Christopher Zuar: Forging a Subtle Big Band


​Christopher Zuar with his wife/collaborator, Anne Beal.

(Photo: Emma Canfield)

Tending the soil of large ensemble jazz culture can be a challenging, labor-intensive and sometimes thankless job. The stakes rise considerably for independent operators, without the support system of an institution or government-based art funding.

But big band life can also represent a compelling and uniquely rewarding creative process and sound palette, for those who are called. Just ask just ask Christopher Zuar, the gifted composer/arranger/bandleader whose new album, Exuberance, arrives as a promise-affirming follow-up to his acclaimed 2016 Sunnyside debut, Musings.

On the new Christopher Zuar Orchestra album — conducted by another big band specialist, Mike Holober — Zuar’s sophisticated and subtle ensemble inventions are fortified with lyricism and strong soloing (by tenor saxophonist Jason Rigby, guitarist Pete McCann, pianist Glenn Zaleski, guest violinist Sara Caswell and others). The individual pieces are stitched into a integrated seven-piece collection, with a cohesive conceptual ethos.

If an implicit sense of narrative is conveyed by the album’s sequence, one underscoring theme might be an unfolding love story. Seeds of the project were sown in 2017, when he started making musical sketches at the Fellows at MacDowell artist’s residency in New Hampshire. Serendipitously, he also met his future wife, animation filmmaker Anne Beal, at the residency, and the pair collaborated on various aspects of the album.

As Zuar relays, “Just as the project was picking up steam, the pandemic hit, which threw a lot of uncertainty into the mix. A large chunk of the record was written during the lockdowns — it’s one of the things that kept me sane during that time. I feel really fortunate to have had a creative project to consume my mind with. So many of my friends and colleagues were not so lucky.

“It can be challenging to stay motivated on one project for that long, especially considering how demanding I am of myself and the people I work with. We saw the project through to the end and I’m really proud of what we made.”

Thinking big, musically, is a trait from childhood for Zuar, who grew up on Long Island, New York. He explains that “for one reason or another, orchestral music has always spoken to me. Whether it’s big band or symphonic orchestra, the power of a large group of musicians playing together has moved me since I fell in love with both jazz and classical music as a 4th grader who just picked up the trumpet.”

In his formative era, Zuar was also drawn toward big band music via childhood friend Theo Katzman, a musician and son of West Coast trumpeter Lee Katzman, who worked with Stan Kenton and Gerry Mulligan. Zuar “sought out, and consumed, every record Lee played on. I started writing big band music in high school, trying to figure some things out. Twenty years later, and I’m still trying to figure things out — but the passion hasn’t died. The possibilities within writing for a jazz orchestra feel endless.

“While the orchestral palette is a defining characteristic of my music — lots of woodwinds, muted brass, percussion — some of the pieces on Exuberance tap into the string band world with the use of violin, mandolin, banjo, dobro. I’m having a blast working with those tonalities in an orchestral jazz context. When I revisit some of my early musical influences, in the music that my parents listened to [Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Cream, Yes and Steely Dan], I hear how that music and its use of strings and lyricism has crept into my compositional language, too.”

Asked to cite a handful of prime influences on his own musical voice, Zuar says, “Jim McNeely, Maria Schneider and Mike Holober are a few composers who I have gotten to know and learn from over the years.” He had a near-miss studying with Bob Brookmeyer, who left the New England Conservancy just as Zuar arrived there, but he says, “I would add him to that list of early influences as well as Thad Jones and Kenny Wheeler.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Arnold Schoenberg, Alexander Scriabin, Charles Ives and J.S. Bach as composers whose work deeply influenced me and continues to do so. These days I’m also inspired by contemporary composers who push the boundaries of their mediums, like Gabriel Kahane.”

By this point, Zuar has earned a respected position in the big band world, having had his music played by such legendary transatlantic groups as the WDR Big Band, the Danish Radio Big Band and the Brussels Jazz Orchestra. His resume includes arrangements for Ben Wendell, Joel Ross, Theo Bleckmann and others.

“I love working with European big bands,” he exclaims. “Miho Hazama, the composer and chief director of the Danish Radio Big Band, is a friend, and I’m always honored when she asks me to contribute arrangements for her projects. These are exceptional bands with a wonderful history and a love for new and adventurous music.”

Exuberance is at once new and adventurous and rooted in redefined tradition. Zuar and Beal interacted in various ways during the creative process on the project. She gave advice and helped with production, responded to his music with her imagery and penned the lyrics to the album’s poignant finale, the title track “Exuberance.” Together, they formed the music and art entity/record label aptly named Tonal Conversations. Future interactive plans include Zuar’s musical responses to her visual impetuses.

Zuar admits that “collaborating with your partner can be challenging; you don’t leave the work in the studio at the end of the day like you would with other collaborators. All of the successes and failures, agreements and disagreements follow you home, and it can be hard to know where to draw the line — for your work and your marriage.

“That being said, sharing in the creative act with someone you love, especially when the work is about the life you are building together, is a beautiful experience, one I wouldn’t trade for anything.” He adds that “the lyrics she wrote for ‘Exuberance’ are deeply meaningful to me and elevated the music to another level emotionally.”

In an unorthodox album-structuring move, the sequence reaches its endgame with that sumptuously lyrical (and lyric-fitted) vocal song (glowingly sung by Emma Frank). As Zuar comments, “We went through many different iterations of the order, but ultimately landed on one that takes the listener on a journey sequentially through time, from when I met Anne at MacDowell, to our marriage six years later. This album is in large part about growth.

“To fully grasp the meaning of ‘Exuberance,’ I wanted the listener to experience the journey, all the joys and sorrows that led me there. It was also the last piece I composed. I wanted to leave the listener with the words Anne wrote, which felt like a poignant response to the first 50 minutes of the record.”

Zuar’s creative workflow continues in various directions, in alliance with Beal and beyond.

“I try to always have something on my writing desk,” he says, “even if it’s just for myself. Currently I’m working on a collection of short pieces for solo piano. It’s a nice break from all the large ensemble music I’ve been writing.” DB

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