When it comes to Kiwi Big Band jazz, Rodger Fox is the man who set the template.

The Rodger Fox Big Band travels north next week, joining the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra on its Swing into Spring tour. Hamish McKeich conducts 82 musicians in music ranging from jazz standards such as A Night in Tunisia and Take the A Train to arrangements of songs by Lorde and Fat Freddy's Drop.

Fox grew up surrounded by music.

"I'd be in my room with four tubas, practising in the lounge for the next competition," he laughs, pointing out how, as a young trumpeter, he was conscripted into his father's band.

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"The trombone players had suddenly all drifted away, so I was given a trombone and told to learn it over the summer holidays."

Fox was aiming at a classical career but, when employment possibilities shrivelled up, he played trombone with the rock band Quincy Conserve and, at 19, set up what would become the Rodger Fox Big Band.

"The rest is history," he sighs, and a distinguished one it has been. During 43 years, the group has performed at both Monterey and Montreux jazz festivals and released 36 albums, including the recent Concerti on Rattle Records, with Michael Houstoun on board, funking up a Prokofiev concerto.

Fox is proud to have done "his part" in making big band music strong in our secondary schools.

"In the most recent KBB Music Festival, there were 38 big bands from the Auckland region alone," he says. "This has increased our audience base as these players come to concerts, making for a spread of ages that will ensure the music flourishes."

The 12 concerts of Swing into Spring travel the country from Kerikeri to Invercargill and, with the orchestral brass mostly replaced by the 19 band musicians, some seriously spectacular sonics can be expected.

And it will be jazz, Fox insists, "encased within the orchestra, using all its colours.
"I was determined that the improvisation side be to the fore," he stresses, alerting me to the presence of star American trumpeter Allen Vizzutti. "After all, without it, you don't have jazz."

Vizzutti is a definite drawcard, praised by jazz pianist Chick Corea for his "finely tuned wind, easy control, polyharmonic wit, orchestral penmanship and punctuated spiritual warmth."

Kiwi music fans will appreciate the concert's local content. Jesper Riis, who arranges Lorde's Royals and Fat Freddy's Drop's Wandering Eye, has, says Fox, a knack for taking a pop song and making it fit into the big band mould.

"There's enough jazz in the Lorde number to inspire a great tenor sax solo, but it's not just an instrumental version of her singing."

The Red Zone is a major commission from noted American composer Matt Harris, a jazz-fusion score that blends Fox's classic big band sound with the contemporary groove of hip jazz groups like Snarky Puppy.

The piece makes a personal connection with Christchurch-born Fox, who was teaching at the city's Chisnallwood Intermediate School when the first earthquake hit in 2010.

"That part of town was devastated," he says. "When we went back, there basically weren't any houses there. It was like Hagley Park had been shifted to the other side of town."

It's a powerful image that may spring to mind when Harris' opening orchestral roar subsides into an ominous rhythmic shuffle.

What: Swing into Spring
Where & when:, Rotorua Civic Theatre, Rotorua, 7.30pm; Claudelands Arena, Hamilton, Thursday at 7.30pm; Auckland Town Hall, Friday at 7pm