Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Cutting-Edge Vanguard Jazz Orchestra Play a Rare Weeklong Stand At Their Usual Spot

This year the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra celebrates 49 years as a New York institution. They were a lot different when trumpeter Thad Jones and drummer Mel Lewis founded the group in 1966 as a way to blow off steam and have some fun playing swing tunes as a break from the schlock they had to contend with at their dayjobs in Broadway pit bands. Jones left the group in the late 70s; a couple of years later, valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer took the project in a rather radically different direction by introducing his own ambitious, more classically-influenced and sometimes strikingly noir compositions. Since then the group has become a vehicle for one of Brookmeyer’s many proteges, pianist Jim McNeely, who continues to serve as the band’s guiding force. Their weekly Monday residency at the Vanguard is the stuff of legend, and starting tomorrow, Monday the 26th and continuing through Feb 2 they’ll be playing a rare weeklong stand on their home turf. Sets are at 8:30 and 10:30; cover is $30 which includes a drink ticket. Early arrival is always advised at this place, no matter who’s playing. Update – there is no show Monday night because of the weather – check the club for what’s up with Tuesday’s show.

The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra’s latest album, Over Time – streaming at Spotify – is a collection of Brookmeyer pieces, five of them previously unreleased, the others dating from his early years with the band. Brookmeyer was a very distinctive writer, and his influence is still widely felt in jazz circles. His time in Gerry Mulligan’s big band is obvious in these numbers’ many West Coast noir moments. Brookmeyer liked building to lots of sudden, explosive crescendos, usually getting there by pairing instruments or sections of the band against each other, and the band really pull out the stops paying tribute to a guy who did more than anyone to put them on the map.

The older material here is also the darkest. Sad Song, a dirge and the album’s most overtly classical piece, featuring for the most part just McNeely’s piano and Dick Oatts’ flute, brings to mind Gil Evans going off onto an Indian tangent. The Big Time – a previously unreleased early 80s number – works every cinematic trick in the book: breathlessly bustling swing, suspenseful cymbals against eerie tinkling piano, uneasily chattering trumpets, the works. The enigmatically titled XYZ, a partita, is the showstopper here, from its creepy conga opening, through broodingly starlit piano, sarcastic blues caricatures and eventually a poignantly restrained Terrell Stafford muted trumpet solo that sounds like it’s wafting from around the corner. By contrast, Brookmeyer’s well-known arrangement of the well-known standard Skylark comes together brassily, with lots of tersely carefree alto sax from the veteran Oatts.

The more recent stuff – delivered to the orchestra right before Brookmeyer’s unexpected death in 2011 – is somewhat more boisterous. A triptych, Suite for Three begins with a modally astringent pulse with Oatts’ brightly acidic alto over ominously lustrous brass (and some bizarrely avant garde piano). Part two, featuring vivid work by lead trumpeter Scott Wendholt on flugelhorn, is a gorgeous mood piece that draws a line straight back to 50s Miles Davis. Tenor saxophonist Rich Perry features prominently on the concluding section, a wickedly catchy, blues-infused cha-cha in disguise. And At the Corner of Ralph and Gary provides a long, hard-swinging launching pad for intertwining lines from tenor saxophonist Ralph LaLama and his baritone counterpart Gary Smulyan. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting tribute to Brookmeyer, who was clearly on top of his game until the end.

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January 25, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

JC Sanford Leads the Brooklyn Big Band Renaissance

Tea Lounge, a cavernous former delivery truck garage in Park Slope, is a somewhat unlikely location to have become Big Band Central in New York, with a series of weekly shows to rival anything that’s playing at the Vanguard or Birdland. JC Sanford – lyrical trombonist, innovative composer, popular big band conductor, and now an impresario – created the Monday series, and recently took some time away from rehearsals and logistics to give us the lowdown:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: People in the know all know that Monday night is the new Saturday – and has been for a long time in New York. Maybe ever since the days of the week were invented. But why don’t you do this, say, on a Saturday?

JC Sanford: Monday night in NYC has historically been “big band night.” Thad Jones and Mel Lewis – now the Vanguard band – Gil Evans at Sweet Basil; Maria Schneider at Visiones; Toshiko Akiyoshi at Birdland, and Howard Williams at the Garage….Obviously most of those situations don’t exist anymore for various reasons, but I wanted to carry on that Monday night big band tradition, but this time in Brooklyn. It does create some conflicts, but it doesn’t look like anybody’s not managed to field a complete band as of yet.

LCC: This month you have the Jeff Fairbanks Jazz Orchestra on September 6, then on the 13th the Javier Arau Jazz Orchestra, your own JC Sanford Orchestra on the 20th, and the Jamie Begian Big Band – whose new cd Big Fat Grin is great fun – on the 27th. Can you give us an insider view of what they sound like, and why it’s worth the shlep out to the Slope if you don’t live there?

