This year the Jazz Gallery has been commissioning big band projects. More musicians should do what bassist/composer Gregg August (whose powerfully melodic contributions appear on the latest JD Allen Trio cd, reviewed here recently) did with his. Leading a ten-piece all-star ensemble on Friday night, August proved every bit as potent a composer as an instrumentalist, playing a thematic series of pieces inspired by and frequently including poems that explore race relations. Interpreting the texts both literally and thematically, August’s richly melodic, aptly relevant compositions created a program that screams out to be recorded.
August’s arrangements maximized the ensemble’s diverse talents: Jaleel Shaw’s ecstatically fiery alto sax flights, Sam Newsome’s rapidfire fluidity on soprano, JD Allen’s darkly direct terseness on tenor and pianist Luis Perdomo’s vividly bittersweet, concise chordal work along with his own straightforwardly melodic, sometimes latin-inflected lines, many of them echoing horn voicings. Drummer Donald Edwards’ strategy shaded toward darkness with innumerable well-placed cymbal accents and flourishes. The night opened on an auspicious note with an interpretation of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Shaw building his final solo to screaming, gritty overtones illustrating the exasperation of confinement over the rhythm section’s staggered beat. Sweet Words, based on a sacastic Langston Hughes poem about (what else) bigotry proved to be a pretty straightforward, tuneful ensemble piece highlighted by a relentlessly intense, expansive Perdomo solo.
A New Orleans tableau, Sky, based on poet Richard Katrovas’s encounter with a possibly homeless young black man painted a stark picture of a balmy morning tinged with misunderstanding and regret, Allen’s lyrical tenor opening against pensively crescendoing piano and bowed bass, the group pulsing through a funereal arrangement colored by rubato drums. Perhaps the high point of the night was Your Only Child, a literal illustration of Marilyn Nelson’s poem A Wreath for Emmett Till, a recording of Till’s mother describing her murdered son’s mutilated body playing over the ominous atmosphere of the intro, singer Miles Griffith echoing the song’s theme and ending with a fervent evocation of sobbing agony.
The second set maintained the captivating intensity of the first, opening with the slinky, insistent I Rise (a musical translation of the famous Maya Angelou poem) highlighted by a joyous solo from Shaw followed by a characteristically thoughtful, matter-of-fact one from Allen. The lushly orchestrated, Mingus-inflected I Sang in the Sun (from the Carolyn Kizer poem) brought back the vocals, lowlit by some marvelously succinct shading by Thomas. A Cornelius Eady poem about an encounter with a racist in an ice cream parlor provided a solid platform for a slyly bluesy trombone solo and some funky work by August. The night wound up with Letter to America (on a Francisco Alarcon poem), impassioned vocals echoed by John Bailey’s blazing, bluesy trumpet and yet another uncompromisingly confrontational solo by Allen building to a casually intense coda. In a year of some extraordinary live jazz, a packed house got to witness what has to be one of the highlights of the year so far.