New York Sounds: Big Band Jazz

Even during these challenging times, NYC is still awash with enlarged jazz combos, as Martin Longley reports from Manhattan…

The New York Composers Orchestra
University Of The Streets

Even for local residents, an appearance by the New York Composers Orchestra has become a rarity. Its guiding forces, the pianists Wayne Horvitz and Robin Holcomb, have long been living in Seattle (they moved in 1989), so get-togethers have been very scarce over the last two decades. Although he visits NYC regularly, Horvitz has lately taken to appearing with his Sweeter Than The Day quartet (itself formed as long ago as 1999). Now, it’s the NYCO’s 25th anniversary, and Horvitz has also been asked to curate at the University Of The Streets in the East Village. This too marks something of a revival. Indigenous dwellers speak of this informal theatre-space as an old haunt for the music, and now such performances are returning in an emphatic manner. Horvitz was booking October and already, the alto saxophonist Matana Roberts has programmed an equally impressive run for November 2010. The UOTS will act as a strong complement to The Stone, just a few blocks downtown. Their set-times are the same, as is their $10 door-admission. Even the UOTS’s artists are similar types to those who inhabit John Zorn’s intimate corner-space.

The players not surprisingly took up a large area of the floor, so there was a greater audience capacity to the orchestra’s left and right sides. It turned out to be a wise decision to sit in the narrow strip of chairs directly in front of the conductor’s position. Indeed, just before take-off, Horvitz issued a warning that he might inadvertently strike those sitting directly behind him.

The line-up featured an impressive gathering of Horvitz cronies, many of them old hands from the early days: Marty Ehrlich, Briggan Krauss, Doug Wieselman, Andy Laster (reeds), Ron Horton (trumpet), Lindsey Horner (bass) and Bobby Previte (drums) amongst them. Pianists and composers Horvitz and Holcomb divided the set’s pieces up more or less equally, with an added arrangement of the old “Fever” song, mostly associated with Peggy Lee. There was also Ehrlich’s “M.Variations”. During its history, the NYCO has performed works by a wider range of writers, but on this evening they stuck closer to home.

Holcomb’s “Nightbirds: Open 24 Hours” refers to West Coast nature, as well as a specific East Village bar. Her pieces tend to have more of an evocative classical poise, whereas husband Horvitz prefers to deliver a complex manifestation of blues’n’swing. At least on this particular evening. Horvitz would periodically wander over to the piano, breaking out in a spell of solo spillage, then pace determinedly back to the frontal position, directing with keen control. The essence of the NYCO performance is an uncompromising co-existence of art music trappings with old school swing and blues energy, particularly when Horvitz is at the helm. Even though the ensemble playing was controlled and precise, there was an air of recklessness in the delivery, within the parameters set by the score. The absolute pinnacle-stretch was a climactic duo/duel between Ehrlich and Wieselman, honking and jousting, half-1936, half-1969. It must be stated in advance that due to the overload of both rousing passion and sharp intellectual vision of the NYCO, the subsequent large combos covered in this piece were destined to suffer by comparison.

The Satoko Fujii Orchestra

The saxophonists Andy Laster and Briggan Krauss were also found in the ranks of Satoko Fujii’s orchestra on the following night. The Japanese pianist and composer’s East Coast version of her expando assemblage also featured many key NYC players who didn’t happen to be members of the NYCO. So, there were trumpeters Herb Robertson, Frank London, Dave Ballou and Fujii’s husband Natsuki Tamura, reedsmen Oscar Noriega, Ellery Eskelin and Chris Speed, Curtis Hasselbring notable amongst the three trombonists and Stomu Takeishi on electric bass. Once again, Fujii wasn’t able to play much piano, as the demands of her conducting meant that she’d often break off before a solo’s natural conclusion, meeting the cue for a new wave of horn section chopping. She’s an incredibly diverse leader, with her several small bands possessing a radical difference in style and palette.

Fujii modestly spoke of her eternal learning stance when penning large-scale music, giving ample credit to her players in realising the new pieces that had so far existed mostly inside her cranium. The bulk of this set was taken up with a suite-like piece that’s an advance present for husband Tamura’s 60th birthday in 2011 (his advanced age was something of a surprise, given his relatively youthful appearance!). There are complex mathematical reasons why this occasion is so significant in the Japanese calendar, and most of them, strangely, derive from the Chinese zodiac. So, to simplify immensely, each member of the orchestra got to be an animal, related to a relevant year.

