PICTURED: NYChillharmonic on stage. Photo courtesy of the Moers Festival

by Marina Dunbar

The past two years have been a time of isolation and introspection for those who dedicate their lives to music. For some musicians, this time has been an invaluable opportunity to contemplate their craft in solitude. For others, however, both the technique and spirit of their art is dependent on other souls to share it with. There is perhaps no better example of this than a big band, and for many young people just discovering their love of shared musical experiences, that band is the NYChillharmonic. 

This 18-piece progressive rock and jazz orchestra was founded and fronted by Brooklyn-based musician and arranger Sara McDonald. 

“I went to The New School [in New York] for jazz and contemporary music and I graduated in 2013. My parents are both classical musicians. I definitely come from a classical background,” says McDonald. “I started playing piano when I was around 4 . . . I started to get into musical theater and then got into jazz when I was in high school, and I ended up going to college for it.”

This journey through different musical styles is reflected in the diverse array of musicians that McDonald recruits for her project. “I started doing big band arrangement when I was still in school. At the time I wanted to challenge myself to see how many instruments I could arrange for in one sitting, and at the time the band was 22 pieces large . . . We had just a single one-off concert, but it was such a good time that I just kept going with it. And it was very slow in the beginning, just had a gig here and there for the first two years, but I stuck with it, and it ended up becoming its own monster.”

The term “monster” is certainly one way to describe the core musicians of the NYChillharmonic, whose immense musicality make them titans of the New York jazz scene. The rhythm section is composed of drummer Josh Bailey, keyboardist Eitan Kenner, bassist Adam Neely and guitarist Shubh Saran. 

Beyond the core group, however, the project consists largely of different players in different cities. This requires a tremendous amount of networking (and expense) on the part of McDonald. On top of this incredible work ethic, the NYChillharmonic also boasts a much higher ratio of women musicians compared to most other big band projects. But McDonald clarifies that it is not so much diversity in addition to ability, but rather that diversity is a natural result when seeking ability. 

“I definitely try to branch out and meet new people,” explains McDonald. “A couple of years ago I realized that I just really needed to know more female musicians in the scene . . . part of it was that I just love making friends. I did one concert that was all women on the bandstand. It wasn’t to make a statement; it was really just to see if I could make it happen . . . but now I would say [recruiting female musicians] is intentional . . . I want my band to be reflective of the world we live in today.”

The NYChillharmonic has won several accolades and has toured in many cities around the world, and the upcoming show at the Grape on May 27 marks the orchestra’s first performance in Ventura. This jazz hotspot is known for attracting remarkable talent, and is beloved for its ability to create community — an aspect that McDonald appreciates.

“When it comes to the music, I write and arrange everything,” says McDonald. “It’s from my perspective, so from that standpoint it’s really me being introspective. But literally every other part is communal. This project would not exist if people did not want to play this music . . . It totally relies on community.”


The NYChillharmonic performs on Friday, May 27, 8-11 p.m. at The Grape, 2753 E. Main St., Ventura. For tickets and more information, visit www.thegrapeventura.com.