Fogcutters have serious case of ‘Big Band Syndrome’

Most bands, they can get together and rehearse whenever they want. Three, four, five people isn’t too hard to wrangle. You can rehearse at 2 a.m., if you want. But when you’re trying to organize a 19-piece brass band, it behooves you to plan ahead. Way ahead. As in, the members of the Fogcutters Big Band – Portland’s own full-sized big band – know exactly when their rehearsals are scheduled for the next six months. Co-bandleaders Brian Graham and John Maclaine are on top of it.

“I’ll tell you, the Fogcutters are probably the most organized band on the planet,” said Graham, a baritone sax player; MacLlaine plays trombone. “We know we have rehearsal every other Thursday. We know exactly where we’ve got to be. You don’t really have a choice, when there’s 19 of you.”

The Fogcutters Big Band just this week released its debut album – an infectiously fun, expertly played double disc live set, recorded in December at the State Theatre in Portland, titled “Big Band Syndrome, Vol. 1.” They’re set to play this Saturday, June 23, at the Big Easy in Portland.

While the first thing that may pop into a lot of people’s heads when they hear “big band” is Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, the Fogcutters are anything but traditional. Don’t expect a retread of “Moonlight Serenade.” Expect a high-powered blend of jazz, funk, r&b, soul, rock and yes, good old-fashioned swing music.

The Fogcutters formed out of a chance performance back in December 2009, when Graham and Maclaine helped organize a Clash of the Titans event – a weekly covers show held at the Empire in Portland, pitting the works of one famous band against another. Their show was the songs of Frank Sinatra versus the songs of Ella Fitzgerald, and the band the pair put together for the event was such a hit they wanted to keep the fun going.

“We got such an amazing response from that show. That was the way a big band was meant to be experienced – in a club setting, with people dancing,” said Graham. “In the 30s and 40s it was the biggest thing in the world. It was what the kids listened to. That Clash of the Titans show was like a rock show. We had so much fun, we knew there had to be a way to keep doing it.”

MacLaine and Graham set about putting together the band, asking an array of musicians who they knew had the chops. In all, there’s five sax players, four on trombone, four on trumpet and a five-man rhythm section – as well as two vocalists. In other words, it’s a horn player’s dream. The musicians include current and former members of bands like Rustic Overtones, Sly-Chi, Gypsy Tailwind, Mama’s Boomshack and the Jason Spooner Trio; many play in an array of jazz ensembles, and others are instructors at both colleges and for private lessons.

“We’re really lucky in that we definitely have some of the best young musicians in the state playing with us,” said Graham.

“Big Band Syndrome” is a document of one of the most unique nights of music Portland has ever seen. Around this time last year, MacLaine and Graham had the idea to arrange big band parts for songs written by local artists. They needed a big venue for it, so they approached Lauren Wayne at the State Theatre.

“We knew our musical idols in the 40s would have been progressive about their music. We wanted to push forward in what we do, so we figured ‘let’s try to cover some local stuff’,” said Graham. “We approached Lauren about it, and she loved it. We were really nervous, because the State is a huge venue, but she was like ‘No way, you’re doing it. You have to do it.’ She was incredibly supportive.”

On that night, Fogcutters played with Dave Gutter (Rustic Overtones and Paranoid Social Club), Spose, Darien Brahms, Lyle Divinsky, Jacob Augustine, Dominic Lavoie (Dominic & the Lucid), Will & Luke Mallett (The Mallett Brothers Band), Tyler Stanley (Sly-Chi) and Zach Jones. The album is a diverse, high-energy romp through both Maine music and jazz and r&b classics – and it showcases just how fun a live big band show can be.

“We have over 120 songs in our repertory, so if you come see us you’ll probably never see them same show twice,” said Graham. “It’s something we’re all really passionate about. It’s not something you see live a lot these days, but it’s a one of a kind experience.”

A CD release party for “Big Band Syndrome Vol. 1” is set for 9 p.m. Saturday, June 23 at the Big Easy in Portland. Fogcutters will play at the Pop the Cork Festival in Rockport on June 28; the event is sold out. They will also play at 5 p.m. on Thursday, July 5 at the LL Bean Concert Stage in Freeport; that event is free.

Emily Burnham

About Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native, a University of Maine graduate, a proud Bangorian and an arts and lifestyle writer for the Bangor Daily News, where she's worked since 2004. She reports on everything from local bands to local food, from media and the Internet to theater and dance. In her quest for stories, she's seen countless concerts and plays, been lobster fishing, interviewed celebrities, taken belly dancing classes, hung out with water buffalo and played in a ukulele orchestra, to name just a few. She's interested in everything -- especially if it happens in Maine. She welcomes any and all feedback or suggestions for stories.