Considering that she’s been creating works for a big band palette since 1996, some of Fujii’s directions and shapings appeared quite basic: there would be sudden signals given to shunt the sound from one side to the other, or to alter the ensemble’s volume. There were frequent contrasts between very sparse (sometimes completely solo) burbling and aggressive stabbing from the entire cast. This exposed spotlighting was often at the expense of more graduated or detailed shading from one of these extremes to the other. Robertson was as strikingly theatrical as ever, and Krauss startled with his scrunched-fabric muting, producing a rattlingly high-pitched throttling sound. The actual themes-for-all were quite predictable in nature, especially following the NYCO’s gig the previous evening. The centrepiece zodiac suite was the main offender, ultimately sounding very episodic, tantalising and inconclusive, rather than delivering the raw animal meat.

Steve Lehman - photo willie davis

Steve Lehman - photo Willie Davis

The Steve Lehman Octet
(le) Poisson Rouge

Does an octet count as a big band? During the recession, yes. Saxophonist Steve Lehman surely writes with an orchestra ringing in his head, as the taut interlacings of his carefully-chosen instrumentation create an end-sound that gives the illusion of bigger battalions. He’s very much leaping out of the Steve Coleman stream, sharing similar concerns with The Claudia Quintet, who might be this octet’s closest comparison-point. Lehman’s music is like a streamlined plastic sinew construction, a transparent body of sleek melodies-in-progress, vein networks shimmering. Its riffing nature might explain the ridiculously headbanging response of a small audience faction (well, two members), highlighting the way in which certain younger jazzers are connecting with a fan-base that are mostly versed in rock. Overall, this was a healthily-sized gathering for a Tuesday night, and a gig that wasn’t listed in the jazz press.

Tim Berne and his extended family might be mentioned as another collective group who have emphasised (admittedly very complex) ensemble riffing rather than separately minnowing solo individuality. Could math rock have now bred math jazz? Lehman’s onstage presentation is quite curious. He makes jokes or amusing observations, then immediately retracts them. This isn’t irony. This is someone who’d rather just deliver his music, and keep his mouth shut.

The octet boasts an inspired construction, with Mark Shim contrasting tenor saxophone with the leader’s alto (and soloing with a greater ruggedness that almost sounds rebellious within the context of this combo). Trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and trombonist Jacob Garchik complete the front line, whilst Dan Peck dances away on tuba, never stepping on the bass-feet of Drew Gress. It’s probably Chris Dingman’s vibraphone that prompts the Claudia comparison. The drummer is Cody Brown.

The repertoire was not surprisingly dominated by the octet’s 2009 debut album Travail, Transformation And Flow. The band’s individuality grows out of a collective strength, enlarging the personality of its leader, but still containing the essence of its uncompromising membership. Their only disadvantage is that no one gets dirty, and there’s rarely a sense of unpredictable danger. Their motion is generated as an overall body-mind feeling rather than as a spontaneous reaction to real-in-the-room sonic friction.

Kenny Werner & The Brussels Jazz Orchestra/The Eyal Vilner Big Band
Dizzy’s Club

New York pianist Kenny Werner has been building up a steady cross-Atlantic relationship with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra. It must have been quite a feat to arrange transportation for this massed band’s six-night residency at Dizzy’s. Werner seemed to be more comfortable in combining great streams of relaxed solo piano action with his role as conductor. The transitions between activities were seamlessly handled. Most of this second set’s pieces were written by the pianist, who has become a kind of honorary leader under these collaborative circumstances. The actual leader, Frank Vaganee, took more of a back seat. The orchestra’s forces are robust, and Werner doesn’t allow much space in his music. He hurtles towards hard swing. The immediately following After Hours set by the Eyal Vilner Big Band provided a highly suitable continuation of the evening’s large band immersion. This is a young gathering of locals who contrastingly set out to leave more open fields in their arrangements. The solos were given greater surround-space, and the band worked up on a steady curve that peaked during “Un Poco Loco” (a Bud Powell number), as Vilner led confidently on clarinet.

