Following the Spark

Christian Wiggs is a jazz vocalist who has spent decades hearing the distinct sounds of musical shows, and also delving into the positive vibe of the golden age of jazz. As the leader of a big band group in Austin, Texas, Wiggs has harnessed the lessons he has learned from diverse melodies to compose and perform new music in a city that seems to love all types of music. In this interview Wiggs talks about his influences and his hopes for the future.

Jupiter Index: How were you exposed to music as a youngster? And which artists and composers did you find yourself enjoying?

CW: Well, I was raised in the theatre - my mother is a dancer/choreographer in a long-standing musical community that continues to throw its full support behind the arts. I have a vivid memory of seeing my brother and mother in a production of “Annie” that left me feeling a void that I knew I had to fill. It was everything: electric, magnetic, intoxicating.

I found myself listening to a constant rotation of musical theatre, classic rock, and film scores. When it came to musicals, I fell in love with Jonathan Larson’s, “Rent”, Stephen Sondheim’s, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, and Mel Brooks', “The Producers”. The usual suspects of “Les Misérables” and “Phantom of the Opera” were certainly present as well.

There was something about film scores that grabbed me, especially the work of Thomas Newman, James Newton Howard, James Horner, and Howard Shore. Similarly to the world of musical theatre, I felt that the grandiose, larger than life sounds were a way of emulating the human experience in Technicolor - as opposed to the day-in, day-out mundane schedule of being a child. The music gave me an escape and it was exhilarating. Often, I describe conducting a big band as the closest thing to being a Marvel superhero.

JI: When composing or improvising, what do you find to be most inspirational for your playing?

CW: As simple as it sounds, I find inspiration in what is true. I find inspiration in what is honest. Audiences can often pick up on lyricism that is contrived or tired and alternatively, they notice when an artist is being vulnerable. What I really mean by that is that writing lyrics - being a storyteller - is hard.

Telling great narratives requires any combination of scars, trips around the sun, and a wild imagination - or all three. There’s a quote from the 2012 James Bond film, “Skyfall”, that says, “Age is no guarantee of efficiency; youth is no guarantee of innovation."

While I don’t have as many years to my name as some of my colleagues, I have lived through some traumatic events that have assisted my ability to empathize with fictional characters that I have in mind for tunes. Composing has also helped me to work through those personal events as a sort of therapy.

Any person’s work has to come from the most honest part of themselves; when I’m able to block out the noise and my own insecurities, that’s when I’m most inspired. It’s then that I feel like I can contribute work with a similar integrity as my heroes. As to the quality of the work, that’s for the audience to decide.

JI: How did you initially organize your big band? What inspired you to put together this ensemble?

CW: The idea for this band has been burrowing in my head for years. Between waiting for the right collaborators and wanting to refine my personal sound, the project stayed an idea for years. There would be tunes along the way that I’d stick in a folder and say, “oh that’ll be great for the big band when it comes to fruition.” A perfect example of that was Kristian Mattson’s, “Where Do My Bluebird Fly?.” I had planned for this tune to be on my third record and it was cut only a couple months before the studio session because I didn’t feel it was the right time.

In February 2020, I started commissioning charts to get the band off the ground with the idea of the first show being in April 2020. But, we all know how that song goes! The pivotal moment was a night in June at Monks Jazz, a pop-up-jazz-club turned brick-and-mortar that is made by jazz musicians for jazz musicians. A good friend, Mike Sailors, was playing a set with his group, "The Higher Calling Orchestra”. They were on fire. Mike put on a real show and audience engagement was through the roof. Electric.

Mike will have to forgive my lapse in concert etiquette, but I had immediately texted a good friend and close collaborator, Thomas Wenglinski. I knew it was now or never. So, within three weeks in the very same space, we had put together the first 14 tunes for our first official show as the Christian Wiggs Big Band.

JI: How does this group interpret and invent new ways to play in the big band tradition?

CW: My family has a very diverse musical palate and I always wanted to find a way to incorporate a variety of sounds into my work. For instance, Michael Jackson albums played on a loop in the fifth grade. I was obsessed with Hall and Oates in the sixth grade. Take 6 came to town in the seventh grade. In the eighth grade, I couldn’t shake the dark colors of Hans Zimmer matched by the luscious orchestration of James Newton Howard. Between all of these influences, I had a second home in the theatre listening to jazz standards from Golden Age musicals.

I owe the balance of tradition and inventive arranging to the two primary arrangers in the band, Thomas Wenglinski and Dr. Mike Sailors. Thomas is always pushing the boundaries of harmony, groove, and interpretation in his original compositions, standards, and pop tunes that he inserts into the jazz idiom. Mike is a man of tradition who brings the quintessential element that has defined this music for over a century: swing. Thomas and Mike are invaluable to me and have continued to shape with every arrangement.

JI: What do you hope for the future of your music?

CW: To stay inspired and earnestly advocate for this music. In a relatively short amount of time, it has provided me so much comfort and reassurance. More than anything, making music with any size ensemble is fun. That excitement is why I decided to be a musician in the first place. Ultimately, I want to never lose that spark and keep walking down the path ancestors have paved for current musicians today.

by G.M. Burns