Flute Music for People Who Hate It
The Ali Ryerson Jazz Flute Big Band‘s album, just out from Capri, is titled Game Changer. And it is, both in the sense of advocacy for an instrument that’s still considered esoteric in jazz, and for its unexpectedly stunning sonics. Don’t think of this as a flute album – consider this a wind ensemble playing big band jazz, and when you realize that except for the piano, bass and drums, it’s all flutes, you”ll realize how brilliant it is. Ryerson was clearly fed up with being castigated for her choice of jazz instrument, so she rounded up eighteen (18!) other jazz flutists for ten long, lush, nebulously epic arrangements of classics, a couple of Neal Hefti tunes plus a modern bop number and one pilfered from the late Romantic canon. With their Gil Evans-esque colors, these imaginative, ambitious arrangements span the entire spectrum of the flute (the presence of many alto and bass flutes here has a lot to do with the lush sonics), creating a sort of a big band jazz counterpart to famed multi-recorder avant-garde ensemble QNG.
The album’s charts are expansive, pillowy, balmy, and often swoony: intentional or not, much of this is boudoir jazz. Bassist Rufus Reid (whose first solo is way up the scale, wryly consistent with the album theme) and Akira Tana on drums and percussion join with pianist Mark Levine to keep this big pillow on the bed. They open with a scampering Levine arrangement of the Clifford Brown classic Dahoud, with a solo from Paul Liberman; with its many timbral contrasts, it’s amazing that there are no saxes on this. Mike Wofford’s Gil Evans-inspired arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s Ana Maria is moodily orchestral: flute soloist Marc Adler sneaks his way out of a syncopated thicket, choosing his spots as the rhythm section crashes.
Another Wofford arrangement, Oliver Nelson’s Stolen Moments has the best of the solos, from Hubert Laws, who keeps it cool and mentholated as band swings. Steve Rudolph’s chart for Herbie Hancock’s Speak Like a Child has the orchestra doing it as translucent clave, soloist Jamie Baum’s alto flute tersely dancing, Levine tiptoeing over the cloudbanks into unexpected and welcome darkness. A Bill Cunliffe chart for Dizzie Gillespie’s Con Alma alternates between light and lustrous, waltz time and clave; it’s true to its era, with a lively Nestor Torres solo.
Neal Hefti’s Girl Talk is reinvented via a subdued Michael Abene chart with an unexpected moodiness: there’s considerable irony in how all these flutes give this otherwise rather lightweight tune plenty of gravitas, soloist Holly Hoffman maintaining the mood, then handing off to Ryerson (on alto flute) and then Reid. The other Hefti tune, also arranged by Abene, is L’il Darlin, Bob Chadwick’s bass flute seamless with the ensemble on the lower end through a series of clever rhythmic diversions.
Andrea Brachfeld’s long, energetic solo on Coltrane’s Impressions evokes the ebullience of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. There’s also a terse, bolero-ish Wofford arrangement of Tom Harrell’s Sail Away with Ryerson on alto flute, and an imaginative Billy Kerr arrangement of the famous Gabriel Faure Pavane with some nimbly shifting banks of sound throughout the ensemble. One glaring omission: nothing from the Dave Valentin book. Now there’s a guy who transcended any perceived limitations on his instrument! But that’s a minor quibble. Play this for someone who doesn’t like the flute and watch their jaw drop when you tell them what it is.
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