Karl Berger’s Improvisers Orchestra Bring Their Lush Sounds to Brooklyn
Karl Berger has been a pioneer in large-scale jazz improvisation longer than just about anybody, which explains why his Improvisers Orchestra swings as hard, and interestingly, and often hauntingly as they do. We take them for granted. And we shouldn’t, since their show earlier this week at Shapeshifter Lab personified Bryan Beninghove’s infamous “jazz power play,” i.e. more musicians onstage than in the audience. Even so, the concert was a jazz power play without any subtext. Berger is an elegant and economical pianist, which informs how he conducts. Unlike his colleagues Butch Morris – who tends to follow the traditional small-group approach of taking a meticulously composed piece of music and throwing it to the wolves – or Greg Tate, who favors a more nebulous, slowly shapeshifting style – Berger reaches deep into his bag of riffs and sends them through the orchestra, sometimes wafting, sometimes reeling, sometimes both.
Like the best big bands, this crew use the entirety of their dynamic range. The ensemble weren’t often all playing at once, making those lush crescendos all the more towering and intense. From the piano, Berger initatiated a rather plaintive conversation with guest violist Jason Hwang, then went up in front of the group to conduct the remainder of the show. This time out there were many pairs of voices featured. Sometimes the effect was contrast, as when Yatsuno Katsuki’s richly sustained euphonium traded off with Sana Nagano‘s pointillistic violin agitations, or when singer Mossa Bildner‘s crystalline but wary vocalese sailed over the bass saxophone’s ominous rumble. Other times, the device created a richly interwoven effect, throughout animated exchanges between Sylvain Leroux and his fellow flutist, or bass clarinetist Michael Lytle joining the baritone saxophonist in a slithery duet.
Berger leaned heavily on trumpeter Thomas Heberer for crescendos, to often spine-tingling effect, with long, rapidfire, clustering cadenzas. The single most surprising, and utterly surreal, moment of the night was when guitarist Harvey Valdes fired off a noisy surf-rock solo, playing through a watery mix of chorus and reverb effects as the ensemble swept and dove behind him.
It’s not easy to tell when one piece ends and another begins with this cast – not that there needs to be any kind of definitive beginning or end to what they do. Counting pauses, there seemed to be either two long segments…or maybe the first was cut up into two parts. Either way, both built to lush, swinging swells with the phantasmagorical sweep of the Gil Evans Orchestra and the rough-and-tumble bustle of the Mingus bands. The camaraderie and warmth of the repartee between the orchestra and conductor – and among the orchestra itself – was visceral, and visible: wry smiles and friendly jousting abounded.