Wellington drummer Lauren Ellis is looking forward to the next few weeks. Four American jazz musicians, arriving in New Zealand for a six-city tour with the Rodger Fox Big Band that Laura drums for, are part of an unofficial cultural exchange. Dave Weckl and vocalist Tony Lindsay are the eye-catching names on the bill that takes in stops from Auckland to Wellington over the first week of June.
Besides drummer Weckl – who’s best known from the Chick Corea Electric Band – and long-time Santana singer Lindsay, the others making the trip over from the States are LA-based baritone saxophonist Adam Schroeder and trumpeter Alex Sipiagin.
The show’s sure to be well received across the tour that starts at Auckland’s Bruce Mason Centre on June 1 and concludes as part of the Wellington Jazz Festival on June 8. Four of the seven concerts are paired with workshops featuring the international guest musicians.
Inspired by their chance to play with such distinguished American guests, the Rodger Fox Big Band head over there in September to play at the renowned Monterey Jazz Festival. They will play the Garden Stage on the final night at the California festival – where headliners include the aforementioned Corea and Herbie Hancock.
For band drummer Lauren Ellis, this tour and the trip to the USA – where they’ll also play in San Francisco and LA and record an album – will make it a memorable few months. Unique, in fact, in her career with the Rodger Fox Big Band.
Since she succeeded her former university tutor Lance Phillips as the full-time drummer with the Wellington-based band, Lauren’s played on every tune at every concert. Not so this time, as for around a third of the show each night on this tour she’ll be sitting in the wings watching Weckl perform.
“It’s the first time that the band has brought someone in as a guest to play the drums in my five years as the permanent drummer,” she says. “It will be an awesome experience actually, to be sitting there watching him play – trying to work out what he’s doing.
“He’s one of the best drummers on planet at moment and he’s been doing all the Buddy Rich charts. It will be great to get the chance to see him play all that stuff, and let loose.”
Weckl, inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 2000, worked with the likes of Paul Simon and George Benson in his early career in the New York fusion scene in the early 1980s. He spent seven years with Chick Corea, performing on numerous albums, and under his own name alone has been the leader of 10 recordings.
Lindsay, who sang on Santana’s 1992 album Milagro, has a body of work that mainly spans R&B and pop. New Zealand audiences at the likes of Palmerston North and Christchurch will get the chance to hear a different side to him singing with the big band.
For Lauren also, the challenge of switching straight from playing with an 18-piece band to a small combo is something that excites her.
“It’s a busy time for me,” she says, “because altogether I’m playing in 13 concerts in a week and a half. After the tour with the Rodger Fox band I’ve got another seven dates as part of the Wellington Jazz Festival.”
Those dates are with the Richter City Rebels, who she sums up as a “New Orleans marching band party band with original music”.
Lauren’s been drumming for 16 of her 27 years, but feels she has room to improve and getting an up-close view of Weckl in rehearsals and at the six concerts can only help her.
“I’d like to think I’ve improved since I joined the Rodger Fox Big Band,” she says. “My big band concept has improved after playing in the band for a long time and listening to that music, though I’m still working at it.
“The drumming role is different in a big band because you have to drive the whole thing. There’s less leeway for you, whereas in smaller groups there’s more room for expression across the whole tune. Trying to hold together 18 people as opposed to four is a bit more of a challenge.”
Playing with Rodger Fox is a big deal to Lauren. She first met him when she was 13 as part of a school workshop in her native Tauranga. At their second meeting, two years later, he gave her encouragement and she has since seen him as a mentor.
She started to play with the Rodger Fox Big Band, first as the substitute drummer, after moving to Wellington study at the city’s School of Music. Lauren earned her Bachelor of Music majoring in jazz performance and specialising in drumming in 2011.
When she goes with the band to California in September it will be her first experience of playing in the USA, but she has thoughts of returning subsequently.
“I would like to spend time overseas and do a masters degree, perhaps in the States,” she says. “I’d love to study with any of the great drummers that teach at the universities over there. Other than that, I want to continue playing and writing. Maybe some day I would like to lead a band of my own.”
A recent appearance by the Frank Gibson Group at the Auckland Jazz & Blues club showed it’s certainly possible for a drummer to lead a band, and Lauren’s own abilities go beyond that one instrument.
“I’ve played piano since I was very young it’s helped me; I often compose on the piano,” she says. “Having some kind of harmonic and melodic knowledge has helped my drumming in general and I’m able to write something from the piano and understand what I’m writing.”
The Jazz Gala tour kicks off in Auckland on June 1 with a concert and full workshop at Takapuna’s Bruce Mason Centre. Upper Hutt, Palmerston North, Napier and Christchurch gigs follow, some including workshops. The winds up in Wellington’s Opera House on Thursday June 8, with a final concert and drum workshop featuring Dave Weckl. Tickets are available here.