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

A Classic Reinvented

This is the kind of group we like best – modestly titled but ambitious and very good at what they do. The Westchester Jazz Orchestra, who are in fact a conglomerate of A-list New York players, like to muscle up new arrangements of old classics, from Coltrane, to Dizzy, to Motown: their latest, a brand-new big band version of Herbie Hancock’s 1965 Maiden Voyage Suite, proves to be every bit worth the titanic effort it obviously took to create it. Hancock turned 70 this past year. No doubt he’d be proud not only to see how well his original has held up, but how inspiring it’s been to this large cast of characters, especially considering that they’ve added four relatively brief transitional passages – including a tantalizing, suspenseful conclusion to bring the suite full circle – which interpolate many of Hancock’s motifs. Ironically, the charts often take the tunes back in time to a late 50s milieu, especially when there’s a Cuban rhythm, a noirish, Mingus-esque crescendo or a bracingly cinematic Cal Tjader-esque moment. Conductor Mike Holober, along with Pete McGuinness, the group’s trumpeter Tony Kladeck and saxophonist Jay Brandford came up with the new charts. The rest of the ensemble includes David Brandom on soprano sax; Jason Rigby and Ralph Lalama on tenor sax; Ed Xiques on baritone sax; Jim Rotondi, Craig Johnson and Marvin Stamm on trumpet and flugelhorns; Larry Farrell, Keith O’Quinn and Bruce Eidem on trombone, George Flynn on bass trombone; Ted Rosenthal on piano; Harvie S. on bass, and Andy Watson on drums.

The prologue sets the stage, a somewhat murky ocean port scenario that segues up into the title track, understating its slinky pulse until Watson returns with a clave beat as it winds down. Before that, this eleven-minute monster gives Brandom the chance to flip the script from cheery to serioso, then Stamm foreshadows the intensity to an even greater degree. They segue again into Eye of the Hurricane, the heft of the charts powerfully enhancing its rhythmic insistence: Rigby follows Brandom’s tangent from the preceding track, Stamm swings it with the bass and Rosenthal gets to take it mysterious all by himself.

Little One stays closest to the original, with its series of wary alternating voices, a warm Farrell trombone solo over just the rhythm section and a beefed-up jazz waltz as the orchestra rises mightily. They follow it with a brief interlude that hints at the Caribbean. Survival of the Fittest, expanded into two parts here, gives Rotondi the chance to go completely out into the stratosphere with some lightning swirls and Rigby follows in the same vein on the second section, the big chase leading to the album’s most deliciously wailing crescendo. Dolphin Dance is the one that everybody covers, and both Lalama and Rotondi get to go deeply and thoughtfully into it, the trumpet shifting the mood rather dramatically from lush to wary – its final section, as the entire ensemble carries the melody, is richly satisfying. And the new Epilogue adds a neat suspenseful element to wind up an extremely original and successful reinterpretation. Spin this and you’re going to get a lot of “can you play that one again”‘ – and maybe a few “can we hear the original too”‘s.

November 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment