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New London Big Band celebrates live CD with outdoor shows Saturday at the Social

Once a staple in every touring artist's discography, the "live" or "in-concert" album was an important document for two reasons. On one level, fans bought them as a souvenir, recreating the performance experience. Two, the musicians themselves often preferred live recordings as perhaps purer testimonials to their musicianship and chemistry than the multiple-overdubs sophistication of the studio process.

There's also a third and more cynical situation wherein artists, lacking fresh material but perhaps owing a record label new product, trot out an in-concert disc to fulfill contracts.

All this is mostly moot because the multi-song album — live or in-studio — as a musical delivery system has become antiquated in this age of streaming, downloads, and shorter listener attention spans. There's also the coronavirus issue: Artists currently can't tape performances if they wanted to because, for all practical purposes, there AREN'T any concerts.

Sean Nelson, though, has a determined, charmingly nostalgic and perhaps, somehow, even prescient musical worldview. A trombonist/composer/arranger and the leader of Sean Nelson's New London Big Band, he still believes there's some value in an old-school way of doing things.

Consider "Dancing Nitely," the new live album from the band, to be properly feted Saturday with live outdoor shows at 3 and 5 p.m. as part of a CD release party at New London's Social Bar + Kitchen.

The location is only appropriate; before COVID, the New London Big Band enjoyed a long-time Wednesday night residency at The Social, where the performance used on the live album was recorded in 2018, two years after the group formed on election night in 2016.

"Dancing Nitely" — the title reflecting the visual shorthand one might see on a theater marquee — is an exuberant testimonial of the band's fresh spin on a style of jazz/dance music most associated with mid-20th century acts like Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Fletcher Henderson, Artie Shaw, and many more.

Nelson, who is foremost a member of the United States Coast Guard Band, has assembled a youthful, sharp, hip 17-piece ensemble as dedicated as he is to the belief that big band sounds can provide a fine musical experience — one best served up live, where the groove and excitement of the arrangements and instrumental interplay can energize and pack a dance floor across generations.

Similarly, the 10 tracks on "Dancing Nitely" span the history of big band jazz and include compositions by Basie arranger Sammy Nestico, Duke Ellington, Bill Holman, Maynard Ferguson; standards like "O Sole Mio" and "Just Friends"; and a New London Big Band original by pianist Earl MacDonald. Nelson and other members of the band provided many of the arrangements.

Kent Stump mixed "Dancing Nitely" from tracks originally recorded by Coast Guard Band sound engineer Rob Holtorff.

"As a musician, I'd always found something very nurturing and passionate about the big bands," says Nelson by phone earlier this week. "And I think as a unit we've turned that history into something contemporary and cooler than I ever thought it would be. I love big band music, and it was my idea just to find some players similarly interested in exploring it.

"Only when we started playing out did we realize that it's completely accessible to new and younger audiences. Our goal was to get beyond the stereotype of 'grandpa music' because it has such a good live vibe, and though it's jazz, it's not elitist music. It's music for everybody, and it's music to have some fun with. And we've enjoyed seeing an element of discovery. We've become friends with the UConn swing dance club, for example, and there are a lot of younger people when we play. It's totally cool to see a new generation enjoying and dancing to this music."

The group, comprising other Coastie musicians as well as players Nelson knew from across the region, is top-level in terms of improvisational chops as well as individual and collective intuition and an ability to swing. As with most big band line-ups, the New London outfit includes trumpet, trombone and sax sections along with a rhythm unit of piano, drums, bass, guitar and piano.

"In general, we've had the same players since the start," Nelson says. "I was fortunate in that I knew I had access to world-class musicians in the Coast Guard Band. Plus, to change the chemistry a bit, and because it's always fun and inspirational to work with other players, I reached outside for other members of the band."

Nelson says the Coast Guard Band has been very supportive of the New London Big Band.

"It hasn't been a conflict because the Coast Guard comes first; that's my career and I'm proud of it," he says. "It's also just exciting to explore this other side. There's definitely a sense of togetherness. There's always a shared feeling of belonging in any band — a sort of brotherhood although we're not all men, either — but sometimes we know there's a perception of big band music as antiquated. People don't know what to expect or whether they'll like it. We KNOW they'll like it, so it's our job to share that."

In addition to a CD release party, Saturday's live performances also serve as a sort of "welcome back" commemoration inasmuch as The Social only re-opened last week after months of being closed due to the virus.

"We've been waiting to release the album because that's our home base," Nelson says. "They gave us a chance and the regular Wednesday night gigs, and though we've loved playing weddings, jazz festivals and even did a concert with the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra at the Garde, The Social was the only place to do this."

Nelson met with Sean Murphy and Brian Stradczuk, respective manager and owner of The Social, to figure out how to safely pull off a live performance for a 17-piece band and an audience. They decided on the restaurant's back parking lot on Water Street. There's even a bit of spectacular staging involved to start the shows, though the precise nature must remain secret for now. 

"Anything goes if you can make it work in 2020," Nelson says. "Our absolute priority is to follow all the rules." He laughs. "I haven't done the hypoteneuse and triangle stuff, but we came up with a 180-degree configuation. It's a sloped layout, and we'll be in an L-shape, so it's bizarre. But it works for the band and the audience so everyone's safe."

Physical copies of "Dancing Nitely" will be on sale, and the album is also available via the usual download and streaming apps.

"Obviously, we'd love to sell come physical CDs," Nelson says, "but we're just happy people want to hear the music."

Even Nelson's 4-year-old daughter, who can't reasonably be expected to fork over $15 for a CD, is onboard. Nelson says he frequently hears her calling out, "Alexa, play New London Big Band!"

If you go

Who: Sean Nelson's New London Big Band

What: Celebrate the release of their new live CD "Dancing Nitely" with socially distanced performances

When and where: 3 and 5 p.m. Saturday, rear parking lot, the Social Bar + Kitchen, 301 Bank St., New London

How much: $10 admission, $15 CD, special prices for group tables

For more information: (860) 442-6900, newlondonbigband.com

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