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Fairfield Professor Crafts New Spin On Music From American Jazz Great

Fairfield University music professor Brian Torff is the leader of a band, New Duke, that puts a new spin on songs by jazz great Duke Ellington.
Fairfield University music professor Brian Torff is the leader of a band, New Duke, that puts a new spin on songs by jazz great Duke Ellington. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Brian Torff

FAIRFIELD, Conn. -- Brian Torff teaches history at Fairfield University. That will undoubtedly surprise many students, colleagues and administrators, who know him as the school’s Music Program Director and Professor of Music.

  • Who : Brian Torff, Fairfield University
  • What : Leader for New Duke, a band with a new take on jazz great Duke Ellington
  • In concert: Friday, Dec. 16, at Fairfield's Wien Experimental Theater. Click here for info.

As he will demonstrate Friday at the school’s American Music Series, Torff also brings history into his lessons. He will perform with New Duke at 8 p.m. at Wien Experimental Theater. The band offers a new take on the music of jazz great Duke Ellington, along with new pieces written by Torff that combine influences from an array of sounds from some of the greatest musicians and bands from generations ago.

“I don’t know too many bands that sound anything like this,’’ Torff said. “It’s a retro sound, that borrows on Soul, Motown and styles of the past. We’re doing new things with older styles. That’s what people can look forward to at the concert. It’s tightly arranged with improvisation and spur of the moment music.”

New Duke started in 2011 with a boost from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Laura Nash, a music professor at Fairfield, obtained a grant to present an education workshop for teachers on the life and work of Ellington, a master jazz composer and bandleader.

Torff, a bassist and composer, formed a seven-piece band for the workshop and began putting Ellington’s music in a new light.

“It’s certainly daunting to take a great musician’s work and say I’m going to go in a different direction,’’ Torff said. “But I think great music opens the pathways to other ways of doing it. In the beginning, it was daunting. As I started doing it, it became easier. There were more options than I realized.”

He has performed with New Duke in previous performances at Fairfield. The band consists of eight musicians. Friday’s performance will feature some new pieces composed by Torff that bring in some of his musical influences.

“When I was growing up a lot of the horn bounds were influential,’’ Torff said. “Blood, Sweat and Tears, Chicago, Tower of Power. I thought, 'I’m so lucky to be with all these great players, why not see what the band would sound like with my own music?' We can do Duke, but we also have our own original music.”

Torff composed some unique “mashups,” such as one number that combines music from Ellington and Jimi Hendrix. “They’re both masters of American music,’’ he said. “Why wouldn’t it work?”

That’s where Torff’s work as a history teacher shines. He said his work as a composer comes from teaching Jazz, Punk, Rock and other musical genres. “They all tell stories about masters of music and why they are important,’’ Torff said. “These songs really are stories of musical life in America.”

And history is a pivotal part of music. Students in Torff’s classes and many others of younger generation are unaware of the contributions of a whole range of bands and musicians who added diversity to the musical spectrum, from Elvis Presley in the 1950s to the great performers of the late 1970s and ‘80s, such as the Rolling Stones, The Who and yes, even Hendrix.

Jazz adds another element to the band’s unique sound because it allows improvisation. “It allows you to explore your own musical voice,’’ Torff said. “It allows the democratic process to come forward. You always have a chance to explore and try something you haven’t done before.”

Torff has taught at Fairfield for 23 years and has been a professional musician far longer. Still, he retains the passion of a far younger musical student.  “With improv, you never get done exploring who you are,’’ Torff said. “It doesn’t matter how many times you play a song. You might play it your whole life one way. But you can always do something new and different.”

For more information on Friday’s show at Fairfield University, click here .

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