The early years
The Brussels Jazz Orchestra (BJO) was founded in 1993 by Frank Vaganée, Serge Plume, Marc Godfroid and Bo van der Werf. In the early years the BJO resides in jazz club The Sounds in Brussels, organizing sessions on a two-weekly basis. Jazz Middelheim 1993 marks the first festival where the BJO appears beyond the boundaries of the Belgian capital.
After several years of performing across the Belgium, the BJO plays abroad for the first time in autumn 1996, in Laren (the Netherlands). In that same year the BJO receives its first award, winning the Prix Nicolas d’Or. From 1997 the BJO starts to perform in local concert halls and in May BJO live is recorded for Coda at De Spil, in Roeselare. This first CD includes compositions by Bert Joris and Frank Vaganée amongst others. In July came the first collaboration with Toots Thielemans.
Collaborations with guitarist Philip Catherine and American composer and arranger Bill Holman begin in 1999, while the BJO records its second CD that autumn, The September Sessions (De Werf) with compositions by Bert Joris and Frank Vaganée alongside others such as Michel Herr. In 2000 the BJO collaborates with American conductor Maria Schneider and singer Jeanne Lee.
In 2000 the BJO collaborates with American conductor Maria Schneider and singer Jeanne Lee. In 2001 the 16-piece jazz orchestra ventures beyond Europe, performing with American pianist Kenny Werner in New York, at the International Association for Jazz Education conference. This tour marks the beginning of the band’s international carreer. A concert tour with Paul Michiels follows in Belgium and the year witnesses all sorts of projects with guests such as Toots Thielemans, Theo Mertens, Dave Liebman, Bob Mintzer and Philip Catherine. The double CD The Music of Bert Joris (De Werf) is recorded in Bruges. The press is very enthusiastic and the album sells more than 6000 copies! Jack Bowers writes in All About Jazz: “We’ve sung the praises of the Brussels Jazz Orchestra before (‘The September Sessions’) but never so loudly as for this new two-disc set on which the music of the marvelous Belgian composer/arranger/trumpeter Bert Joris. And what music it is!”
Besides concerts in the Benelux following the release of the cd, the BJO once again travels to the USA for a week-long tour with Kenny Werner in 2002, playing New York (Yonker’s Pier), Boston (Sculler’s) and at the Litchfield Jazz Festival. Later that year BJO works with the Argentine composer Carlos Franzetti and trumpeter Gustavo Bergalli centred around the project Tango!. The first edition of the BJO International Composition Contest is won by David Renter (USA).
In 2003 the Brussels Jazz Orchestra celebrates its 10th anniversary with a concert in Brussels, featuring American trumpeter Tom Harrell as a guest. Later that year there the BJO tours with Paul Michiels, and plays special concerts with Toots Thielemans, Bert Joris & Philip Catherine, Maria Schneider, Kenny Werner, de Filharmonie, Dave Liebman, Phil Woods and Erwin Vann. After many concerts with Kenny Werner, the end of February saw the recording of Naked in the Cosmos (Jazz ‘n Pulz) in Studio Toots. De Standaard’s comment was short but powerful: “The BJO plays with skill. The band impresses.” On 13th December 2003 the BJO presents a new project for a large audience in Flagey: BJO vs the Big White Screen: Big Cities in the Twenties. This project consists of five silent short films, with music composed by Frank Vaganée, Bert Joris & Gyuri Spies, performed live by the Brussels Jazz Orchestra during the projection.
Following the successful IAJE meeting in 2001, in January 2004 the BJO is back in New York with Bert Joris as guest soloist. The year also features concerts with Toots Thielemans, Bert Joris & Philip Catherine as part of the project Big Cities in the Twenties. Also in 2004 there is the Radio 1 project, Big Bang, with Joost Zweegers and Piet Goddaer. During this year the BJO was voted best European orchestra and took eighth place in the Big Band category in the 52nd Downbeat Annual Critics Poll.
