Sound Local by Sheryl Hunter: NYChillharmonic to make western Mass. debut

Published: 5/4/2022 2:17:50 PM
Modified: 5/4/2022 2:16:19 PM


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.

For her, the reward is in the creating and performing of the music and seeing people enjoy it.

And all types of people enjoy this music.

‘“I’m always surprised every time we play a gig we have students from like 16 and up to people who are much older. I’m so grateful that people of all ages are interested in this music,” she said. “It’s always a mixed crowd, which I think is cool.”

Even though the music of the NYChilllharmonic is complex, it’s also incredibly accessible, which explains the band’s success with festival crowds. Being a big band, they create a big sound that is incredibly powerful and uplifting. Listening to their most recent single, “Mean,” you will hear a chugging bass, driving guitar lines, thundering drums, swirling strings and horns. Add to that McDonald’s robust and emotional singing, and you have a winning combination, one that frequently has crowds up and dancing. And while it’s great to see crowds moving to their music, McDonald hopes that people will take away more from the experience of seeing the NYChillharmonic.

“My biggest hope when people see the band is that they’re inspired to try something different,” she said. “Creatively or otherwise.”

McDonald said the band is looking forward to playing in western Massachusetts and encourages people to come to check them out.

“It’s always great to be in a new city,” said McDonald. “It’s an early show so I hope people will come out and maybe get some dinner and make an evening of it. We’ve got new music to play, and this is a one night only thing. We really don’t know when we’ll be back.”

Advance tickets are $15 and can be purchased at, $20 at the door.