Berklee Big Band Sees “Purple Haze”

The Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra may not set its instruments on fire, but the group will carry the wild and adventurous spirit of Jimi Hendrix to the Berklee Performance Center tonight in a concert entitled “Manic Depression: Music of Jimi Hendrix.” The 19-piece big band is led by Berklee faculty member Darrell Katz, a composer and guitarist and the founder of the Jazz Composers Alliance, parent organization of the Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra. The group will play a collection of arrangements based on the iconic guitarist’s compositions.

The Alliance has celebrated Hendrix’s music several times over the course of its 27-year existence, and these themed concerts have always drawn large crowds and acclaim. The idea arose when Katz saw a string quartet play Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” in concert. “I thought, I could do way better than that,” Katz says. He wrote his own arrangement of “Manic Depression” for a chamber group and eventually decided to develop a whole concert around the concept.

Although Hendrix’s hard rock may seem like an odd fit for an avant-garde jazz band, Katz sees many connections between the two distinct styles. “[Hendrix’s] music is more open-ended, blues-oriented,” he says. “It lends itself to extended forms and improvisation.”

Katz wrote several arrangements for the concert, and the group will also play jazz pianist Gil Evans’s arrangements of Hendrix tunes. Among the classics being performed are “Stone Free,” “Purple Haze,” and “If 6 Was 9.” Guitarist and Berklee faculty member Norm Zocher  wrote an arrangement of “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” in which the horns play a reharmonized version of the opening riff and Zocher himself takes the melody. “It’s very challenging to not make it sound cheesy,” Zocher says.

The performance will be driven by the improvisation and innovative arrangements of the band rather than by the theatrics that were typically at the heart of Hendrix’s live performances. However, this doesn’t mean that the musicians won’t have a little fun with the show. “I do know how to play with my teeth, so maybe I’ll do that,” Zocher says, laughing.