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Vienna Art Orchestra

In the jazz world, Vienna is about as far from New York's Lincoln Center as you can get. It follows that Mathias Rüegg's Vienna Art Orchestra has about as much in common with Wynton Marsalis' Lincoln Center big band as a Sacher torte has with a Hostess Cup Cake; while they share some ingredients, the Austrian product satisfies on a more profound level. By the turn of the century, the Lincoln Center paradigm defined the jazz big band as a finished concept -- locked into the past, serving mostly as a repertory ensemble. The VAO, on the other hand, while hardly ignoring traditional jazz verities, lives in the present and looks to the future. Rather than relying on a narrowly interpreted version of jazz history, they make their own, combining elements of jazz (mainstream through avant-garde), classical (Erik Satie is a Rüegg favorite), and vernacular music with intelligence and not a little humor. Rüegg was born in Zurich, Switzerland. He discovered jazz in secondary school and he moved to Austria and attended the Musikhochschule in Graz in the early '70s. He moved to Vienna and worked as a solo pianist in a nightclub. Solo became a duo with the addition of saxophonist Wolfgang Puschnig. The ensemble grew further; eventually it was comprised of as many as 16 musicians, and the VAO was born. The band never adhered to conventional big band instrumentation. Rüegg regularly incorporates instruments such as marimba, bass clarinet, piccolo, tuba, and even alphorn into his arrangements and compositions. Neither does the band stick to a typical performance format; for example, they've worked with choirs and brass bands, for television and film. By 1980, the band had developed a reputation, receiving invitations to perform at festivals in Cologne and Zurich; that year, the band also signed their first recording contract with the Swiss hatART label. In 1984, they toured the U.S. and finished first in the Down Beat magazine critics' poll for Talent Deserving Wider Recognition. By the late '80s, they were firmly established as one of the world's finest large ensembles, a status they maintained into the next century. Rüegg was the band's sole writer for the first 15 years of its existence. In 1992, he began contracting work to other composers and arrangers, although the band continued to bear his indelible stamp.
© Chris Kelsey /TiVo
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