Twenty Years of Tunes: Brian O’Hern & the Model Citizens Play the Pritzker at Chicago Jazz Festival: “The music grooves, soloists sparkle, and the band wails!”

by Gail Dee/ We Want Music Without Borders

After twenty years of hi jinks and hangs, Chicago’s swingin’ funky big band, Brian O’Hern and the Model Citizens, hits the big time on the big Pritzker stage at Chicago Jazz Festival Friday Sept. 2 at 5 pm in Millennium Park. O’Hern throws a lot of musical curves at his versatile 14 member band. They perform O’Hern’s original and humorously quirky compositions along with arrangements for songs from Jimmy Webb and Queen to the Star Spangled Banner.   Brian says “We play straight jazz, out jazz, boogaloos, rock covers, waltzes, marches, church music, hora, bolero, rumba, calypso, corals, and anthems.”

Brian O Hern Jazz Fest Jackson Stage

As a megafan for over ten years,( full disclosure: I actually received the “honored” mega fan button) I’m hoping they get discovered by a TV executive and hired to be the house band for a talk show. The Model Citizens attack new charts with verve and old charts with mastery in monthly unrehearsed shows at the Gallery Cabaret  every 3rd Monday. The reward being beer served in frosty mugs by the most attractive female in the bar; a few bucks and lots of laughs. The band began their journey in 1996 at Martyr’s where they played their anniversary show in March. Martyr’s owner, Ray Quinn, a long time friend and fan of Brian’s music said Since Sir Georg retired, the greatest band in Chicago. Celebrate their return to Martyrs’ where it all began 20 years ago.”

Not to imply this is the first time the Model Citizens have performed at the Jazz Festival. In 2011 they played the smaller Jackson stage and many of the stellar band members such as Mike Allemana, the guitarist; Matt Ferguson, the bassist; Pat Mallinger, tenor sax; have headlined or been featured performers on the Pritzker for “Made in Chicago: Jazz” or the Chicago Jazz Festival. This year, however, will be the first time, the unassuming, eccentric and comedic composer and band leader Brian O’Hern, appears on the Millennium Park stage with his big band.

Besides Brian’s brilliant and humorous compositions, music lovers will appreciate the top notch Model Citizens musicians which are among Chicago’s best jazz musicians. Mike Allemana, Matt Ferguson (both Von Freeman’s sidemen) Pat Mallinger (Sabertooth) have been Model Citizens for 20 years. Other band members include Dave Creighton, Dan Nicholson, Anthony Bruno, Mark Hiebert, BJ Levy, BJ Cord, Scott Anderson, Raphael Crawford, Dylan Rehm, and Gerald Dowd.

Model Citizens Christmas show

Photo by Harvey Tillis

Nobody puts Brian O’Hern and the Model Citizens Big Band in a corner. Every show is a surprise even after 15 years of attending the monthly shows religiously.   Brian says “It’s not like the cookie cutter “jazz orchestras” coming out of the “college tradition.” While some of the songs have become familiar classics like “Helen’s Waltz Medley” with its’ sardonic lyrics “So put on your jazz slacks and go have a beer ’cause Andy’s is the place for Jazz” and “Frugal Tall Hag” an exhilarating instrumental groove based vaguely on a reproduction of an old WW2 big band classic “Bugle Call Rag”, Brian is always experimenting with new material. In fact, he has just released a fourth CD, tongue in cheek entitled  “We Are So Straight Ahead” .  I attribute part of my breast cancer cure many years ago to these monthly sessions of funky guitar, blaring brass and sexy soulful saxes combined with hearty laughter. Who wouldn’t feel healed at the end of night hearing “Party like a Rockstar” (not the shop boyz) morphing into a rousing rendition of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” as the band does a second line thru the narrow bar’s audience?

Educated at Berklee College of Music, Brian says he wasn’t interested at all in “big bands” until he toured with Arty Shaw and Glenn Miller bands. Brian plays the keyboards, piano, B-3 organ and accordion. (He also likes the kazoo;-))   At 49 years old, he still has a baby face and a boyish charm in front of the audience.   As well as being a serious composer, he’s also a ham and in the intimate club setting does hilariously outrageous things –like stripping down to his briefs to put on tights and a cape as perform “We Are the Champions” as a rock star. (ok–i guess you had to be there;-).

Brian OHern Dec. 2015 poster The monthly Monday nights at the intimate Gallery Cabaret are an informal affair- sort of like studio sessions. Frequently the musicians are looking at charts for the first time which they approach fearlessly. It is part of the thrill for the regular audience members to be privy to the organic process of hearing how a composition develops. They hear an original song performed and a couple months later the song may appear again—maybe the arrangement has changed or the melodic line is repeated in another song. And it’s always brings a smile to hear the band members break into song calling on the Gallery Cabaret’s owner to serve them more beer “We’re the Model Citizens and YES, we are thirsty. Kenny can we have more beer?”

Brian says, “Our shows are loose, crazy and sometimes blue in humor. But underneath all that is a tight deepness performed by the highest caliber of players. I like to make it look as though it’s all happening at random when the truth is I spend hundreds of hours preparing the charts and putting all the parts together to make the whole. So by the time the show is on I just sit back and listen. My work is pretty much done.”

Admittedly, I greeted the news of this Jazz Festival performance with a jubilant shout of glee and no small amount of smug vindication. For years I have figuratively grabbed the ears of friends and strangers with my enthusiastic “You got to come and see this crazy big band. The music is a blast!”

You can see for yourself Friday Sept. 2 at 5 pm at Millennium Park. Remember to see them in more intimate surroundings every 3rd Monday at the Gallery Cabaret.  Halloween shows are always a special musical trick or treat too! “We Are So Straight Ahead” can be purchased here . or iTunes.

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