When I asked Sara McDonald how she came up with the idea to put together an 18-piece big band she hesitated before answering.
“It was honestly a joke at first,” she said with a slight sense of disbelief in her voice. “I had done some arranging for big bands in school and decided that I wanted the largest ensemble that I could comfortably write for.”
That turned out to be a 22 -piece group.
McDonald, a graduate of the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music with a degree in jazz vocals, wrote a song for the group, they played a warm-up gig, and that was it; they kept going.
That was about eight years ago.
Today they are officially known as the NYChillharmonic, a progressive rock/jazz group of which McDonald is the group’s composer, arranger, and lead vocalist. They are based in Brooklyn and have scaled down to 17 musicians. They include bass, drums, guitar, piano, four saxophones, two trombones, tuba, two trumpets, plus a string quartet. The band has toured across five continents and has worked with over 400 musicians in a dozen countries.
“I never thought this would last, but here we are, ” she added with a laugh.
They are now prepared to make their western Massachusetts debut when they perform at Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield on Friday, May 6, at 6:30 p.m. (Note the early show time.)
The music of the NYChillharmonic blends elements of jazz, rock, pop, and even a touch of classical to create music that soars. The band plays original material that McDonald composes. They have released one album, a single in 2020, and have another coming out in a few weeks. “We recorded a ton at the end of last year, but obviously mixing and mastering for a big band takes a long time,” said McDonald. “We even recorded one song with an orchestra in Prague last year, an orchestral recording coming out.
The group has performed at world renowned festivals such as The Montreal Jazz Festival, Perth International Jazz Festival, Buenos Aires International Jazz Festival, Melbourne International Jazz Festival, Keio University Jazz Fest (Tokyo), Moers Festival, Take The A Train Festival, Mazzstock Music Festival, The International Festival of Arts and Ideas, Northside Festival, CU Jazz Festival, Nublu Jazz Festival, and The East Village Music Festival. They have established themselves as one of the leading progressive big bands working today.