In 2005 the collaboration between the BJO, Bert Joris and Philip Catherine leads to the CD Meeting Colours (Dreyfus) with compositions by Philip Catherine and arrangements by Bert. Pierre Bertrand writes in Jazz Man: “A magnificent Philip Catherine and an impeccable BJO. Obviously, the basis of such an ambitious project is the sheer pleasure of playing together.” In the summer the orchestra plays at Jazz Middelheim with Norma Winstone and Kenny Wheeler. Also in 2005 the BJO goes on tour with Maria Schneider to Vienna, Zagreb and a number of larger cities in Belgium. Furthermore, the project A Percussive Portrait is developed with Belgian percussionist Chris Joris, with whom the BJO performs in Belgium and the Netherlands. In the autumn, at the Hogent Studio in Ghent, the band records compositions by Frank Vaganée: Countermove (De Werf). This album is received warmly by the press. Bart Cornand writes in Knack: “The BJO - new style - stands for fine swing with a bold taste of Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. Gone is the European fragrance, this is pure blood black americana. This cd is an infectious celebration.”
2006 is The Year of The Nominations, with nominations for the ZAMU awards, the Cultuurprijs Vlaanderen and The Power of Print for the best cultural poster (Countermove). The BJO wins the Cultuurprijs Vlaanderen prize. 2006 also sees artistic collaborations with the Limburgs Symfonisch Orkest (NL), Dave Liebman, Gianluigi Trovesi, Philip Catherine & Bert Joris, de Filharmonie, Toots Thielemans and Chris Joris, while later in the year follows a sequel to BJO Vs the Big White Screen — this time entitled: Piccadilly, with a score by Frank Vaganée. The 2006 CD release Dangerous Liaison is recorded live in at de Singel, bringing together the BJO, de Vlaamse Filharmonie and Bert Joris. According to De Standaard this makes for “a successful encounter between classical and jazz...” and the album is voted best big band album of 2006 by the American jazz website All About Jazz.
In February 2007 a successful collaboration takes place with singer David Linx, recording the album Changing Faces (O+). De Standaard again: “A dazzling result, with a swirling big band and Linx who scats soul from the depths of his being.” In May comes a second CD recording: after years of collaboration, the BJO and Michel Herr at last enter the studio, resulting in The Music of Michel Herr (De Werf). In the words of André Joassin in Le Soir: “It swings, the horn sound bursts vividly upon the ears and the well thought-out dynamics create a sense of modernity in the orchestral palette. This is also apparent in the punctilious playing of the Brussels Jazz Orchestra and the masterful musicianship of the soloists.” Furthermore this is the year of the collaboration Writing Billie with South African singer Tutu Puoane and Flemish actress Veerle Dobbelaere: different authors give their interpretation of Billie Holiday set against specially written new compositions and arrangements by Bert Joris. Also in 2007 come the first of BJO’s Finest concerts, consisting exclusively of compositions by BJO musicians, arranged by other BJO musicians.
The projects Changing Faces, Writing Billie, BJO’s finest, The Music of Michel Herr and Meeting Colours all continue to run in 2008, providing a variety of events in venues and festivals at home and abroad, including the Netherlands, France and Italy. In the autumn the Brussels Jazz Orchestra performs with Richard Galliano, and starts to think in terms of a cd: Ten Years Ago (Milan), is recorded in April 2008 and praised by the international press: Georges Tonla Briquet for instance writes “This is not a band with an accordionist as an extra guest, but a seamless blending of two entities.”
In 2009 the BJO works with the Brussels Philharmonic (Vlaams Radio Orkest) on a project for the 75th anniversary of the National Lottery: Creating Chances, led by Bert Joris. Creating Chances brings the BJO and the BP together, with soloists soprano Iris Luypaers and jazz singer Tutu Puoane and marks the composition debut of Frank Vaganée on this scale. Collaboration between jazz and classical also appears in the subsequent project Requiem Lindgren, performed by the BJO, the Vlaams Radio Koor, Camerata Aetas Nova and Capella di Voce, all under the direction of Kurt Bikkembergs. In September 2009 we also find a unique collaboration between the BJO as jazz orchestra and one of the top Belgian brass bands, Brass Band Willebroek. Concert activity increases from approximately 30 concerts a year in the years 2002–2008, to 40 concerts in 2009.
