What had started as anarchy collective should become one of the leading European ensembles of the modern creative Jazz. And then had to declare “Game Over” due to lack of funding.
But let’s start at the beginning. In 1977 the then called Orchestre de l’Art de Vienne releases its first record Jesses Na! – the Viennese expression for OMG! The orchestra had been founded by Mathias Rüegg, a Swiss who had emigrated to Austria (very strange that one does leave beautiful Switzerland – although Vienna is indeed a very attractive alternative, I have to admit).
The record was an exhibit of the typical Viennese Schmäh (rogue), which called the attention of the band’s audience.
The Vienna Art Orchestra (VAO), the name it eventually adapted and under which it became popular, and Mathias Rüegg can’t really be separated. Not only did Mathias write almost all own compositions of the VAO and arranged basically everything, but he also organised the concerts and recruited the musicians.
Apparently, Mathias wrote the music especially tailored to his musicians and soloists. Very similar to the great band leader in Jazz history, for example the Duke.
The above is also an early track, stemming from the 1980ies release with the same title. The song became a constant element in the VAO concerts.
In the eighties of the last century, not much happened in terms of big bands. The VAO certainly stuck out as one of the most innovative of the large ensembles going then.
In 1987, Mathias Swiss roots came to light in the record Swiss Swing which contains his versions of Swiss folk songs.
But probably their most important record from that period is The Minimalism of Erik Satie.
Towards the end of the eighties, the original line-up broke up and there was a short period of stagnation. However, in 1992 Mathias Rüegg put together a smaller orchestra with new musicians.
During that second era of VAO also the music changed a bit, moving away from Rüegg’s own compositions towards the European Songbook, Ballads, Original Charts of Duke Ellington & Charles Mingus or American Rhapsody.
About five years later, there was another change in the composition of the band and it became once again a hard swinging, large Big Band. And Mathias found again the time and inspiration to write songs for his orchestra.
An example for the innovative nature of VAO is Art & Fun, a record which incorporated two rhythm sections – an acoustic and an electric one.
The record was released in its original version, but there is also a re-mix available. Something which seems perfectly natural nowadays was in fact in 2002, and especially in the Jazz world, quite a new thing.
The above was filmed at the 2002 North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands.
To the 30 year anniversary of his ensemble, Mathias made himself a beautiful present with the trilogy 3. Which incorporates “portraits of 13 American women” (like Grace Kelly or Judy Garland), “13 European men” (Albert Einstein or Sigmund Freud to name two), and finally “13 couples” (bringing the former together). A very interesting concept!
In 2009 then came a profound change. The Big Band was replaced by a chamber orchestra which brought together classical with Jazz musicians.
Finally in 2010, after over 800 concerts in 50 countries and more than 35 records, Mathias Rüegg had to throw in the towel due to a chronic lack of funding. GAME OVER appeared on the VAO website. Mathias’ statement on the website closed with freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.