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03.05.08

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Stock in Björk: Becca Stevens, vocalist for Bjorkestra, takes inspiration from the pop songstress.

Big Band Theory

The 18-piece Bjorkestra pays tribute to the enigmatic Icelander this weekend at Moe's Alley in Santa Cruz.

By Andrew Gilbert


Travis Sullivan wasn't trying to do anything radical when he created Bjorkestra, an 18-piece jazz band dedicated to exploring the songs of the Icelandic pop avatar Björk. As he sees it, he's simply working in a long jazz tradition, interpreting contemporary popular music with an improvisational sensibility. Beguiled by Björk's music, the New York City-based saxophonist decided to try orchestrating tunes like "Joga" and "Cocoon" in 2004. He ended up assembling a big band stocked with top players equally passionate about her music. Last month Bjorkestra released its debut album, Enjoy, a gorgeous session featuring revelatory versions of "Hyperballad," "Hunter" and "Army of Me."

"Throughout history, this is what we do as jazz musicians," says Sullivan, who brings Bjorkestra to Moe's Alley on Wednesday as part of a U.S. tour that includes opening SFJAZZ's Spring Season concert series on March 6.

"We take the very best music in the popular vein and make it into something our own. From what she does with her own songs, rearranging and reorchestrating them from tour to tour, you can see they're really malleable. I wanted to give myself and other people the opportunity to improvise over her music."

Sullivan is quick to acknowledge that he's not the first or only jazz artist to explore Björk's music. Marked by her deceptively simple folklike themes and inventive use of texture, Björk's songs have also attracted pianists Rachel Z, Larry Goldings and Jason Moran, who has taken to describing his field of musical interest as "Brahms, Björk and Ellington." Pianist Brad Mehldau has long featured her tunes in his repertoire, and alto saxophonist Greg Osby covered "All Neon Like" on his 2002 Blue Note album Inner Circle, the same year that trumpeter Dave Douglas interpreted Björk's piece "Unison" on his RCA CD The Infinite.

For Bjorkestra's West Coast tour, Sullivan is bringing key members of the New York band, including tenor saxophonist Sean Nowell, electronic percussionist Jon Pratt, drummer Joe Abbatantuono and the rising young vocalist Becca Stevens, who suggests Björk's unbridled style without imitating it. The tour is only economically feasible because Sullivan is drawing the rest of the cast from the ranks of San Francisco's inventive, hip-hop-inflected jazz outfit Realistic Orchestra, which is run by trombonist Adam Theis.

Since he isn't a big band aficionado, Sullivan came to Bjorkestra without a lot of preconceptions about how to orchestrate her music. One strong point of reference was the classic work of arranger Gil Evans and trumpeter Miles Davis.

"I did have to sort of create a new vocabulary," Sullivan says. "Not necessarily in terms of what was going on melodically, because the lines and counter lines are already all in there. But how do you orchestrate for 18 musicians with harmonies that are very static? I felt like I was dealing with very basic colors sometimes. 'Vespertine,' for example, is so ethereal. Gil Evans could achieve that sound writing for a lot of woodwinds, clarinets and flutes, but I really wanted to use the saxophones, trombones and trumpets to convey what I was trying to get across musically."

While Björk's reaction to the extensive jazz interest in her music has been muted, her fans have often turned out for Bjorkestra performances. Sullivan made sure to contact her management and label to pave the way for the first album.

"She definitely knows about the band," he says. "Our singer met her briefly after a gig at Carnegie Hall and told her about it. But there's still no response yet in terms of what she thinks of it. She hasn't shown up at any gigs yet."


TRAVIS SULLIVAN'S BJORKESTRA plays Wednesday, March 5, at 9pm at Moe's Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $15 adv/$18 door; 831.479.1856.


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