Callum Au: a week working with the SWR Big Band

“This was the first time I’d ever done anything quite like this.Composer/arranger/ orchestrator/trombonist Callum Au has just returned from a week directing the SWR Big Band, rehearsing and performing concerts in Kaiserslautern, Mainz and Stuttgart. The third of the concerts will be broadcast later in the year. Interview by Sebastian  

Callum Au directing the SWR Big Band . Photo credit: Lena Semmelroggen

LondonJazz News: You’re just back from a week with the SWR Big Band. Was it a new experience for you?

Callum Au: This was the first time I’d ever done anything quite like this. Although I’ve directed plenty of big bands in the past in various settings, being flown in as the guest musical director for a whole week, choosing a good chunk of the repertoire, and having the time & space to rehearse properly was a new experience for me. Unlike the other German Radio big bands, the SWR’s musicians are freelance, not salaried, and freelance musicians are the same sorts of people wherever you go – so much was familiar too!

LJN: Because Stuttgart is a “Motor City”, back in the fifties they called the band “the Daimler of the big bands”. Any comment on that?

Callum Au: I had to Google Daimler! This moniker does make sense – the band are like a well oiled machine. Many of their members have been with the band for 30+ years, and you can really tell when you hear (for example) how together the saxophone section sounds that they know instinctively how to phrase together and how the section leaders are going to approach various passages of music. In rehearsing a British band, you often dedicate a fair chunk of your time to tightening up the ensemble sections, since most British bands come together fairly infrequently – this was not the case here.

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LJN: What was your “brief”? How did the repertoire get chosen ? And what was it?

CA: The concert series is called Heimspiel – which translates roughly as ‘home game’. Each year the band put on a short tour around the radio centres in South West Germany, and they invite a guest artist or two to perform with them. This time, the other guest artist was the amazing Canadian/German singer/pianist Michael Kaeshammer – so the second set was made up of his material. That left the first set to feature the big band – and I was asked to bring any music I had that would fulfil that brief. I chose a variety of things from my own library – four of my original pieces (one collaboration with British trumpeter James Davison), and three arrangements of standards.

LJN: Was there a high point for you?

CA: As I have a 1 year-old, having a week of uninterrupted sleep in the various hotels was pretty great… In all seriousness, though, just hearing a band of that quality play my music is an amazing feeling. It was also wonderful to play for an appreciative audience, who were on average a fair bit younger than a typical UK crowd, and who clearly loved Big Band music.

LJN: An amusing story?

CA: The drummer (who was excellent – 33 years old and playing with the band for the first time) was called Dominik Raab. When I asked for his surname so I could make the announcements, the band didn’t understand what I found so funny.

LJN: Had you written something new?

CA: For my concert at Cadogan Hall in January, I wrote a new piece called ‘Murmurations’, which acted as a sort of overture. I decided that this would be a nice piece to work on with the band, particularly as I already knew their two formidable jazz trombone soloists Marc Godfroid and Jurgen Neudert – so I wrote a big band adaptation of this especially for the occasion. I also wrote a new chart for Michael Kaeshammer on his new single ‘Turn it Up’.

LJN: What are the trends in your writing / your enthusiasms these days?

CA: My taste in music is fairly varied, but it always has some common elements – I always like a strong melody, interesting harmony, and a groove that displays energy and purpose. I’m fairly sure at this stage in my life that I won’t suddenly develop a passion for the atonal or the arhythmic – I honestly find that sort of music a little self indulgent and hard to understand. I think my tastes probably align pretty well with the average big band audience member – which is not entirely an accident!

LJN: Compared to London bands these bands normally have a HUGE amount of rehearsal time. How was that?

CA: We had 15 hours of rehearsal time to put together a 90 minute programme. That’s more than you’d get in London by a factor of five, but (apparently) substantially less than they’d get over at the WDR or NDR bands. It’s really nice to be able to focus on details and give directions on bigger picture/shape.

Callum Au (with Andi Maile). Photo credit: Lena Semmelroggen

LJN: What was it all leading towards? A public concert… a radio recording?

CA: The third night (in Stuttgart) was recorded for a radio and TV broadcast sometime in August this year. It’ll be on all the usual social channels too. It was a great night – the best performance of the three

LJN: Please feel free to thank some people

CA: Special thanks to Hans-Peter Zachary, the band’s manager, who drove Michael and me around Germany and was great company throughout. He was my initial point of contact with the band as he is responsible for commissioning new arrangements, so I had spoken to him on the phone before, but it is lovely to meet face to face and put a name to a face!

Thanks also to Michael Kaeshammer, the other featured artist – he’s a ferociously talented singer, writer, and pianist, and he’s completely cool and easy going to work with. I loved how he just slotted into the band and was able to effortlessly fit in, and how he didn’t want to run more than was necessary on the daily soundchecks (as any brass player will tell you, the worst thing you can do on the day of a gig is have a long heavy duty soundcheck – it just tires out your chops for the performance).

Finally – thanks to all the musicians of the SWR Big Band for making me feel so welcome!

Bird Lives” with the SWR Big Band, John Beasley and Magnus Lindgren was nominated for three 2023 Grammy’s and won one LINK

LINKS: Callum Au’s website

LJN coverage of Callum Au since 2012

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