Saxophonist Stephen Norfleet had admittedly "snobbed out" on traditional big-band jazz when he entered Virginia Commonwealth University's jazz program in 1994. The 1940s champagne-and-tuxedo style of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman was sounding old, and Norfleet heard a bolder musical approach in his head. As it turned out, he wasn't the only one looking for a new twist to an old musical tale.
"Others were thinking about it, but nobody had done anything," Norfleet says. Until now, with the recent emergence of the 16-piece Devil's Workshop big band.
A new addition to the Richmond scene, the Devil's Workshop is taking shape as a band full of surprises. Fully stocked with talented players on saxophone, trombone, trumpet, drums, bass, guitar and piano, the band offers tradition played with a rock 'n' funk attitude. While all of the band's members share a love for Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Thad Jones and others, they also share the need to break some molds, to experiment and play sounds that push the music to a different place.
"Jazz to me is supposed to be, like, fresh," the 23-year-old Norfleet says. "You've got to be able to express yourself."
Norfleet had combed the Richmond rock 'n' roll scene for months with the idea of expanding the big-band sound. During his search, he met many young players who were restless for something more. He also met several fellow students in the VCU jazz program who were caught between school and part-time society-scene jazz-band jobs, and who were hungry to try something new. Everyone thought injecting a big-band lineup with rock attitude sounded like fun.
But there was no springboard to launch the idea until one night about three months ago when Norfleet and future band mate Bob Miller were talking with local promoter/musician Jim Thomson, and the big-band idea came up.
Thomson offered them a gig space at Chopstix if they put a band together. Norfleet jumped at the chance.
"Basically, it was five minutes worth of phone calls and waiting for them to call me back," Norfleet recalls. Once the band's lineup was loosely defined, Norfleet and the others collected charts and started rehearsals in December. The Workshop's first show upstairs at Chopstix a few weeks later encouraged the band.
"We had maybe 60 people at the first gig," Norfleet says. "That's what blew me away ... I knew we had something."
The band roster is set for now with Norfleet, John Winn, John Whitman and Jason Scott on saxophones. Pete Anderson, Gordy Haab and Stefan Demetriadis fill out the trombone section, while Miller, Tim Lett, Nick Panos and Taylor Barnett play trumpets. Charlie Kilpatrick and Colin McEnearney add piano and guitar respectively, while Scott Fitzsimmons and Brian Caputo lock it down with bass and drums. Although the Workshop plays mostly jazz standards such as "In the Mood' or "All of Me," their extended solos and unique arrangements give the timeworn sound a new twist. The band hopes to eventually add original compositions to it repertoire.
Keeping 16 musicians together is a tough trick, but Norfleet and Miller are keen on the group's future. The Devil's Workshop currently has regular gigs at Southern Culture on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month, and slots at Chopstix on the first and third Wednesdays. The band hopes more venues even blues or rock clubs are down the road.
"You shouldn't even think 'big band music,'" Miller explains of Devil's Workshop. "We're a big band because there's so many of us. We want to be able to play all the different roles."
"This," adds Norfleet of the band's strong debut, "is definitely the tip of the
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