JCS: Well, one thing that’s so great about this series is the variety you’ll see and hear from week to week. This month is no different. Jeff Fairbanks’ repertoire is a mix of modern jazz and Asian music, including a suite he wrote about Chinatown. Javier, a Bob Brookmeyer protégé like myself, has a great sense of form and color. I like to think of his works as thematically cinematic. My vibe has long been to push the limits of what is “expected” in a specific musical setting without totally abandoning the essence of the genre, sounding adventurous while remaining “accessible.” I combine a lot of elements of traditional jazz, classical, and pop music. And yes, Jamie’s music is FUN. He can be truly dedicated to an idea or mood or bust out a quirky groove at any point.

LCC: Why the sudden popularity of new jazz for large ensembles? Can we credit Darcy James Argue for springboarding it – or at least being a magnet for it, or is this a scene that’s always been bubbling under the radar?

JCS: I think the existence of so many groups comes from a few different places, actually. Years ago, Bob Brookmeyer and Manny Albam started the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop where burgeoning composers were able to bring in their large ensemble music to be critiqued by master composers and eventually read down by a group of professional players. These days Jim McNeely leads the workshop, and so many writers have been through there. I would say a majority of the bandleaders that have been a part of this series at least spent a few minutes in that program at some point. Also Brookmeyer obviously influenced so many composers through the years, but he also did it tangibly as a teacher at New England Conservatory for several years. So many of his students have graduated, moved to New York, joined the BMI workshop, and their started their own bands. I think Maria Schneider’s popularity and distinctive voice really inspired a lot of folks, too. Luckily some folks like myself, and even more so Darcy, have been lucky enough to have a healthy dose of all three.

But to answer your question directly, I think Darcy is more a representative of the possible future of big bands rather than the present. At this point, his dramatic rise to success has happened too quickly for us to see its effects on other bands yet, as a majority of the bands on this series have been around for several years already. He has figured out a way to generate interest in his product in a way I didn’t think was possible anymore, though. I think we all, as large ensemble leaders, should be inspired by his meteoric rise. It’s encouraging to me, and makes me think that there is hope for us all on some level. Hopefully this series can be an avenue for that kind of exposure.

LCC: This is music you have to absolutely love, to play it live: if you’ve got twenty people in the ensemble, even with a gig at a swanky club, nobody walks away rich afterward. Back in the 30s and 40s, bands would sustain themselves by doing long stands at hotel bars or places like Minton’s. How does a big band sustain itself these days?

JCS: Well, I think you’re seeing that these days it’s pretty rare for any large band to do many long stands at all, even the super-established ones. I mean, that’s a great tradition they’ve established of having Maria Schneider playing all week at the Jazz Standard during Thanksgiving, but even that is only once a year. So, generally big bands sustain themselves by not playing very often and having a leader who’s willing to take a hit to their wallet. Folks like John Hollenbeck have a successful performing career, so he can, from time to time, drop a few dollars on a great gig at le Poisson Rouge or something. Most of the players in these bands know the deal: you’re not going to make much on a big band gig, generally. But they do it because they want to play great music, and there seems to be plenty of opportunities to do that these days.

LCC: Your Sound Assembly album, from 2008, is a real favorite of mine. You’ve got some gems on there: a convolutedly fun tribute to a man and his cat, a crazed, Mingus-esque subway rush hour tableau and an astringent, ambient number influenced by Charles Ives. Any chance you’ll be playing any of them on the 20th?

JCS: Thanks. I’m still sussing out the exact program for the gig, but we will definitely play a few tunes from that record, including the feline foray and the MTA tribute, which will be, unlike the current organization, fast and efficient.

LCC: I get the feeling that if Tea Lounge keeps up doing this, it’ll become a sort of CBGB for the new wave of big bands. What do you think?

JCS: I’m really hoping so – as long as being the CBGBs of anything doesn’t include it sadly closing down, to the severe consternation of its audience. What I am noticing is that in addition to the regular clientele, a lot of musicians are hanging there. They want to check out what other folks are writing and support their fellow strugglers. The Tea Lounge is a really great vibe. Good grub and good drinks – including full bar – and since there’s no cover – just a $5 suggested donation – it’s really easy to just drop in and hang. People bring their kids. It’s mellow and fun. And the sound of the room is pretty good, too, which is more than I can say about a lot of the places big bands are forced to play in this city.

LCC: Can I ask a really obvious question, as far as the venue is concerned: will the September shows start on time? Sometimes what’s advertised as a 9 PM show at this place turns into 11 PM in reality…

JCS: That’s actually a very practical question. I think these folks are pretty prompt. The latest you’ll see anything start there is 9:15. This might be because these are composer/arranger-led bands, they want to get through all the charts they have programmed.

September 1, 2010 Posted by | concert, interview, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Art-I-Facts: Great Performances from 40 Years of Jazz at NEC

One can only imagine how many treasures might be kicking around in the New England Conservatory’s archive, especially if this new compilation album is any indication. It’s a collection of concert recordings from the forty years since jazz became a standard part of their curriculum. The artists here, all either NEC faculty or alumni, make a formidable allstar cast.

