Editor’s note: This story was modified on Dec. 8.
One of Vermont’s most storied and mythical bands, 18-piece ensemble Saturn People’s Sound Collective returns with a revamped lineup for a rare show Dec. 14 at the intimate Zenbarn in Waterbury Center.
The show is the first for the band in five years, and only its fourth show ever. “Like rare celestial events,” joked band leader Brian Boyes in a recent Facebook post, “This one only comes around every so often.”
Boyes, 46, of Plainfield, is a celebrated trumpeter, composer and educator known for his work in an impressive and eclectic array of bands like Big Bhangra Brass Band, Movement of the People and viperHouse, to name only a few of the many bands he’s played with. Forming Saturn People’s Sound Collective seven years ago “was a musical highlight of my life,” he says.
Started as a 20-piece group with a singular approach to big-band traditions as inspired by the likes of Mingus, Ellington and Sun Ra, the band had a short-lived but eventful run. Its late 2012 debut at the Haybarn Theatre at Goddard College was followed by Burlington Discover Jazz Festival shows in 2013 at FlynnSpace and 2014 at Club Metronome in Burlington. And that’s it.
This time out, Boyes is bringing a star-studded cast that includes two drummers on drum kits (Dan Ryan and Simeon Chapin), three vocalists (Stefanie Weigand, Amber DeLaurentis and Harwood Union High School senior Ella Holter), 10 horns – including acclaimed baritone saxophonist and New York City transplant current Colchester resident Kyle Saulnier (the Awakening Orchestra) – master marimba player Jane Boxall, guitarist Ben Bivins and bassist Giovanni Rovetto.
Following are some excerpts from a recent phone interview with Boyes about the project.
Q: What inspired you to resurrect Saturn People’s Sound Collective?
A: Large ensembles are kind of my thing. It represents music that I’ve been working on since I was in my 20s – so like 25 years ago – and some of that music still remains in the book but has evolved and changed.
I guess it’s sparked by curiosity, taking these compositions – or covers, for that matter – and (asking) ‘What’s the sonic alchemy that we can do with this?’ Whether it’s saxophonists doubling on clarinets and flutes. And ‘How can you use mute work in the brass with vibraphone to create certain timbres and textures?’
I did the Big Bang Bhangra Brass Band after Saturn People’s and had a lot of fun with that and was just sort of itching to get back into this question of sonic alchemy (and) how can I make it even more accessible to people?
And then (tenor saxophonist) Kamasi Washington came along and he had two drum kit players. He obviously wasn’t the first person to do that, but I love the way he integrated that into the band. So that was partly inspiration.
This time I wanted to dig deeper into the weird rock angle and incorporate three vocalists. Some songs they’re just doing lead vocal and backup vocal kind of stuff, and then the other pieces their parts are written out with the instruments. We’re blending the voice as a timbre that mixes with the flute and singing the same melody using syllables versus lyrics.
Q: It’s an amazing list of musicians and vocalists this time around.
A: I feel like the voice is really the most authentic instrument, and it’s something that audiences connect with in so many ways. I knew I would need singers who could read music in the same way the wind instrumentalists could. So that had a big influence on who I selected. And people who could really hold three-part harmonies in the context of an 18-piece band, because that’s not super easy to do. I’m really excited to hear their voices come together.
Q: Did you write some new material for this incarnation of the group?
A: Yep. I’ve brought in two pieces that were from the Big Bang Bhangra Brass Band, sketches for that band that are fully worked out and orchestrated for the 18-piece group. And then some new stuff as well.
We’re going to do two of Kyle Saulnier’s arrangements that he’s done with his group, the Awakening Orchestra. And an original of his as well that was performed by TURNmusic. He’s definitely the best big band composer/arranger that I’ve ever heard. I love his work so much. We’re talking world class.
Plus covers by Radiohead and the band Low. I brought in an arrangement of a Bjork tune, and then we’ve got an M.I.A. piece and, of course, a Sun Ra piece. So it’s really interesting interpretations of that post-modern rock thing.
Q: The arrangements of cover songs sound intriguing.
A: I want to surf this line of, like, let’s grab this challenging music experience that’s not a challenge to listen to and dig deep on that from that rock aesthetic and that rock soul. But also leverage the whole large ensemble orchestration, long-form composition, bring people in and have them grooving with us. And that’s exactly why I chose Zenbarn as the spot, to create this experience that’s very different than sitting quietly in the FlynnSpace.
Q: So is this the beginning of a new journey with this group?
A: It’s going to be an exciting launch to the project. It’s certainly a labor of love. We put a lot into it, so we don’t do it that often as a result. But that doesn’t mean it’s the end. We’re definitely just getting started here.
I’m really excited about the new setup because the percussion and the voices and diving into that weird rock, that edgy rock. It’s visceral, people can hang onto it and ride with that. And we’re also integrating some electronics, too. I’ve got a pedal board for my trumpet, and guitar’s going to have a pretty present role as well.
Q: So maybe a little more rocking than the previous incarnation?
A: Yeah. I mean, groove is always a part of everything I do. There may be parts where you’re not going to be dancing around. But it’s definitely about creating a visceral experience.