2010 is the most intense working year in the history of the Brussels Jazz Orchestra. Spring kicks off in Flagey with live recordings of the album "Signs and Signatures" for W.E.R.F. , followed by a 10-part concert series of the new project "Mama Africa" with singer Tutu Puoane. The eponymous CD of this project is released in February 2010 on the UK label Saphrane. De Telegraaf writes: "The Brussels Jazz Orchestra accompanies Tutu Puoane to perfection in a selection of beautifully arranged South African songs.” There are concerts with Richard Galliano in the Muziekgebouw in 't IJ, the Cultural Centre of Dudelange (Lux) and Musikfest Bremen. In June the Orchestra makes its debut in Lithuania with concerts in Vilnius and Klaipeda. The climax of the summer is Theater aan Zee in Ostend, with Frank Vaganée as curator of music and Michaël De Cock for the theatre section, with a total of eight concerts performed. In the autumn, "Signs and Signatures", by and with trumpeter/composer Bert Joris sees the light with premiere concerts in Ramatuelle (FR), Bruges, Rotterdam (NL), Ghent, Borgerhout and Middelburg (NL). De Standaard: "Joris proves with this CD that he is a masterful composer and has improved with age as a trumpeter. The Brussels Jazz Orchestra is an excellent interpreter of his music." And then, the cherry on the cake of 2010, the residency of the Brussels Jazz Orchestra and US pianist Kenny Werner at the Jazz at Lincoln Center in NYC: fourteen concerts received with much enthusiasm. No less than 59 concerts are performed in 2010.
In the spring of 2011 the album 'Guided Dream' comes out. This collaboration with Dave Liebman (US) features live recordings of two concerts, with Liebman's compositions arranged for big band and some remarkable adaptations of jazz standards. A series of concerts with Liebman is programmed for early 2012.
The BJO and Bart Joris play on the opening night of Jazz Middelheim festival. Press and public are exalted. According to festival director Bertrand Falmang this is ‘their best concert ever’. The summer of 2011 witnesses the birth of another album with a jazz composer of international fame, pianist Kenny Werner (US). The record is presented at the Dinant Jazz festival in July. Mezzo TV records this conert.
In the summer the BJO is welcomed in Johannesburg where it performs on two consecutive nights at Sound of Jazz, the biggest jazz festival in South Africa. Obviously, Tutu Puoane being the leading lady, the audience got caught up in the atmosphere of Mama Africa.
In the autumn of 2011 concerts with Bert Joris are scheduled. Signs and Signatures remains the favourite with the public! In December the ambitious Agatha project is launched, i.e. a contemporary jazz composition by Kerkko Koskinen from Finland. For the occasion, the Brussels Jazz Orchestra will be joined by I Solisti del Vento and Russian trumpeter Alex Sipiagin: 9 additional wind instruments to interpret the ambitious sound universe of Agatha.