There are two tracks here that stand out as absolutely extraordinary. The first, from 1976, is the hypnotic, otherworldly beautiful Zeibekiko, a confluence of two traditional Greek dance tunes with Rebekah Zak’s piano moving methodically out of just-over-the-horizon starlight into blazing midnight sky, Joe Maneri’s clarinet streaking out of it, then descending with a casual grace. The other is an exquisitely indomitable take of India by Coltrane with George Garzone on tenor, John Lockwood on bass and Bob Moses on drums. Moses’ own composition Reverence is included here, a dizzying, towering 2006 performance by the NEC Jazz Orchestra. From behind the valves of his trombone, Bob Brookmeyer leads the the Jazz Orchestra through a warmly soulful 2005 version of his nocturne, Cameo. That group is also featured on a joyously expansive 2003 version of Jaki Byard’s big, anthemic Aluminum Baby, counterintuitively showcasing the rhythm section.

A 1990 recording of George Russell’s All About Rosie suite by the NEC Big Band opens in a swirling blaze of circularity, followed by a triumphant slow swing blues and a ferocious final movement with a long, suspenseful solo from the bass and an all-too-short, reverb-drenched one by the guitarist (soloists on this one are unfortunately not cited in the liner notes). Guitarist Jimmy Guiffre alternates Bill Frisell-ish tinges of delta blues, funk and country in a trio performance of his composition The Train and the River. Also included here are solo versions of Monk tunes by Byard, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and pianist Ran Blake. The only miss is an easy-listening FM pop ditty stuck right in the middle of the cd which really has no business being here or anywhere else.

Another quibble, and perhaps an unavoidable one – most likely because so much of this material had to be remastered from the original analog tapes – is that the recording levels vary from track to track, a problem that disappears if you adjust the sequence. Fittingly, the NEC is releasing this album to coincide with their 40th anniversary series of concerts around New York from March 20 through 27 (the complete list of shows is here). Now it’s time for Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music to open up their vaults and follow suit.

March 11, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Dave Rivello Ensemble – Facing the Mirror

This cd is something of a feel-good story. Jazz composer/conductor Dave Rivello is a Bob Brookmeyer protege and the influence is clearly audible here. Recorded in 2002 but just recently released, this cd features Rivello leading his Rochester, New York-based twelve-piece jazz orchestra through an inspired set of eight mostly robust originals. Like his colleagues Jim McNeely, JC Sanford and Maria Schneider, Rivello is pushing the envelope with big band jazz  – this cd only raises the intrigue of what he may have been up to in the intervening years. As with the best big bands, there’s plenty of grandeur and majesty on this album but also an impressive out-of-the-box imagination. Rivello is especially adept at dynamics, frequently interspersing brief, incisive solo drum passages as a segue or to take a crescendo down a notch. His tradeoffs and thematic variations can be rhythmic as well as melodic. He likes a pulse – the piano here is an integral part of the rhythm section. Rivello is clever and often devious – he can’t resist a trick ending, or three, and there’s maybe just as much interplay between the orchestra and the soloists as there is between the individual players. Throughout, the compositions show off a strong sense of melody and an equally strong sense of purpose. As long as they go on – frequently more than ten minutes at a clip – these songs take a definable trajectory. They go somewhere. This is your chance to get to know this guy before he’s famous.

The opening track, One by One by One works a reggaeish vamp into a soul shuffle, Red Wierenga‘s piano taking a deliberate solo against the horn riffs to a big bright crescendo and the first of what will be an innumerable series of trick endings throughout the cd. There’s a defiant satisfaction to how Rivello lets the darkly tinged latin vamp breathe as the second track, Of Time and Time Past, unwinds with the warm effect of a good chianti. As the orchestra rises and falls, the plaintiveness remains,very evocative of Pam Fleming‘s work, particularly when Mike Kaupa‘s trumpet is flying overhead. Stealing Space builds a tense, noir-tinged intro to a quick crescendo, pits balmy tenor against the casual, ambient swell of the horns, then starts to scurry and bounce all the way into a deliciously mysterioso passage by the rhythm section. The rhythmic tradeoffs between piano, bass and drums are exquisite, and the way the rhythm section intermingles between the swells and blasts as the piece winds up are very captivating as well. The drum/orchestra tension recurs on the next track.

The standout cut here is Beyond the Fall, towering, resonant and powerful as the trombones take the central phrase to a roaring, dramatic, low-register swell. Matt Pivec‘s soprano sax solo plays off Wierenga’s Donald Fagen-esque, murkily minimalist chordal work to a big squalling crescendo as the horns circle overhead in menacing anticipation. And then it’s back to the ferocity of the intro. The Path of Innocence begins atmospherically and features a beautiful, Middle Eastern-inflected tenor solo by Jose Encarnacion and then some memorably fugal work by Wierenga, righthand echoing the left. The concluding cut is a brief, comfortable nocturne that would work perfectly as a tv theme. Now the operative question: when can we expect something more from Rivello? If this is any indication, it should be exciting to say the least.

September 4, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment