The Brussels Jazz Orchestra will make its debut at Penn State with two performances — “BJO’s Finest,” a set marking the orchestra’s 20th anniversary, and “Graphicology,” a collaboration with Belgian graphic novelist Philip Paquet that blends big-band standards with tales from graphic novels.
Founded in 1993 by Belgian jazz saxophonist, composer and artistic director Frank Vaganee and three of his colleagues, BJO has collaborated with some of the most famous composers and arrangers of the international jazz scene, including Maria Schneider, Dave Liebman and Bill Holman, and with guest artists like McCoy Tyner, Phil Woods and Tom Harrell.
During the “Graphicology” set, images from Paquet’s graphic novels will be projected on a screen behind the orchestra while the BJO performs.
“Sometimes the music is played very accurate, as the synchronization in a cartoon, and sometimes the music functions more like an atmosphere-determinant factor,” Vaganee said. “Although the music was written on the timing of the images, while the orchestral arrangement has an important role, musicians have soloist space where they can express themselves personally.”
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He said he believes a program such as “Graphicology” makes jazz music more accessible to people who would like to discover the genre.
“The BJO has had the policy for many years to combine jazz regularly with other art forms, and that’s the experience we have as a jazz band in Europe, where jazz music is combined with image,” Vaganee said. “Therefore, the public gets confronted with jazz music, with the BJO and with the unique combination of BJO with another art form.”
Paquet, a Belgium-based illustrator, said he devoured comics, ranging from Batman to characters created by 1960s counterculture and underground comics artist Robert Crumb, including “Mr. Natural.” He said he remembers hearing early New Orleans jazz records being played by his father’s uncle.
“I really liked the sound and the vibe of it,” he said. “Somehow these two things, comics and jazz, merged together, and I started drawing short stories based on jazz figures.”
“We got to know Paquet because he loves jazz music,” Vaganee said. “He’s even a self-taught jazz bass player, and many of his works were inspired by jazz music and their musicians. For us, it was very logical to approach him with our idea about jazz and graphic novels.”
Some of Paquet’s short stories to be featured in set based on graphic novels were chosen from Paquet’s books, including his first, “Louis Armstrong”; “Snapshots”; “Playin’, Smilin’, Fightin’, Cookin’ ”; and two new stories, “The Blues” and the main theme “Graphicology.”
Music composed by BJO musicians for the set include the title song, “Bird As Told By Miles the Cat,” “Louis” and “The Portrait.”
“We shaped the stories into dynamic videos so that the BJO band members could start writing music,” Paquet said. “Basically it’s the process of creating a soundtrack, where the composer gets his inspiration from the movie images. They really capture the mood of my artwork, sometimes bluesy, sometimes bebop, and sometimes free.”
Paquet said that bringing this particular show to a mixed audience on a college campus is the perfect way to bring different generations together for a night of classic music and stories.
“Young people, as well as older people, relate very well to this creation because it has a sense of nostalgia, but it’s also very ‘now’,” he said. “The combination of the stories and the live music makes it a vivid experience. I hope they will be psyched by the combination of vibrant music and dynamic storytelling.”