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Theatre Bizarre Orchestra blends big band and burlesque

By Gary Graff
ggraff@digitalfirstmedia.com, @GraffonMusic on Twi

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It was a goth-rock classic, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” that gave life to the Theatre Bizarre Orchestra.

The idea was born during the 2014 Theatre Bizarre, Detroit’s annual celebration of burlesque, bawdy and Bacchanalia, when David J of Bauhaus and Love & Rockets performed the song impromptu with the Planet D Nonet. That gave saxophonist Joshua James an idea he took to Theatre Bizarre’s organizers.

“I pitched those folks: ‘You need a house band for your gala so each year when you bring in various performers you have a band that can do whatever they want,’” explains James, 37, who now leads the TBO. “They said, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea,’ and that’s how the orchestra started.”

During the past couple of years, however, the TBO has taken on a life of its own, operating alongside but also beyond the Theatre Bizarre gala while still spreading the good word about the popular festival, which takes place again during October at the Detroit’s Masonic Temple.

Last year TBO released an album, the Detroit Music Award-nominated “Carpe Noctem,” with another, recorded on April 15 at Detroit’s Scarab Club, in the works for this year. The band also is playing its own concerts, both in town and in other territories, including Chicago in June and a festival in Louisiana during November.

“My thought over the past two years is, gosh, why not have TBO be the traveling circus? The itinerant goofy carnival, where we pull out of the station and your train goes across the country and makes a loop and comes back right where it begins,” explains James, who resides in Ferndale with his wife, civil rights attorney Kathryn Bruner James, and 4-month-old daughter Magnolia Bruner James. James has played in several other area ensembles — including the Nighthawks Jazz Orchestra, the Paul Keller Orchestra, the Scott Gwinnell Big Band and more — and he’s working on a Ph.D. in music education at Oakland University as well as leading the traditional jazz group the Aston Neighborhood Pleasure Club.

“We go out and we really help to push the Theatre Bizarre name and ethos in more places,” James says. “But it works on its own purely in a musical context and a performance context, regardless of whether there’s burlesque dancers around or not.”

TBO — which numbers from 11 to 14 at any given performance, including veteran Detroit-area singer Tracy Kash — is a jazz big band at heart, but that burlesque aspect brings a different kind of feel to the music, what James describes as “magical musical mayhem.” It allows the group to employ costumes and theatricality, which certainly impacts the song selection. A recent case in point — TBO’s version of British bandleader Harry Roy’s “My Girl’s P----,” a bit of quirky, double entendree-ridden 1930s hilarity that will be on the next TBO album.

“I’ve always loved this tune. It’s funny as hell,” says James. “We started out doing it in an as-is arrangement, but I reworked the tune and gave it a middle section that has a bump ’n’ grind for a dancer and goes out with a Dixieland flourish.” James acknowledges the song has caused him some problems in his private working life, but that’s left him “undeterred” — perhaps even more inspired.

“The whole thing is just making me double down on the artistic stuff I’m doing,” he says. “Y’know, I’ve always been a jazzer at heart, but I’ve also always felt confined by the weightiness of jazz in the contemporary music scene. Jazz is a serious art form and it must be respected, and I can listen to (John Coltraine’s) ‘A Love Supreme’ in endless repeat for a month.

“But there’s another side to it. Louis Armstrong was playing for strippers, and so were a lot of other guys. You’ve got all these great burlesque performers and everyone thinks they’re just glorified strippers, but that’s not the case at all. There’s this marriage between the performer — the dancer, the sword-jugglers, the flaming batons, the hula hoops — and the music, and then the audience, that’s very unique and special.

“What appeals to me is this synthesis of everything — the visual, the theatrical, the over-the-top of the burlesque and the music. There’s really nothing else like it.”

If You Go:

• Theatre Bizarre Orchestra and Aston Neighborhood Pleasure Club perform at 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 9, at Otus Supply, 345 E. Nine Mile Road, Ferndale. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 day of show. Call 248-291-6160 or visit otussupply.com. Note: Attendees are “strongly encouraged to dress up in the spirit of voodoo, burlesque and Mardi Gras mayhem.”

Web Site: www.otussupply.com

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