2012 kicks off with a concert at the Tournai Jazz Festival, with vocalists David Linx and Maria João. The project A Different Porgy & Another Bess is a personal and contemporary interpretation of George Gershwin's successful opera classic. In March the CD is released on Naïve and in the summer the BJO presents this same production with Linx and João at jazz festivals in Brussels (B), Nisville (Serbia) and Bremen (D). BJO had a huge amouont of media attention in February, at the Academy awards in Los Angeles when The Artist won the Oscar for Best Original Film Score. As one of the performers on the soundtrack, BJO had a share in the Oscar glory. This music had also already won a Golden Globe, a César and a BAFTA Award. The new production of Graphicology is premiered in Amsterdam in February, a surprising combination of graphic novels by Philip Paquet and live jazz. Nils Lindberg's Requiem is on the programme for March and May, a collaboration with the Flemish Radio Choir and Capella di Voce. In February, Kenny Werner (U.S.) stops off in Belgium for two concerts. However, the highlight of the year comes at the end of March, when the BJO perform six sell-out nights in a row at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York. They perform the repertoire of Institute of Higher Learning, with Werner and guest soloist Chris Potter. Mama Africa is on the agenda twice in spring, with concerts in Geraardsbergen and Heist-op-den-Berg. The BJO presents a special production for the Red Star Line Festival in Antwerp: New York. City of Jazz: some extracts of Graphicology and an original soundtrack to a Laurel & Hardy film, written by Bert Joris. Shortly after, the BJO appears on stage at the young New Port Jazz festival in Nieuwpoort, Belgium, again with Bert Joris. In September, A Different Porgy & Another Bess is on the bill at the New Morning, the most prestigious Paris (FR) jazz club. In October and November the Graphicology project resumes with concerts at Flagey (Brussels) and Antwerp (Bookfair and CC Luchtbal). The BJO rounds off 2012 with BJO's Finest, a CD recording and concert in Flagey's Studio 1, which simultaneously represents the kick-off of the festive year 2013 when the BJO celebrates its twentieth anniversary.
In January, Graphicology starts things off with three concerts at home in Belgium. Later in the year, they follow these with six more at home and abroad, including France and Lithuania. In February, the Brussels Jazz Orchestra (BJO) performs Branford Marsalis’ Swing Symphony with the Brussels Philharmonic in the Bozar in Brussels and the Bijloke in Ghent. The month of March is dedicated entirely to the orchestra’s twentieth anniversary. Since the release of BJO’s Finest – Live! and four anniversary concerts, the BJO has been all over the media. The press applauds the CD, and the concerts – in Flagey, deSingel, CC (Cultural Centre) Kortrijk and CC Hasselt – are a resounding success among the public. Together with guest soloists David Linx, Bert Joris, Philip Catherine, Tutu Puoane and Michel Herr, the concerts area veritable “best-of” reflecting the past two decades. In July, Belgian television network VRT records and broadcasts the concert in Hasselt in two parts.
This summer, BJO’s Finest – Live! wins the hearts of visitors to the Brussels Summer Festival and Jazz in the Park in Ghent. And Mama Africa ads extra spice to the summer festivals. This time, the Gaume Jazz Festival is captivated by the charms of Tutu Puoane and Miriam Makeba in August.
In 2013, A Different Porgy & Another Bess continues to build its international success, performing the concert twice in April, in Belfort and Valenciennes, France. In September, the company travels to Asia with David Linx and Maria João to perform the successful remake of Porgy and Bess in Singapore’s prestigious Esplanade in front of more than seven hundred enthusiastic listeners. In November, A Different Porgy & Another Bess returns to the French stage, this time in Angoulême and Limoges.
Another feature, including the second CD release of 2013, is Wild Beauty – a collaborative project with Joe Lovano and Gil Goldstein – served to highlight the anniversary year. American saxophonist Joe Lovano selected eight compositions from his broad repertoire and asked Goldstein to arrange them for big band. The result is Wild Beauty, an homage to Lovano’s Sicilian roots. The international premiere takes place at Ghent Jazz in July.
Three years after its release, Signs and Signatures, the critically acclaimed album of Bert Joris playing with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra, continues to be a crowd pleaser. Parts of it are performed at Jazz Vrijbroek in Mechelen and at two concerts in Latvia in October.
The BJO comes out with yet another project in October: Luz del Sur, Jazz Inspired by Flamenco. The project, including compositions by Spanish saxophonist Perico Sambeat, appears in Flagey for the first time and is performed twice at CC Het Bolwerk in Vilvoorde. With Sambeat as the soloist – and joined by a singer, a dancer, a guitarist, and cajón player – the duende (the Spanish soul) was palpable on the stage. October also sees the final round of the BJO’s International Composition Contest, with four finalists on stage in Studio 4 of Flagey.
