Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The JC Sanford Orchestra Rip up the Joint

Barflies at CBGB in 1976 may have reacted to the Ramones the same way the customers at Tea Lounge Monday night reacted to the JC Sanford Orchestra, that is, if laptops had existed the year Johnny Bench put the Yankees out of their misery early in the World Series. Everybody looked up from their keyboards, startled. And pretty much everybody stayed. This unlikely, upscale Park Slope coffee-and-beer joint might or might not end up being to big band jazz what CBGB was to punk, but for now it is the place to see pretty much every good large-scale jazz ensemble in New York that’s not led by a Schneider, a McNeely or the ghost of Mingus. Sanford is its impresario, and this was his group, many of the same cast who’d played so memorably on his Sanford-Schumacher Sound Assembly album from a couple of years ago. Conducting as well as contributing a long, soulful trombone solo on one song, he steered the crew on a mighty swing through a mix of numbers from that album along with plenty of towering, majestic and deceptively playful newer material that often crossed over the line into third stream and soundtrack-style atmospherics. Ceativity leapt from the charts, and the band seized it joyously.

They opened circular and fluttering with Rhythm of the Mind, with solo spots for blippy bass clarinet by Kenny Berger, Ben Kono taking it up warily on clarinet a bit later, the whole band nonchalantly bringing it down for a few bars’ worth of Buddhist chanting like it was the most natural thing for a jazz band in New York to be doing at that particular moment. Chuck and Jinx, a swinging, genial tribute to a man and his cat, saw bassist Aidan Carroll taking a deliberate stroll against Mike Eckroth’s ringing, sparse electric piano, bemused high brass playing the owner (or actually, the owned) while Ted Poor’s drums impersonated the irrepressible, furry creature who, whether or not we admit it, always runs the show. Poor would also elevate the long, shapeshifting Indecent Stretch, a partita of sorts, to magnificent heights, kicking up a storm with the piano and bass, later leading an increasingly agitated crescendo in big, determined steps beneath the rest of the group’s uneasy atmospherics.

An Attempt at Serenity was aptly titled and genuinely tormented in places, Nadje Noordhuis’ trumpet comforting and resolute alternating with guitarist Andrew Green’s vividly twisted, downright evil, bent-note phrasing. Would hope triumph in the end? For awhile it looked like it might, despite distant hints to the contrary that added yet another layer of suspense. It ended quiet, atmospheric and somewhat ambiguously. They wrapped up their first set with a blazing version of Your Word Alone, a big thank-you note to a friend and mentor of Sanford’s who from the sound of things singlehandedly scored him a plum teaching position. The composition gave the band a chance to express considerable humor, especially in the big crescendo that led to the joyous “eureka” moment where the contract (or the check) appears in the mail, violinist Christian Howes (whose latest album with Robben Ford and Eddie Floyd is a treat) ripping casually through an eerie, phantasmagorical solo played through a watery chorus-box effect. Through one tricky false ending after the other, the band quoted liberally from the Mission Impossible theme as individual voices  – notably Kono – appeared and vanished almost in a dub reggae style. The remarkably young audience – many of whom appeared to be high school kids animatedly trading music and doing homework – roared their approval. Hey, big band jazz was the default music of the under-20 crowd seventy years ago. Could happen again.

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September 22, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, 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: Sound Assembly – Edge of the Mind

Truth in advertising: this is an edgy album. Basically a big, powerful vehicle (eight horns, five reeds, piano, guitar and a rhythm section) for the work of composers JC Sanford and David Schumacher, Edge of the Mind by Sound Assembly pushes the envelope, finding yet more new places where big band jazz can go. This is the kind of cd that you want to listen to analytically but always end up hearing emotionally. Helpfully, the cd comes with extensive liner notes by producer John McNeil which, rather than being plot spoilers or totally Phil (as in Phil Schaap), help the listener look for key moments which more often than not are crystalized and understated, done almost before you notice. The arrangements here take on a lush, rich feel, very evocative of Gil Evans’ orchestration with Miles Davis. What’s most striking is that the charts themselves more often than not carry the rhythm, the bass and drums taking on an auxiliary role adding subtly fluid embellishments. Yet perhaps the most captivating aspect of the entire cd is how those big charts intersperse themselves within all the individual solos – and vice versa. Not only is there interplay between the instruments, there’s also interplay between improvisation and composition. This is very cerebral music. Yet it’s also breathtakingly beautiful in places for many, many reasons, a few of them enumerated here.

 

There’s Schumacher’s kite flying piece Edge of a Window, the cd’s second track, slow and atmospheric with elegant trumpet from John Bailey and a long, brightly ornamented piano solo from Deanna Witkowski, Eric Rasmussen’s alto sax picking up the pace a bit as the whole band pulses in, rhythmically upping the ante. Track three, Slide Therapy, by Sanford opens with slippery slides from both trombone and guitar, woozy and eerie until the band jumps in and takes over with a clever arrangement that alternates groups of players warping the time signature.

 

A playful, swinging vibe takes over on another Sanford composition, the vintage post-bop style Chuck ‘n Jinx, a tribute to a man and his cat featuring an expansive Mark Patterson trombone solo and several trick false endings. With Kate McGarry’s soulful, understatedly exuberant vocals over the longing of horn swells and sweet baritone sax from Dave Riekenberg, The Radiance of Spring (by Schumacher)  is the romantic highlight of the cd. By contrast, Rhythm of the Mind (by Sanford) opens with a circular, nebulously African melody carried by horns and chanting voices. How the melody grows as the orchestration builds is nothing short of fascinating.

 

My Star (by Schumacher) is a richly lyrical piece lit up by a strikingly low-register Alan Ferber trombone solo – and then David Smith’s trumpet comes flying out of it with complete abandon as the band swells. Ives, Eyes (by Sanford) has a similar brightness, Witkowski’s vivid, slow piano abetted by tersely colorful bass by David Ambrosio. The cd closes on a clamorous, hectic note with the tensely energetic BMT, evocative of Mingus at his most carefree, Ben Kono’s wildly offhand, “gotta run” tenor solo clearly late for the train and ably making up for lost time.

 

The only quibble with this cd is the couple of annoying, gratuitously garish Steve Vai/Buckethead-style electric guitar solos: they could have been edited out and the album would be stronger for it. Memo to axeman: just because you can play like that doesn’t mean you should.

March 11, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments