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

The Gerald Wilson Orchestra’s Legacy Does Justice to the Windy City

It’s been a great year for big band jazz releases and this is a particularly enjoyable one. The Gerald Wilson Orchestra’s new one, Legacy jazzes up the classics and celebrates nonagenarian composer/conductor Wilson’s Chicago home turf with dynamic charts that range from stark and suspenseful to lush and majestic. As you would expect from this guy, the band is monstrous, with up to 20 players, building from the A-list rhythm section of Renee Rosnes on piano, Peter Washington on bass and Lewis Nash on drums. A lot of the ideas here are very ambitious, but Wilson always cuts to the chase, with a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that logic and directness. Case in point: the opening Variations on a Theme by Stravinsky, which is less gritty eeriness than blazing intensity followed by a long swing passage with bright sax and trumpet solos. It’s a three-and-a-half minute hit. Who would have thought?

A mysterious bass pulse underpins the lushly melodic, warmly crescendoing Virgo, which they take up and back down methodically, swing it with a blithely spiraling Anthony Wilson guitar solo and later on intersperse some big swells with bright alto sax. They go out the way they came in. Variations on Claire de Lune starts as a slowly swinging piano blues, acknowledges the otherworldly theme and then goes doublespeed with jovial alto sax and gritty trumpet, and eventually a memorably slow fade. Likewise, Variations on a Theme by Puccini kicks off bluesily – it’s hard to find the classical tune here until it rears its wiggy head coming out of a deliciously tuneful baritone sax solo. September Sky, a warmly reflective, Hubert Laws-inflected indian summer flute tune gets an equally startling and effective doublespeed breakdown with the whole orchestra roaring, Rosnes bringing it back down in a heartbeat as the brass rises majestically in the distance against her wee-hours flourishes.

The rest of the album is a suite titled Yes Chicago Is… Referencing numerous famous Chicago venues and a well-known Dylan tune as well as the local sports franchises, it’s a very smartly crafted theme and variations, beginning with a pensive, nocturnal third-stream piano/bass motif. What comes after? Some striking chromatics; shapeshifting, melodic swing; a slyly insistent ballpark theme capped off by playful baritone sax; some nifty tradeoffs between swirling atmospherics and joyous trumpet; and a surprisingly serioso outro. Clearly, Wilson’s relationship to his hometown is a complex one – it beats the hell out of Sweet Home Chicago. There isn’t a single miss on this album, a real treat, which has been out since the end of last month on Mack Avenue.

July 16, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment