Working musicians in some large ensembles can be forgiven for zoning out from time to time between their assigned parts, as long as they come through on cue. But when you’re performing the challenging big band music of Alan Chan, there's a good chance you’ll mess up if you’re not constantly on alert. “I like there to be surprises in my pieces, places where the music doesn’t go where or how you’d expect,” says the leader.
Shrimp Tale, the captivating debut album by the Alan Chan Jazz Orchestra—one of the brightest of recent additions to the Los Angeles jazz scene—is full of unexpected turns and instrumental combinations. On the title track, the composer briefly introduces a groove-based 5/4 passage, then a salsa section, before juxtaposing one over the other. There melody also quirkily shifts keys.
On “Rancho Calaveras,” inspired by time spent with a friend in her vegetable and fruit garden, the musicians are directed to make animal noises with their instruments—that’s right, cows and pigs and geese. “Having serious musicians do that sort of thing has a cool performance art aspect,” Chan says, grinning. “It makes the concert experience more fun.”
Though he’s a classically trained pianist, Chan restricts himself to conducting the band in performance—except when he plays “very silly things,” where called for, on toy instruments such as glockenspiel and animal noisemakers.