The Big Shake-Up exists to try to bring English finesse to the brass traditions of New Orleans and combine that with an exciting big band sound. This blend has already earned the group a reputation as one of the UK’s most innovative and exciting brass ensembles.
I met the ensemble’s founder and trombone player, Jon Stokes. Jon is currently playing in Dreamgirls in London’s Savoy Theatre. Jon grew up in Gloucestershire and started the trombone aged 11. He is a busy freelancer and regularly plays with the John Wilson Orchestra, Syd Lawrence Orchestra and others too.
On tour with the Heritage Orchestra in 2008, Jon was introduced to a new world of brass playing by the orchestra’s then tuba player Gavin Smart, who handed him recordings of Young Blood Brass Band, New Orleans Night Crawlers and Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
Jon Stokes: Coming up through the grade exams, youth orchestras and the Royal College of Music you don’t quite get introduced to those kinds of things.
As soon as I heard those bands, I was amazed. These musicians learn their instruments by ear, the vibe is infectious but their playing is sometimes unrefined; they all have amazing things to say but lack the skillset to get the finesse across. This is a big contrast to the English brass band tradition, which is military but would never just play something by ear.
The idea behind our group has always been to combine the two ideas; New Orleans music, brought together with our brass traditions.
Jon pulled together a group of friends to form the Big Shake-Up (formerly Bad Ass Brass). The line up has remained almost the same from the start and is now Jean-Paul Gervasoni, Paul Munday & Gavin Broom (trumpets), Jon Stokes (trombone) Sam Bullard and Gemma Moore (saxophones), Mike Poyser (sousaphone) and Jimmy Norden (drums).
These are some of the finest London based players, each bringing their own voice to the group. The band is supported by a network of deps who not only keep the band functioning, but add their own contributions too.
Inspiration for the band’s line up came from Peter Long’s 9:20 De-Luxe a group that successfully found the sound of a big band, in a much smaller capacity.
Jon: It was the sound of three trumpets that gave the group the big band sound. That’s the only thing I changed from the New Orleans set up who might have just two trumpets, two trombones. I wanted the big, heavy big band sound. Our group doesn’t have a rhythm section as such, just drums and sousaphone.
Like us, the New Orleans bands don’t have harmony instruments; they are marching and blowing all the time. Without a harmony instrument, the role of the drums changes to something to fill the gaps that a guitar or keyboard player might. We’ve got Jimmy Nordon who is one of the most expressive, creative drummers who I have ever met. For our gig he is unbelievable – he’s constantly evolving – he never just sticks to a groove; he’s picking out what we’re doing but it’s busy when it needs to be.
I think that’s how we have tried to get around the idea of no harmony instrument. It’s taken years of experimenting to figure out how to make that work.
How does it feel to be constantly blowing?
I think everyone in the band would say it’s the toughest gig we do – once you’ve done three Big Shake-Up sets in a row at Manchester’s Matt & Phred’s Jazz Club, you are exhausted.
You’re just playing the whole time. If you’re not playing the tune, you’re playing a solo and if you’re not playing a solo you’re playing the backing line. We’re always trying to think of ways to give people rests. You get used to knowing where to back off; the New Orleans bands are just loud all the time (as even some bands are in this country) – it’s on your face the whole time.
We wanted to add much more light and shade. That’s why we describe ourselves as a jazz band rather than a party or function band. A lot of our music is slow, dark and quiet.
As a child, Jon listened to Dave O’Higgins’ album Biggish Band – a record that shares a similar line up to The Big Shake-Up, but with the addition of guitar and Hammond organ.
This amazing album features Mark Nightingale on trombone and Oren Marshall on tuba. Oren would start up fantastic grooves that the double bass player would take over; then the rhythm section would keep it going for all of the solo sections. It would then go back to a sousaphone led groove for the rest of it.
Dave had written a real New Orleans-y tune called the Big Shake Up and it became one of the first tunes I arranged for Bad Ass Brass.
While agonizing over a new name for the group, Russell Bennett – one of Jon’s closest friends – suggested pulling a tune out of the pad and calling the band after it. Sure enough, it was that very tune from O’Higgins’ album.
In November 2016, the group launched their first EP under the new name. This 5-part release features three brilliant original works by Russell Bennett, Dave O’Higgin’s Big Shake-Up and Callum Au’s fine arrangement of God Bless the Child featuring vocals by Sharleen Linton. This is a collection of lots of different styles – something that reflects the group’s intentions to bridge the gap between big band, pop, jazz music and beyond.
The group is on fine form as they offer an impossibly high level of playing with great energy. Jon leads the band and adds even more to the experience of seeing the group live; he’s passionate about engaging every audience they play for.
I would almost say I enjoy presenting concerts more than I enjoy playing the trombone. It’s not so much the counting in and the leading, I just love chatting to the audience, I could sit on stage and chat for hours – in fact, I often do. The guys in the band are always going ‘come on, we need to play another tune!’
As well as their work as performers, the group are passionate educators too. The ensemble has long standing partnerships with a variety of schools, music services and festivals.
We do all sorts. It’s mainly improvisation – getting young players to think about coming out of their music. We go in to schools and do workshops where we compose a piece with them, work out parts and perform it as part of a concert with them. We bring lots of New Orleans stuff to little kids too – Fats Domino’s I’m Walking is a favourite.
We also love teaching brass bands a tune by ear, a favourite for this is Branford Marsalis’ tune Mo’ Better Blues. They love it!
The Big Shake-Up are not only set on inspiring the next generation to pick up instruments, but they are keen to promote the art of writing and arranging too. They even hope to encourage new material for the group to try.
What’s next for The Big Shake-Up?
We would love to do some more Jazz festivals and have plans to release another album too. I imagine this would be another live recording and it will be all original compositions, and all pretty crazy. That’s the idea!”
The Big Shake-Up and ensembles alike are paving the way for musicians to pursue what they love and believe in. This group of friends have worked hard to create something together and this true collaboration shines across their output; I am sure we all look forward to hearing more from The Big Shake-Up.
For more information, please visit The Big Shake-Up.
Article first published in The Trombonist, Spring 2017.