The Andrew D’Angelo Big Band
The University Of The Streets

This review selection was all wrapped up and awaiting online-ness, when along came yet another big band gig that demanded inclusion. It somewhat contradicts my earlier proclamation that nothing could subsequently top the New York Composers Orchestra’s magnificent performance. Well, we’re back at the same venue once more, two weeks later, and Andrew D’Angelo’s enlarged combo certainly equalled that earlier gig, and maybe even surpassed it (not that this is in any way a certified big band jousting competition).

Alto saxophonist and composer D’Angelo is an enthusiastic character, to put it mildly. An arrival just before eight found his ranks already seated in position, ready for a prompt start. This is highly unusual in the city which normally waits on late-arriving victims of the subway system and/or their own wilfully hectic existences. In his various small band situations, D’Angelo invariably plays like he’s the leader, whether he is or not. He also performs every gig like it’s his last night on earth. Whether this is a result of his recent brain trauma, it’s hard for your scribe to decide, having only witnessed the reedsman in action post-recovery. Nevertheless, D’Angelo was to speak of spiritual matters during this show, alongside more earthy subjects.

D’Angelo’s personality and playing are extremely forceful, but this is a completely positive state. The big band are visibly caught up in his musical philosophy, which balances jazz tradition (swing and blues) with dislocated adventuring (extreme funk time swerves and accumulated riffing contusions). Even though this posse of players is reasonably youthful, D’Angelo is aware of time’s passing, fondly recalling the late-1980s jamming workshop after-hours sessions at the UOTS. The longevity of his connections with certain crew members is also such that intuitive bonds have been formed, where soloists such as the saxophonist Bill McHenry can be trusted to transcend what’s down on paper.

The closest comparison might be to imagine an early Mothers Of Invention gig. The idea that tightly scripted charts can still be negotiated with an anarchy that creates a continual sense of tension. I long ago decided that a state of clenched tension is a necessary by-product of cookin’ improvisation. This should be married to an equal degree of cathartic release. D’Angelo is genuinely on the edge, and there is no comforting anticipation allowed, either amongst the audience or his own ranks. There’s a joy in excess, but it’s a (barely) disciplined excess. Once D’Angelo sets up his complicated vamp-structures, he might unleash one of his soaring alto solos, horn raised on high, spontaneously delegating conducting duties to baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton, who would himself soon contribute a couple of bullishly raging solos.

There were established works that included “Free Willy”, “Gay Disco”, and the ballad “I Love You”, which is dedicated without too much ego to himself, more as a statement of general life-affirmation. One moment, D’Angelo was sending out a positive prayer to a close friend recently diagnosed with leukemia, asking violist Nicole Federici to open the dedication with a completely solo meditation, then he would be battling with an infestation of late-nite kiddies in the audience, repeatedly having to censor his thoughts and profanities. In the end, he press-ganged four youngsters to sing the vocal chorus of his charging “Big Butt” composition, as they counted up his swearing-slips. Then, the saxophonist went ape, careening around the space, endangering said kids, nearly bending a trombone and hurling a chair to the floor, but still not missing any cue-points!

As the evening progressed, Sasha Brown’s guitar rose up into serrated dominance, having begun as a barely audible comping instrument. Drummer Dan Weiss became increasingly responsive, followed by dominant (once again, this was of an extremely positive nature), reacting, then driving, hitting sharp, juddering accents, brutal tattoos and forming running allegiances with whoever was soloing. Trombonist Jacob Garchik had filled in for Brian Drye during the first set, but was caught so much in thrall that he stayed on once the latter had arrived, subject to D’Angelo’s quips.

Speaking of sets, D’Angelo didn’t cease his playing for long. The second set began half an hour early, and the venue’s executive director Saadia Salahuddeen had to interrupt the proceedings to inform the leader that the second set’s potential audience was waiting in line outside the entrance, eventually destined to experience the night’s third set. D’Angelo joshed that she used to tell him to stop playing in 1987, so times hadn’t changed much. After another fleeting pause, the big band just continued blowing, repeating a couple of numbers which were given an even lustier treatment. As D’Angelo observed, this evening was imbued with the urgency and informality of the old loft days. He was undoubtedly correct. This gig will surely go down in history as one of 2010’s front runners. Absolutely everything was here.

The Steve Lehman Octet will be playing at the CBSO Centre on Friday the 21st of January 2011…
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