“There are lots and lots of good big bands on the planet,” said drummer Tommy Igoe. “There are only two or three truly great big bands, and our goal is to be among the elite.”
Igoe has traveled the world, playing with artists such as Art Garfunkel, Stanley Jordan and jazz-rock group Blood, Sweat and Tears. He is also the band leader for two ensembles, The Tommy Igoe Band, which plays a weekly gig Monday nights at Rrazz Room nightclub in Igoe’s hometown of San Francisco, and the Birdland Big Band, which has a standing gig at Birdland, the famous jazz club in New York City, every Friday night.
This month, the Birdland Big Band hits the road for its second month-long tour, including a stop Saturday night at the Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center in Rockville. The band’s first time on the road was in October, and Igoe says touring with an ensemble of this size is not typical.
“This is our maiden voyage,” Igoe said. “We are doing two month-long tours.”
“Just putting the band on the road is a huge, huge accomplishment,” he added. “There really aren’t any other bands on this scale doing what we’re doing.”
It’s not just their touring that sets the Birdland Big Band apart from other big bands. Igoe, who grew up the son of a big band drummer and started drumming at age 2, said while he “was raised on the tradition,” he has “zero allegiance to the tradition.”
“My thing is to take a completely different approach while being respectful,” Igoe said. “I think because my whole musical career has been so eclectic, it’s very easy for me to not get pulled down into wanting to create anything that’s been done before us. I’m always on the prowl, looking for new music.”
Igoe said the band is aiming to introduce big band music in a new way to new audiences by playing pieces that other groups might have overlooked. It was this desire to create something new and fresh that sparked the creation of the Birdland Big Band in the first place.
Igoe said an opportunity came up to play at the club at Birdland in 2006, Since several bands that came before them failed to have success at Birdland, Igoe said it was “quite a leap of faith.”
The 15-piece band, which has endured several personnel changes in the past seven years, is composed of musicians from a variety of jazz, pop and Broadway shows. All of the musicians also are friends of Igoe’s.
“All friends of mine in New York wanted to be a part of this,” Igoe said.
Despite a group of talented musicians and an enthusiastic band leader, the Birdland Big Band’s first few shows didn’t draw big crowds. In fact, they didn’t draw any crowds.
“The first few weeks there was literally no one there,” Igoe said.
But thanks to what Igoe called a “grassroots movement,” including the use of social media, emails and even good old fashion postcards, their audience grew.
“We kept grinding, kept playing,” Igoe said. “More people came and they brought their friends ... (If) you have a core group of people who really love what you do, they do the advertising for you.”
All that advertising paid off. The group’s first full-length recording, “Eleven,” is up for four Grammy awards — Best Large Ensemble, Best Arrangement for two of their songs and Best Engineering. Igoe said he also hopes to take the band on an international tour in the near future.
While Igoe might pride himself on bucking tradition, he still recognizes the importance of playing in a venue like Birdland.
“It’s an honor and a gift to play at that club every single week,” he said. “I think it’s the finest jazz club in New York and maybe in the world. The bar is very high, knowing the legacy and all of the talent that has played there before us.”