The R4nd4zzo Big Band had never played a gig as big as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ sold-out “Charlie Brown Christmas” show. And it never played in front of such a kid-heavy audience.
But eponymous bassist Andrew Randazzo was totally in his element, leading from the middle, leaving most of the featured soloing space to others, and letting the charm of the music speak for itself.
The all-star band included the pick of the area’s best young players. It’s musical DNA traces back through a series of defunct bands, all with their roots in Doug Richards’ award-winning Virginia Commonwealth University jazz orchestras. Most of the current players are 21st-century graduates of the university’s jazz program, including Randazzo. The bassist’s epic senior recital seemingly enlisted his entire class. In retrospect, he was the natural choice to pick up the big-band banner as previous editions flagged.
“I had a big band in high school,” Randazzo says. “Then I played in the RVA Big Band in college. Flash to 2016, and we tried to reignite the Devil’s Workshop, which was the original Richmond band that made everything possible,” Randazzo says. “When that folded, I thought, ‘Let me see what I can do.’”
Perhaps counterintuitively, the usual back-of-stage bass is the ideal place from which to run a jazz band. Bassists play nonstop, shape the rhythm, listening intently on everything happening harmonically, altering their lines to make it work. While there are great bass solos, it isn’t a showy solo instrument. Bands led by great bassists like Charles Mingus, Dave Holland and Christian McBride always leave maximum space for other musicians to shine.
Saxophonist Charles Owens, who started putting then-student Randazzo on his New York club gigs in 2010 and used the R4nd4zzo Big Band for half of his excellent recording “Three and Thirteen, calls the bassist a legend in the making. “He has a quiet, reserved nature but an open book, wearing his heart on his sleeve when he starts to play. He’s unflappable, full of surprises, at once an emotionally lyrical and ingeniously humorous soloist. [And] he’s a sensitive, supportive accompanist, and a virtuosic arranger and composer.”
“He’s a student of Doug [Richards],” says multi-instrumentalist Devonne Harris, Randazzo’s near-consistent collaborator, who plays drums with the bassist in Owens’ trio and the R4nd4zzo band, and keyboard in Butcher Brown. “Everybody took Richard’s composition course, but [Randazzo] took it further, incorporating different mash-ups and other techniques for a more modern sound.”
The bassist’s eclectic approach is reflected in the upscaling of Vince Guaraldi’s iconic piano trio score for a 15-piece ensemble. As on the 1965 cartoon soundtrack, the rollicking “Linus and Lucy” holds its own with seasonal standards like “O Tannenbaum” and “The Christmas Song,” and the lesser-known joyous, tumbling “Skating.’” And, as in the original, there are instrumental and vocal versions of “Christmastime Is Here,” a song that like all great seasonal art, has a plangent whiff of melancholy.
It’s multilayered music, whose transparent accessibility is enriched by underlying depths. “One thing I never want to lose sight of is connecting with the layman,” Randazzo says. “I’m a music nerd. I love polytonality and crazy time signatures, but I want to make sure that when we play, anyone can dig it.”
The program will be reprised on Sunday, Dec. 22, at the Fuzzy Cactus, going up against Bio Ritmo’s re-emergence at Broadberry. It caps a big pre-holiday week, including horn-heavy Brunswick’s annual Christmas show on Tuesday, Dec. 17, followed by Butcher Brown’s Christmas extravaganza on Friday, Dec. 20 – both at the Hof.
The band has come a long way since its standing-room-only debut in the basement confines of Vagabond’s Rabbit Hole. Typically, Randazzo would like to take it farther.
“I never want to stop,” he says. “It’s a work in progress, but it’s a really special thing. I’d love to take these Virginians on the road. I’ve seen what playing this kind of music instills in those guys, chasing that amazing feeling. There are a lot of cities where I know people. I just need to get it together.”
It’s a winning approach that can work anywhere, as long as they’ll be home for Christmas.
The R4nd4zzo Big Band performs a Tribute to Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” at Fuzzy Cactus on Sunday, Dec. 22. Free and all ages until 9 p.m.