In November follows a retake of BJO vs. The Big White Screen: Big cities in the twenties to celebrate the CINEMATEK’s seventy-fifth anniversary. The BJO supports the victims of hurricane Haiyan in the Philippines with a benefit concert in December.
The Brussels Jazz Orchestra tops off its anniversary year with two Grammy Award nominations for its album Wild Beauty with Joe Lovano.
2014 started off with three performances of Close Encounters, another successful collaboration with I Solisti del Vento, in Antwerp, Brussels and Bornem. Before the concerts we held several days of open rehearsals that were attended by students from the Kunsthumaniora in Hasselt. In March, our brand-new production New York, City of Jazz had its premiere: a tribute to the city of New York, in song (by Tutu Puoane), text and images. It was a hit with audiences, and 5 concerts followed later that year. Another event in March was introducing 1200 first-year elementary-school students in Bruges to jazz, through our ‘Eersteklasconcerten’, a project with the non-profit foundation Musica. Graphicology continued its victory tour, playing two stages in Belgium (Bruges and Moeskroen) and in the summer we crossed the border for two concerts in Serbia. Another of our favourite productions, BJO’s Finest, had an audience in Sint-Truiden (March) and at the open-air jazz festival in Lisbon (September). In May, tryouts started in Mechelen of Maestro, an unusual new project in collaboration with t’arsenaal Mechelen. Actor Warre Borgmans, scriptwriter Hugo Matthysen, director Michael De Cock and composer Frank Vaganée joined forces to create this premiere. The second formation of the Brussels Youth Jazz Orchestra rounded off their 3-year term in July with several Best Of concerts in Eupen and Brussels, led by Frank Vaganée. The summer turned out to be the ideal time to record a new CD: The Music of Enrico Pieranunzi. Pieranunzi was at the piano, Bert Joris made arrangements, played solos and conducted, and Brussels Jazz Orchestra played its best, as was clear from the audiences’ enthusiastic response. The live recordings were released in January 2015. In early September, BJO were guests on the Sint-Jansplein square in Antwerp, playing an open-air concert with the orchestra deFilharmonie. All good songs come to an end, and in October, BJO performed A Different Porgy & Another Bess for the last time, in Compiègne (F). After a CD recording and 16 concerts in Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia and Singapore, we brought this wonderful project to a close. The Sweetheart and The Daredevil (with sweetheart Mary Pickford and daredevil Harold Lloyd) is the third project in the series BJO vs The Big White Screen. This co-production with CINEMATEK had its international premiere in Budapest (H) in November. A few days after the concert, BJO gave a well-received master class in the Budapest Conservatory. Starting in December the rollercoaster called Maestro of De Man Zonder Tanden (Maestro or The Man With No Teeth) was set in motion with no fewer than 7 concerts (and 9 more in 2015), to sold-out halls and an enthusiastic press. Warre Borgmans outdoes himself as De Man Zonder Tanden. For Brussels Jazz Orchestra, the year 2014 ended with a big bang.
The year began on an educational note with one of our ‘First Class Concerts’ (for schoolchildren) in Ypres, followed by a performance of The Sweetheart and The Daredevil the same evening. Our Maestro tour continued on its victorious way with no less than eight concerts in January, and one in February to round off the tour. The premiere of our new production, The Music of Enrico Pieranunzi, was given extra brilliance with a master class and an open rehearsal in the Brussels conservatory. At the premiere itself, Enrico and Bert Joris practically set Flagey on fire. This was the start of an acclaimed concert series in the spring, playing European jazz of the highest order, with performances in Ghent, Leuven and Antwerp. In February the orchestra went to Sweden and Denmark with Graphicology, a quintessentially BJO production that had already captivated audiences at many international stages, with compositions by band members and a crossover collaboration with a Belgian visual artist. The success of this production culminated in a concert in Pennsylvania and a residence in Jazz at Lincoln Center (New York) in late March – a milestone for the orchestra, which had played on American soil but never before without an American soloist! BJO also packed houses with New York City of Jazz: this ode to the Mecca of jazz by Tutu Puoane went down extremely well in Lokeren, Dendermonde, Antwerp, Spa, Merksem and at the Netherlands’ Meer Jazz festival.
