Norman David and the Eleventet will celebrate 100 shows, two new records at Plays & Players
Near the beginning of a performance by his Eleventet earlier this month at the band’s longtime home base upstairs at Plays and Players, Norman David made a (mostly) solemn pledge. “Whether there’s two or 2,000 of you,” he proclaimed, “we’ll blow your faces off.”
At the moment that David made that vow, the audience was closer in number (maybe even spot on) to the lower limit of that estimate, but David was as good as his word while his band outnumbered the crowd five-to-one and as the room filled in over the course of the evening’s two sets. The Eleventet has faced varying situations over its seven-year tenure at Plays and Players, but David insists that the run has provided an invaluable opportunity to hear his music realized on a regular basis by some of the city’s most talented players.
“The ups and downs are worth it,” he says, “and most often it’s ups.”
Expect the room to be packed on Monday, February 27th, which will be a celebration for David and The Eleventet for several reasons. It will be the 100th performance for the band in its third-floor headquarters, and will mark the release of two new CDs – the studio recording Please Call and the live album Crazy in Philly! – only the second and third releases in the ensembles 35-plus year history.
Since the idea of a pared-down eleven-piece band first occurred to David in the early’80s, he’s led incarnations of the Eleventet in Boston, Maine and New York City. He arrived in Philadelphia in 1989, where he’s since joined the faculty at the University of the Arts and become Coordinator of Jazz Arranging and Composition at Temple. Since then, many of the city’s best jazz voices – including John Swana, Dick Oatts, Ben Schachter, Tom Lawton and Chris Farr – have passed through the ever-evolving ranks of the Eleventet.
Always a fan of big bands, David was drawn to the sound and power such a line-up might offer, but daunted by the financial and logistical obstacles that any bandleader faces when convening so many musicians. “Knowing the tremendous challenge that would present, I decided to go with a smaller large ensemble,” he recalls. “I have a pet peeve about people calling my group a big band, because it isn’t. It has the essence of a big band but it’s got the spirit of a small band. There’s a lot of writing, but I allow a lot of soloing – if somebody’s really cooking, I want them to just go for it. I don’t need to get back into the chart until you’ve gotten your licks out of the way.”
One of David’s main motives for forming the band was his own desire to focus more on the soprano sax. In demand at the time as a tenor and alto player, he’d initially fallen in love with the clarinet, a passion for the straight horn that carried over to the soprano and was only amplified when he discovered the music of Steve Lacy. “Everybody, I guess, has one idol,” David says. “As much as I love Coltrane, if I had to do the desert island thing, Lacy’s right at the top of the list. He was so influential to me that it sealed the deal.”
The Eleventet was built around the concept of the saxophone quartet – David’s own soprano, aligned with single tenor, alto and baritone players. The big band brass section was pared down to a pair each of trumpets and trombones, all anchored by a traditional piano, bass and drums rhythm section. Opportunities to present the band were sporadic at best throughout its history, until David happened to wander past Plays and Players one day, ventured inside, and was shocked to learn that no one from the jazz community had taken advantage of this small theater with an attached bar, which was typically dark on the theater world’s standard off day, Monday.
“I couldn’t believe that nobody had tapped this already,” David says, still incredulous. “Are you kidding? I said, ‘I’ll take every possible Monday you have.’”
He’s continued to play one or two Mondays per month since 2010 except for the summer months. The Eleventet’s massive book now numbers in the vicinity of 250 compositions, and David rarely sets his pen down for long. Seeing him perform, it’s obvious how much he continues to be thrilled by the band’s visceral playing on tunes that blur the line between classic big-band swing, modern angularity, and a bold irreverence that bursts forth like the wide grin often sported by the composer himself. On stage, he rarely stays perched on his stool for long, roaming the stage from one side to the other, gaining new perspectives from which to take in the show, laughing raucously at the musicians’ bold inventions.
“This band costs me a lot, which is insane because I have no money,” he concludes. “But I’m an idealist, like most musicians who’ve accepted the fact they’re going to be poor all their lives. It’s worth it to me because it’s just so much fun, and really fulfilling.”
Norman David and the Eleventet perform their 100th show at Plays & Players on Monday, February 27th. More information can be found here.