Boss Brass. Toronto jazz orchestra (big band) led by Rob McConnell. It was formed in 1968 as a 16-piece band composed of the city's leading studio musicians to record arrangements of pop songs of the day for CTL. It took its name from its instrumentation at that time - trumpets, trombones, french horns, and a rhythm section. (Five saxophones were added in 1970, and a fifth trumpet in 1976.) The Boss Brass made its first public appearance in January 1969 at the Toronto nightclub the Savarin. Having built a challenging and largely original repertoire of jazz compositions and arrangements by McConnell and band members Ian McDougall and Rick Wilkins, by the mid-1970s the Boss Brass had become the leading big band in Canada, and one of the finest in the world.
Its itinerary of public performances nevertheless has been limited. It played occasional engagements during the 1970s and 1980s in Toronto clubs (eg, Colonial Tavern, Basin Street, El Mocambo, Bourbon Street, the BamBoo), at Ontario Place and, as part of the city's du Maurier jazz festivals, Roy Thomson Hall. In 1984 it appeared at Massey Hall with the Toronto Philharmonic Orchestra in a symphonic-jazz program of commissioned works by McConnell, McDougall, Wilkins, Louis Applebaum, Victor Davies, and Harry Freedman.
The Boss Brass made its US debut in 1981 at the Monterey Jazz Festival in California and performed in Hackensack, NJ, with the singer Mel Tormé in 1983, on tour in California in 1984, at the Concord (Cal) and Mt Hood (Ore) jazz festivals in 1984, and at the Playboy Jazz Festival with Tormé in 1986. It also gave annual concerts 1983-8 at McComb College, Mount Clemens, Mich. After a hiatus 1988-90, the Boss Brass resumed its club and concert schedule as before. The orchestra's name has been carried much further afield on record. The Boss Brass won a (US) Grammy Award in 1984 for best jazz big band recording (All in Good Time) and had Grammy nominations in similar categories annually 1978-80 and again in 1982. It received Juno awards for best jazz album in 1978 (Big Band Jazz), 1981 (Present Perfect), and 1984 (All in Good Time).
In a review of the orchestra's performance with Tormé in Hackensack, NJ, Stephen Holden noted, McConnell's 'elaborately chromatic band charts feature richly harmonized brass choirs that break into occasional mild dissonance. Although this full orchestra style became the springboard for several superb soloists, the band's extraordinary ensemble sound outshone any individual voice... [it] performed with the focused intensity and tonal clarity of a great symphony orchestra (New York Times, 19 Jan 1983). McDougall, Wilkins, Eugene Amaro, Guido Basso, Ed Bickert, Jimmy Dale, Moe Koffman, John MacLeod, Sam Noto, Don Thompson, and Jerry Toth have been among the band's featured jazz soloists.