“Focus” was an unfortunate casualty in the war of consumerism; our materialistic society leaving a hole subsequently filled by an onslaught of self-help books that turned “success” and “personal achievement” into religions and rendering once decent words like “focus” devoid of useful meaning. It’s evident in some of jazz’s worst but reoccurring stereotypes; the cocky prodigy who never practices and the angsty kid with potential whose own self-doubt ensures he never makes it far; neither with the slightest hint of focus. Both of them a shame when considering the enormous effort it takes to become good at any form of sophisticated music. Ironic too when compared to the hordes of barely musically literate rock musicians, whose half-baked ideas, when given a little push, turn into something much grander; one can just see the transition of Pink Floyd’s Meddle into Dark Side of the Moon as the great example.

Which is what came to mind when at a typically semi-filled Thursday night at 505, the unquestionable venue of choice for yuppies, hipsters and seasoned musicians alike, seeing the reasonably-acclaimed Mace Francis Orchestra, the 14-man youth big band whose efforts and ethos have been likened to other modern big bands such as Thad Jones, Maria Schneider and Bill Holman. Lofty territory for an awfully boyish ensemble (literally; maintaining the traditional absence of non-singer female roles), but to their credit the MFO certainly lacks not courage.

What they did lack was not only a pianist (odd) but also a uniform code: black pants and an assortment of casual shirts defined the ensemble. A fitting metaphor, for what was notably a lack of identity and above all focus within the band itself, demonstrating how an otherwise excellent group of musicians can still come off as inexperienced. Ordinarily the late start and dual sets of five songs would factor in here, but in reality it was little noticed, let alone concerning; among the dim lighting and food and drink the band was almost an after-thought.

This casual sense was embodied by Mace Francis himself, sporting a surprisingly boyish ocker accent, adequately fulfilling the conductor’s role of awkward comedian. Once the nervous laughter had subsided and the band launched into their first number, it was clear that youth was no impediment to musicality. The drummer’s chops particularly were never to be questioned, his brushes easily grooving and filling in-between the tight horn hits (such hits were somewhat of a feature of the night), creating a classic spy movie aesthetic. With the bassist finally hitting his first note well into the piece, the guitarist took the lead, with a surprisingly distorted Santana-like tone. While clearly skilled (and under the influence of Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin), the turn towards fusion was unexpected and more than a bit at odds with the Holman-like swinging intro. The tight harmonies were more than enough to sustain the piece as it culminated in a soprano solo, but ultimately one was left with a confused impression.

The band’s following pieces did little to square this circle of identity crisis. In true Holman style the horns would anchor each piece, but few of the pieces captured the truly exciting feel of what a big band can accomplish. The second piece, “San Sara”, suffered from hesitancy in what should have been a seamless bari and tenor opening, although an impressive sax solo with some half-time trickery from the rhythm section would make up for it. The next number, “Three Futures” (described by Francis as a “really weird” piece his friend wrote), while intriguing in its grim, orchestrated idiosyncracies, venturing across all spectrums of rhythm and dynamics, created a film-noir or even vintage Disney soundscape that unfortunately failed to deliver, or even fully develop. Finally however the band did deliver a performance with a clearly defined beginning and end; malleted tom-toms behind the horns set the stage for a chaotic decrescendo into a sublime sax solo. But alas immediately we were entreated to another confused romp, in which the guitarist seemed all to eager to demonstrate his technical wizardry without considering the need for melodies or phrasing. While his ability to glide across the music was a startling doppelganger for Robert Fripp, contextually it begged the question that had already been asked; precisely what kind of music is this band trying to play?

The second set continued the pattern that had been set; interesting and somewhat sophisticated horn-led introductions accompanied by dextrous drumming, with the bass and guitar serving as melodic tools rather than a rhythm icrole. While each piece managed to excite at times, whenever they did progress beyond faithful replications of cliches they never put the pedal to the metal; every attempt at gunning down big band freeway ended up with a detour down fusion and funk alley. Which isn’t to say that big bands shouldn’t attempt such material, but simply not to pussyfoot about. Nowhere was this more evident than in the closing funk number, “No Monday”, which was all too straight, and frankly; white. The drum solo felt out of place because it was; giving the drummer a solo in the finale is just what big bands “do”.

I feel in all this critique that I haven’t been fair to the band itself; the Mace Francis Orchestra’s 14 members are clearly talented and the man himself is no hack. Yet while these criticisms could be simply based on a set of inexperienced compositions, there’s more to a band than the sum of the combined skill of its musicians, the charts played and the reliability of the conductor. A band has to have “it”. Focus, discipline, and that forever-indefinable “x factor”; whatever you want to call it; a great band is more than a collective of musicians. It’s an ethereal experience, in which you may not be sure of exactly what you’re seeing and hearing, but you understand that it’s real because it’s so clear and perfect, if only for just that one moment. And that’s just everything that this band wasn’t.

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