Big Band Birthday

13 August 2020

“You will be taken to another world of orchestral jazz sounds that you may have never heard before… elements of jazz, funk, psychedelic rock, film music and classic big band sounds.” Mace Francis promises a big party to celebrate his orchestra’s anniversary this month. Rosalind Appleby reports.

The Mace Francis Orchestra are celebrating 15 years of making original Australian jazz music and we are all invited to the big band party! Mace Francis chats with Rosalind Appleby about tour buses, making things and the inspirational energy of a big band.

Rosalind Appleby: What inspired you to form the Mace Francis Orchestra in 2005?

Mace Francis: In 2004 I was in my final year of studying arranging and composition at WAAPA and was lucky enough to receive an APRA Professional Development Award which meant I could go to Europe for some extra study in the mid semester break. I lined up a 2 week stint hanging out with Bob Brookmeyer and his New Art Orchestra, who I was studying for my final thesis. I sat in on days of rehearsals, got to show Bob some of my music and get feedback, was on the tour bus throughout Europe and was able to see all their performances. It was a life changing experience! In 2005 I was ‘too old’ to be performing with WAYJO so I formed a band with people I trusted and enjoyed to work with.

Mace Francis is the conductor and founder of MFO and writes much of the original music for the band. Photo supplied

RA: What is it that you particularly like about the big band as a jazz group?

MF: For me, it is the sound of all those horn players and the energy that can be created with all those people on stage. When it is happening and everyone is feeling the music the same, it feels so good! It is best to experience live!

RA: It takes a special kind of magic to keep a jazz group of 14 musicians together for 15 years – what is your secret?

MF: I actually don’t know but I feel very fortunate. It takes time and effort to put energy into the band and the individuals involved, not just in rehearsals and the performances, but when creating the music, organising performances, tours and recordings. The band members are important in the process of making the music, they are not just instrumental parts.

I always try to have a project just around the corner to keep the band active and me motivated. I treat all the members with respect and understand that I am very lucky to have them in my life. I also try not to ask too much from them as I know that they won’t be able to retire on what I pay them. It is always a balancing act and respect.

The personal have evolved and changed over the years but there are still five members in the band who were there at the beginning: Ricki Malet, Ben Collins, Mark Sprogowski, Greg Brenton and Catherine Noblet. I am very grateful of their friendship and continued involvement.

RA: What are your highlights from the 15 years of MFO?

MF: Some of my favourite highlights have been on the tours around the country. We have done four national tours and being on the road with a big band is the best! We performed at jazz clubs, outdoor bars, RSL clubs you name it. On one tour I hired a huge rock star bus with bunk beds for us all and a driver. Wild times!

Performing my music every night on tour with no other cares in the world except for performing was a highlight that I hope we are able to do again one day. I still can’t believe I was able to pull those tours together!

RA: You’ve commissioned over 40 new works from Australian and international composers and released seven albums – that’s a lot of new music released into the ether. What is it about performing (and composing) new music that appeals to you?

MF: I love making things. Music is an artform that none of us will never know or completely understand, but within that journey I like to have projects which I can complete. That satisfies me more than the endless journey of practicing on an instrument. You can complete a composition or a recording project and then move on to the next. Those milestones and documenting the here and now, with my creative process of composition, is what drives me and helps me maintain this band. It would be easier if it was a solo project or a duo, but that doesn’t do it for me.

RA: What are you most proud of about MFO?

MF: That we are still getting together and making music. Modern big band jazz It is a niche within a niche but I love it and hope others do too.

RA: Tell us about the MFO celebrations – what can we expect from the concerts at The Rechabite?

We started in 2005 performing at what is now the Lazy Susan Comedy Lounge. I love playing in small rooms that have a great vibe. When you come to The Rechabite you will head downstairs into the basement, much like the Village Vanguard in New York, and be taken to another world of orchestral jazz sounds that you may have never heard before. You will hear elements of jazz, funk, psychedelic rock, film music and classic big band sounds. I will also try to get a laugh out of everyone and give away some ridiculous door prizes.  We will play some regular favourites, some old tunes that we haven’t played in almost 15 years and two new ones that I have composed just for the night.

The Mace Francis Orchestra will perform August 20 and October 22 at The Rechabite, Northbridge.

Picture top: The members of the Mace Francis Orchestra. Photo Six String Photography

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She was co-managing editor and founding board member of Seesaw Magazine 2018 – 2023, is author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine (UK). She loves park percussion instruments.

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