New Tricks 

An underground, 20-piece big band comes to light.

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"This is not your grandfather's big band,” Dan Borlawsky insists about his Central Virginia Jazz Orchestra. Given that the current crop of grandfathers is likely to have grown up on the Beatles and Elvis, this is probably a safe bet. But the message is that the music it plays isn't old, tired and dusty, but shiny-button new, exciting and bursting with ideas. He wants you to give it a chance.

Keeping big band music alive is a labor of love. It's been almost financially impossible to keep a stable group together since the '50s, although some of the giants such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie kept their bands going a few decades longer. Today the form survives in schools and universities — Virginia Commonwealth University has two such groups — in the regular Monday night all-star bands in New York City jazz clubs, in intermittent assemblages' like Doug Richard's Great American Music Ensemble, and in mostly unheard rehearsal bands around the country.

Until three years ago, Borlawsky belonged to a couple of those hidden bands. “We seldom played a gig,” he says, “And it seemed like the only qualification for membership was that you had to be retired. Many of those guys were past their prime. I'm 71 and I realized that soon that would happen to me.”

The Central Virginia Jazz Orchestra was Borlawsky's response to looming mediocrity, a serious professional-level band featuring 20 handpicked players with professional chops and serious dedication. Few of the band's charts are from the big band heyday of the '30s and '40s; it draws instead on more modern arrangements, often with challenging harmonies and unusual time signatures. There's always plenty of space for creative improvisation. “We're a jazz band, not a swing band,” Borlawsky says.

The results are on “CVJO: Straight Ahead” — a CD the band recorded late last year. There's a nostalgic feel to the packaging — tuxedos, mostly white hair or bald heads, boxy music stands fronted with band name placards, the “J” in jazz spelled with a cartoon saxophone — but the playing is anything but restrained and tentative. The material is mostly standards with a couple of almost over-the-top vocals featuring vocalist Mike Shiflett; it may be old school but the musicians approach it with vitality. “We are basically trying to promote the idea that the big band is not dead,” Borlawsky says.

In the end, despite Borlawsky's insistence, this may actually be your grandfather's big band; you've just forgotten how badass your granddad actually was. S

The Central Virginia Jazz Orchestra performs big band jazz as part of the 2009 Dogwood Dell Festival of the Arts on Friday, June 19, at 8 p.m.  Admission is free. 646-DELL.

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