Big band jazz is alive and well in Boston. One of its leading creative forces is Ayn Inserto and her Jazz Orchestra (“AI Jazz Orchestra”) who performed two shows before capacity audiences in the intimate confines of the Lilypad in Cambridge, MA. (www.lilypadinman.com) in June and at the David Friend Recital Hall at Berklee College of Music (“Berklee”-www.berklee.edu) on September 14, 2015. Inserto, Associate Professor of Jazz Composition at Berklee, is a composer and bandleader who clearly relishes working with the rhythmic freedom and expansive instrumental textures and colors that come with composing for a large ensemble. Her compositions embody an intense electricity. Music flows in unpredictable dynamic ways where seesawing instrumental lines and colors weave, mesh and interlock, supported by surging grooves and leaping whimsical rhythms. In live performance, her compositions are intricate sound puzzles that are unlocked and mined for their virtuosity (and structural beauty) by the superb musicians of her Jazz Orchestra, many of whom also serve on the faculty of Berklee. The AI Jazz Orchestra can deliver Inserto’s huge crescendos with glee (and volcanic power) or, (in a blink of an eye), can send one of her unpredictable melodic lines soaring on the soft caress of a brush stroke or a trombone’s plunge.
The AI Jazz Orchestra’s recent performances at the Lilypad and at Berklee were studded with great solo and collective moments- delighting at every twist and turn. One of my favorite Inserto compositions is “Snow Place Like Home” and this piece opened the Berklee recital with cavorting swagger. Inserto talks about being inspired by the 80’s pop she grew up with, and “Snow” captures some of this driving, restless feel. Here is a pell-mell rhythmic feast, with staccato stops and starts and big brass blasts in unpredictable moments. All of this cavorting action showcased the percussive humming engine of drummer Austin McMahon, who impresses with his porous light touch that fills every rhythmic nook and cranny. “Snow” also highlighted the swashbuckling sax work by Allan Chase and Mark Zaleski who challenged each other with a steeplechase frolic up and down their instruments’ registers, fierce and flowing.
The piece ended in a whoosh of furious brass explosions with lead trumpeter Jeff Claassen (also a composer of intrigue) swashbuckling up high with his other partners. It all sounded like a powerful, unpredictable rainstorm where each droplet of sound hits the ground in irregular patterns, drenching the listener in combinations of fresh sounds and a wash of restless instrumental colors.
Another highlight from the Inserto treasure chest is her original composition entitled “Ze Teach and Me,” Inserto’s tribute to her mentor, the great trombonist and composer Bob Brookmeyer (who taught at The New England Conservatory before his death in 2011). Inserto presented this piece at both the Lillypad and the Berklee recitals and its two-movement construction is a thing of beauty. The first movement is filled with soaring optimism in the rising holds of trumpets and trombones, with a softly penetrating solo from trombonist Randy Pingrey. The second movement is completely different: a whirligig of frenetic cross currents of sounds and colors across the big ensemble’s sprawling palette.
At the Berklee show, this second section of “Ze Teach and Me” was highlighted by two trumpeters: guest trumpeter Sean Jones (Chair of the Berklee Brass Department in possession of the most majestic, light and articulate tone on his trumpet you can imagine) and Dan Rosenthal, a trumpeter sporting his own brand of mercurial fierceness on his instrument. These two trumpeters engaged in a funky and galloping duet, trading licks and sassy, high holds. The superb rhythm section of Jason Yeager on piano, Sean Farias on bass, Eric Hofbauer on guitar and Austin McMahon on drums kept the (always shifting and creative Brookmeyer-inspired) grooves and foundation in focus until Inserto brought up both her hands to gesture a final cloud burst of brass and woodwind thunder. After this sudden eruption, a quick dash of piano notes and soft drum roll and the piece was over- another surprising twist in this flight of fancy from Inserto, inspired by her mentor, Bob Brookmeyer.
A 2008 recording of Inserto with her AI Jazz Orchestra, Muse [Creative Nation Music], offers a great slice of the magic of this group in live performance and features many of the musicians heard strutting forth in glory at the recent Lilypad and Berklee recitals. Although the quality of the recording sometimes compresses the full body of instruments, (such as the piano and some of the most volcanic surges of the orchestra), it still captures nicely the sprawling sounds of this ensemble with good layering and an up-front presence. McMahon’s light drumming is delivered beautifully through out (listen to his cymbal/snare prancing on “Eshel Sketch” or “Dear John”) and the recording delivers the propulsive soprano and tenor sax playing of Boston’s stellar saxophonist, George Garzone, a special guest on this outing.
Muse delivers a raucous version of “Snow Place Like Home” (with a blazing solo by Garzone, this time tangling with Alan Chase in muscular duet). Inserto also displays her contemplative side on Muse, highlighted by her glowing tribute to another unflinching explorer: composer and saxophonist Steve Lacy, (who also made Boston his home for many years before his death). She calls her tribute “Laced With Love” and at the AI Jazz Orchestra’s Berklee recital, this piece featured Sean Jones soloing with a velvet touch to his highest trumpet notes- at one point squeezing up top for the barest nub of sound (in soft pierces) on his eloquent trumpet. On Muse, “Laced With Love” is equally transfixing with solo work by Garzone on his soprano sax. Muse concludes with “Simple”, a swinging feast of big band full throttle that buoyantly strides out the door with Garzone joyously leading the way.
For further explorations into the musical genius of Inserto’s mentor, the mold-breaking composer Brookmeyer, grab a copy of OverTime – The Music of Bob Brookmeyer [Planet Arts] performed by The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (“VJO”).
Here is an audiophile quality recording of a big band with all of its glorious dynamics and energy fully recreated, on a layered and deep soundstage with great image dimensionality. The VJO was first established by Thad Jones and Mel Lewis (www.vanguardjazzorchestra.com) and became the vehicle for many of Brookmeyer’s later compositional experiments and performances.
The musicianship displayed by the current members of the VJO is extraordinary on this recording and the music they perform is challenging, prickly and not for the faint of heart. It swerves from the carnival atmosphere of Brookmeyer’s “Big Time” (with pianist Jim McNeely sparkling next to flights of scurrying saxophones and horns) to “At The Corner of Ralph and Gary.” This latter tune highlights Brookmeyer’s great talent for writing Big Swing with many a challenging twist and turn (including a baritone sax solo by Gary Smulyan in which he cavorts with tenor saxophonist Ralph Lalama in a swirling, off-kilter maze of sounds and metric changes).
So does “Suite For Three” (written for three members of the VJO) in which Brookmeyer explores the rich vocabulary of Dick Oatts on alto saxophone, Scott Wendholt on fugelhorn and Rich Perry on tenor saxophone. In these three separate movements, Brookmeyer ingeniously weaves instrumental voices both penetrating and softly melodic (Wendholt), with soulful, full-throttle big band locomotion (Oatts and Perry). Brookmeyer’s music, like his protégé Inserto’s, is knotty and elegant, soulful and twitchy. It’s a sprawling challenge for the ears worth taking, and in the hands of the VJO, it sounds quite splendid indeed.
Next up for Big Jazz Band Reviews: the beautiful world of Maria Schneider and the next installment of Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project.
If you would like to read more reviews like this one, visit Nelson’s blog at www.bostonconcertreviews.com.