "Diatom Ribbons." I could just keep going on and on, but am I crazy to think that we are in a new golden age for big bands?
Schaphorst: It's possible. I mean, I'm very optimistic in general, so I would like to think that it's — if not a golden age — [at least] still with us. It will still continue to be with us.
One thing I'll say, and this is sort of tied into this new Big Band Mondays series, because the plan is to have a different big band every first Monday of the month. So I think Ayn Inserto, another great band leader from Boston is going to be performing in March. Greg Hopkins, who teaches at Berklee, an amazing composer-arranger, is going to be performing in April. Felipe Salles, who's actually in my band on Monday, is going to do his own gig there at the Regattabar. So, I'm excited for this.
I'm also excited because there is built into the big band a kind of a social network. I guess I would say it's a chance for musicians who don't see each other very often to get together, and that's part of the fun of the big band. I think it's part of what keeps it coming back again. I think there is something about the large ensemble, even though it's very impractical, I should add. It does create a certain energy just because of the fun that tends to happen when you get all these jazz musicians together.
Rath: Brilliant. Well, very excited to have this series and it was great talking with you. Ken, thank you so much.
Schaphorst: Oh you're welcome. Great to talk to you.
On Feb. 5, the Ken Schaphorst Big Band kicks off a new tradition, Big Band Mondays at the Regattabar at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge. The show starts at 7:30 p.m.