Jazzed: Ajo 2.0

Artistic Director Bobby Shew Leads The Albuquerque Jazz Orchestra Onto Higher Ground

Mel Minter
4 min read
AJO 2.0
Little Boy Shew, come blow your horn (... with the Albuquerque Jazz Orchestra). (Tina Larkin)
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Renowned trumpeter Bobby Shew has come full circle, and the Albuquerque Jazz Orchestra couldn’t be happier about it. For Shew, who returned to the Albuquerque area about two years ago to “retire,” developing a quality jazz orchestra for his hometown is something he first dreamed of as a teenager. For the orchestra, the decision to offer Shew the position of artistic director—the first in the group’s long history—reflected its decision to go to another level.

Under the artistic direction of Shew over the last 18 months or so, the 17-member AJO (a reliably entertaining band since its founding 27 years ago by Pancho Romero) has emerged as a tighter, more focused unit, and it’s playing the hell out of intoxicatingly complex charts, with more punch, power and nuance than ever.

At the Outpost this Thursday, the revitalized AJO will do just that, and if you haven’t heard it before or recently, prepare yourself for a pleasant surprise.

Not the Retiring Sort

“I never thought I’d be this busy at this age,” says Shew, surrounded by sheet music, instruments, music stands and milling musicians as an AJO rehearsal comes to an end.

He’s not complaining. It’s more wondering out loud about where he’s going to find the time to get everything done.

When the orchestra offered him the position, “I was not sure I wanted to take on that chore,” he says. “But I thought, Well, since it’s my hometown and it’s a band, why not?” Since he could help the band achieve its objective, he thought it would be “a crime of omission” not to. The position also offered him the opportunity to follow up on that dream of his youth.

To whet the band’s appetite and sharpen their skills, Shew instituted more frequent rehearsals and started introducing sophisticated charts from some of the world’s best arrangers—such as Bert Joris, director of the Brussels Jazz Orchestra; Bob Curnow, who wrote for Stan Kenton’s band; and Don Sebesky, who’s arranged for the likes of Wes Montgomery, Paul Desmond, Freddie Hubbard and George Benson.

He’s also been working to find a venue where the orchestra can perform on a regular basis, a critical component in both building public awareness and forging the orchestra’s identity.

Kicking It Up a Notch

For the orchestra, whose members are primarily educators and school band leaders (including several with impressive professional experience), having someone of Shew’s caliber out in front has made all the difference.

“Having anyone in front of the band—especially someone like Bobby—the expectations are at a very high level,” trumpeter Brad Dubbs says.

“The band’s been working real hard,” says trombonist Ed Ulman, who notes that players have elevated their commitment because they “don’t want to let Bobby down.” He adds, “The band has been playing more sophisticated music, and it’s music that requires an attention to detail and a commitment from every player to play their part the way it needs to fit into the ensemble. … What’s exciting for me is that the band has grown to a point where we could record now.”

“It makes the whole thing more musically rewarding,” says altoist Glenn Kostur, speaking of the orchestra’s more nuanced performances, and he’s excited about the ambitions to build the orchestra into a local cultural institution.

Shew sums up the collective ambitions this way: “A band like this can be goddamn good. It can be
really good. It can really be good … and we’ve done a couple of concerts already when the band was good.”

At the Outpost, the AJO will include saxes Glenn Kostur (first alto), Eric Lau (second alto), Lee Taylor (first tenor), Diantha Swoboda (second tenor) and Aaron Lovato (baritone, sub for Paul Blakey); trumpets Derek Warren, Dan Jonas (sub for Brad Dubbs), Henry Estrada, Kent Erickson and Bruce Dalby; trombones Christian Pincock (sub for John Sanks), Ed Ulman, Larry Wheeler and Bill Austell; Chris Ishee on piano; Michael Olivola (sub for Colin Deuble) on bass; and Chase Ellison on drums.

The Albuquerque Jazz Orchestra appears at the Outpost Performance Space (210 Yale SE, 268-0044) on Thursday, Dec. 18, at 7:30 p.m. $17/$12 tickets (members and students) available in advance, by phone or in person.

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