The new BREL project, with jazz arrangements of chansons by ‘Le Grand Jacques’, had its baptism by fire during a try-out in Strasbourg. This seems to have been the perfect preparation for the CD recordings in June. The arrangers for this production created some absolute gems for David Linx and the orchestra. The release followed in January of 2016.
The summer featured performances with the Gil Evans Project conducted by Ryan Truesdell, at Jazz à Liège (Signs and Signatures), Meer Jazz (NL) and North Sea Jazz (NL). In August we were at Jazz Middelheim along with the Canadian jazz genius Darcy James Argue. Both Truesdell and Argue belong to the younger jazz generation from North America, and are artists we’d like to give more opportunities to play in Europe. We closed the festival summer with Bert Joris at Jazz Geraardsbergen.
November saw yet another premiere in the Bruges Concertgebouw: Ravel 2.0 with deFilharmonie, with a performance in deSingel the next day. 2015 ended in beauty with a private concert of BREL, as a harbinger for a successful launch of BREL in the new year.
2016 was without a doubt the BJO’s BREL year. Audiences at the 14 concerts in Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Poland completely fell for David Linx and the Brussels Jazz Orchestra’s fresh approach to Le Grand Jacques’ immortal oeuvre. The eponymous CD also received enthusiastic reviews in the leading jazz media.
Along with the other great vocalist, Tutu Puoane, in 2016 we rounded off the acclaimed New York, City of Jazz production with a tour that took in Bruges, Ghent, Geel, Louvain-La-Neuve and Alsemberg. We also rounded off our Graphicology tour with a concert at the jazz festival in Katowice, Poland.
In 2016 we premiered The Future is Now, BJO’s ‘stepping stone’ showcasing young jazz talent. Matthias Van den Brande, Hendrik Lasure, Roeland Celis and Quinten De Craecker showed their best stuff in this first season, with concerts in Ronse, Rijkevorsel and Leuven. A new cast of performers will join the project in 2017.
On World Refugee Day, 20 June, the Brussels Jazz Orchestra spoke from its heart with a one-of-a-kind concert in the Ancienne Belgique venue: Artists #WithRefugees, the results of months of preparation between partners from the culture sector and the sector dealing with refugee issues (coordinated by UNHCR Belgium). As a part of this effort, Frank Vaganée presented the benefit CD ‘Two Small Bags, Ten Million Dreams’, a studio recording of the piece performed with many other musicians that evening. The high point was the performance by BJO and 5 musicians originally from Syria, who had the audience wildly clapping and cheering.
In early July, we recorded a new CD with Bert Joris, which was released in December. The disc is entitled Smooth Shake and even the avant-première of the concert at Brosella was a huge success. BJO also played its Finest programme during the summer at the MA Festival in Bruges and released the very first jazz disc in Auro 3D technology: a reissue of BJO’s Finest.
Listeners over our borders have really taken to the Music of Enrico Pieranunzi. We gave concerts at the Piacenza Jazz Festival (Italy) and in Germany (Saarbrücker Jazz and Ingolstadt). The Sweetheart and The Daredevil, the third production under the label BJO vs The Big White Screen, was performed in Vilvoorde and Sint-Niklaas. In the autumn we gave an extra performance of MONK’estra at Parkjazz in Kortrijk. This production, by and with John Beasley, breathes new life into the music of Thelonious Monk, in the run-up to 2017, the year in which Monk would have turned 100.