BY KATHY GIBBONS
TRAVERSE CITY — Live at Birdland is doing its best to cultivate a whole new generation of big band fans.
Coming to the City Opera House tonight at 8 p.m., the jazz band from New York City is in the middle of a Midwest tour. Band leader and creator Tommy Igoe said they've been playing to packed houses every Friday night when they're in town at the iconic Birdland club in NYC.
"Reaction has been even more passionate than I could have dreamed," Igoe said. "People from Europe are booking their vacations around whether or not they can get tickets to see this band in New York."
And responses from audiences as they've taken their show on the road for the very first time since forming six years ago have been equally enthusiastic.
"In places like Goshen, Ind., which is a heavily Mennonite Amish community, the place was jammed and people were going crazy," said Igoe, 47, via phone from Iowa City.
Igoe said the 15-piece ensemble of "some of the top players from New York" is basically a big band, but with a twist.
"People over a certain age, and I think everyone, when you see the word 'big band,' it makes you think nostalgia," Igoe said. "We do everything but nostalgia.
"However, we know where we came from. We don't have a problem playing something from the past as long as it's with a forward-looking slant to it. One thing we will never be is a living juke box."
That might mean pieces from the iconic Count Basie library, but not the usual suspects.
"Count Basie had so much great music that never got its due," he said. "There's a perfect piece of music called 'The Deacon' written in 1959 by Thad Jones.
"We play that at our concerts, and people just freak out ... because it's a Count Basie piece they have never heard before. And it's a genius piece of music."
Live at Birdland's shows also have an international flair.
"The music we're doing is from all over the world — from Brazil to Cuba to Argentina to Venezuela, with a jazz slant," Igoe said. "Big band is a uniquely American art form, and if we want to have a healthy, growing audience, we need to have a new presentation — a new way to deliver this music to a fresh audience."
The band is actually reaching 19 fresh audiences in 25 days on its current tour.
If they're missing anything about New York during their travels, it's the 24-7 energy, he said.
Not that the Midwest doesn't have its own late-night surprises.
"A couple of the guys in the band told me — I forget what town it was, another sleepy Midwest town — that they found a karaoke party going on until 3 a.m. in some little dive bar," Igoe said. "Everybody was getting up and singing Frank Sinatra tunes. My whole band was over doing karaoke in a little bar.
"You make friends, you drink the local beer."
Tickets are $32 and $47. Visit the Opera House box office, call 941-8082 or visit CityOperaHouse.org.