Big Band Bjork: Bjorkestra Hits The Bell House on Wednesday
Her harmonies and grooves lend themselves unbelievably well to jamming and improvising.
Tribute acts are a dime a dozen these days — it’s no big deal for a band without any ideas of its own to bang out a set full of hits by some superstar artist and play off people’s love for the musical honoree. But when an artist earns the aesthetic attention of a full-blown jazz big band, that’s when you’ve really got something. It’s not a completely unprecedented idea – there have been jazz orchestras dedicated to the adaptation of the respective canons of The Grateful Dead and Frank Zappa, for instance – but it’s certainly not the sort of thing that comes along every day, which is what makes Travis Sullivan’s Bjorkestra all the more unique.
Saxophonist/arranger/bandleader Sullivan is a schooled jazzman in the true sense of the word, having earned a Master’s Degree in Jazz Performance from the Manhattan School of Music, and pre-Bjorkestra he led smaller jazz ensembles and released the album As We Speak. But in 2001, he began pursuing a new direction. Sullivan says he started writing big-band arrangements for Björk’s songs “out of a love for Björk's music and wanting to learn more about arranging for large ensemble. I had several arrangements written before the name Bjorkestra came to be, and the band continued to evolve from there.”
Finding a way to reinterpret the idiosyncratic sounds of Björk within a jazz context might seem like a daunting task, but to Sullivan it seems natural. “The melodies are beautiful and distinctive,” he explains, “with a lot of thematic material to sink your teeth into as an arranger. Also, her harmonies and grooves lend themselves unbelievably well to jamming and improvising.” Musing on the way he’s worked up some of his favorite Bjorkestra tunes, Sullivan says, “The first arrangement I ever did, ‘Hyperballad,’ (from Björk's Post album) is still one of my favorites, because it represents the launching point for the band, and
has a successful balance of Björk and my own musical influences. My newest arrangement of "Play Dead" (from Debut) has also quickly become a favorite of mine — it grooves really hard and is incredibly fun to play.”
Ultimately, Sullivan finds that the appeal of Bjorkestra’s unique musical paradigm winds up being more inclusive than exclusive. “I'm very surprised how almost uniformly positive and enthusiastic audiences have been over the years,” he confesses. “Jazz fans and Björk fans seem to equally love the band, and some say we're even better than Björk!” New Yorkers will have a chance to weigh the relative merits of the Bjorkestra’s jazzed-up jams against the originals for themselves when the group plays The Bell House in Brooklyn on Wednesday, November 16.