Real music lovers can find the melody in everything. From the park to the concert hall, our friend Nelson Brill is always on the hunt for great sound. In this blog, Nelson recommends some exceptional jazz artists to get an authentic live experience in the comfort of your own home.
JOYS OF HOME LISTENING: BIG ENSEMBLE JAZZ TAKES CENTER STAGE
By Nelson Brill March 2, 2021
There’s something elemental, grooving and beautiful in the panorama of colors and sounds that flourish in a jazz orchestra performance. When recorded with care and experienced on a high quality home audio system, the kaleidoscope of sounds from a jazz orchestra immerses the listener in a special way. The following are a few delectable new recordings, in audiophile quality sound, that bring the blaze and inspired sweep of big band jazz into joyful focus.
First off is a CD that I reviewed in 2019 and continue to return to for its superb sound and its striding-forth grooves. Intrepid pianist and composer Ellen Rowe leads her stellar all-women Octet on Momentum – Portraits of Women In Motion [Smoking Sleddog Records; www.ellenrowe.com] in performance of originals that combine Rowe’s soulful lyricism with her playful joy. Great examples are the soulful opening “Ain’t I A Woman”, (a slow grooving pageant propelled by Tia Fuller’s leaping alto saxophone, Marion Hayden’s rubbery bass and Melissa Gardiner’s powerful trombone) and the churning gem “R.F.P. (Relentless Forward Progress)” riding on the steady pulse of Allison Miller’s creative percussive engine, her sparkling cymbals precise and light. Other highlights include the swank and swing of “The Soul Keepers” and the grooving pluckiness of “Game, Set and Match” (with Fuller’s alto sax and Ingrid Jensen’s trumpet crisp and funky in their blurting play).
Rowe is also interested in exploring the soft incandescent side of her soulful melodies, as on her beautifully flowing “Anthem” (slowly unfurling on Janelle Reichman’s sweet clarinet) and on the stately “The Guardians” propelled on the quiet bombast of Lisa Parrott’s baritone saxophone and Rowe’s twinkling piano (with Miller’s crisp cymbals always in stride). The recording delivers all of the up-front sparkle and layered tactile flow of this big band in confident bold flight.
Another gifted woman composer exploring the rich palette of the jazz orchestra is the incomparable Maria Schneider, whose original music casts a mesmerizing spell in its combination of unkempt beauty, glittering palette and underlying power of its narratives. The superlative “Maria Schneider Orchestra” (“MSO”) is composed of musicians who have been playing with Schneider for years, many of whom are gifted composers, teachers and band leaders in their own endeavors.
One of the MSO’s original members was the brilliant pianist, teacher and composer, Frank Kimbrough, whose sudden recent passing was a great loss to the jazz community. Kimbrough has a rich discography of his own that is worth exploring. For instance, Kimbrough was the inspired force behind one of my favorite LP labels, Newvelle Records, (check out their full subscription series catalogue at: www.newvellerecords.com) and was the first artist to record on Newvelle Records with his glowing 2015 recording, Meantime.
Another wonderful recording of Kimbrough’s is his camaraderie with the spirited tenor saxophonist, Noah Preminger, on Preminger’s quietly intrepid 2011 CD, Before The Rain [Palmetto Records; www.noahpreminger.com]. On this stellar recording, take a listen to the entangled beauty of Preminger’s lustrous breathy sax with Kimbrough’s soft punctuated rambles on his piano, accompanied by an ace rhythm section of drummer Matt Wilson and bassist John Hebert. Preminger’s burly high calls and creative tumbles nestle beautifully within Kimbrough’s dulcet piano explorations as they explore together the colorful windswept territory of Preminger’s vital, slow-brewing ballads.
I can also recall in my mind’s eye Kimbrough’s fantastic performance as a member of the MSO in their reveling concert held on a glorious summer night at Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood (www.tanglewood.org) a few years ago. On this special night, Schneider conducted the MSO in inspired fashion in performance of selections from their boundless recording, The Thompson Fields [ArtistShare; www.artistshare.com], still a favorite of mine in Schneider’s oeuvre. I can still recall the sound of Kimbrough’s piano twinkling in the rear of Ozawa Hall with his notes dancing in inventive dash and sunniness into the quicksilver acoustic of that glorious space.
Schneider and the MSO have now released a new 2- CD set of music, Data Lords, [ArtistShare; available exclusively at www.mariaschneider.com] and luckily for us, this new recording was produced before Kimbrough’s passing so we still get the chance to relish hearing Kimbrough’s artistry with his compatriots in the MSO. Data Lords, like its predecessor, The Thompson Fields, is a beautifully conceived package. Its striking graphic design is by Cheri Dorr; its fascinating artwork (prints of glowing leafs made from acrylic and gouache on masonite) is by artist Aaron Horkey and its inviting session photography is by photographer Briene Lermitte. The entire physical package is a joy to handle and explore, testament to the great craft and care given to this ArtistShare project.
The music of Data Lords is another dynamic work of art from the intrepid Schneider and the gifted musicians of her simpatico MSO. Schneider is focused on the nuances of her themes (our “Digital World” on CD #1 and “Our Natural World” on CD #2) where one might hear upbeat melodies (forging human connection and uplift) in the same measures as more prickly themes and forces that inhabit the beautiful tumult of her music.
For instance, on the “Digital World” side, Schneider composes “A World Lost” with lines of soulful, poignant beauty rising and falling against slow, unfolding mysterious forces of vastness and struggle, building upon Kimbrough’s soft repeating piano figures, Jay Anderson’s deep arco bass, Ben Monder’s electric guitar (like streaks across a night sky) and Rich Perry’s arching tenor sax. All this tension (between contrasting forces of beauty, human potential and struggle) are also embedded in the rambunctious pounces of Schneider’s “Don’t Be Evil,” a defiant indictment of corporate overlords (as Schneider discusses in compelling linear notes) with its spiraling Ryan Keberle trombone solo; Monder’s sweeping angular guitar spread (over a contorted version of “Taps”) accompanied by stomping brass in cacophonous up-roar. “Sputnik” is laced with the eerie beauty and vastness of space with the kinetic Scott Robinson carousing and fluttering deep on his inventive baritone sax, its path lit by the MSO rich brass choruses and Jonathan Blake’s sparkling cymbals. The title piece concludes the first disc in another blaze of colors slippery between the possibilities of human advance and connection (in the unspooling heights of Dave Pietro’s burning alto solo), and a vision of a robotic- dominated future portrayed by Mike Rodriguez’s acerbic trumpet tinged with electronic effects.
Schneider’s vision of our “Natural World” (on disc #2) also gushes with vital forces. On “Sanzenin”, the sparks of Gary Versace’s lithe accordion flow through a shimmering landscape of woodwind and brass colors (to paint Schneider’s leisurely stroll through a masterful Japanese garden) and on “Look Up”, Marshall Gilkes’ golden trombone leaps and falls (amongst brass choruses and Blake’s cymbal and snare flings) to offer beautiful lyrical wonderings inspired by Schneider’s own joys in taking time to stroll and observe Nature. Schneider’s pulsating landscape of colors on “Look Up” and “Braided Together”, a beautiful little ode (floating on the pulses of Kimbrough’s player piano and Pietro’s glowing sax) to the inspired writings of Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Ted Kooser, all remind me too of the indelible images of Nature by the writer Annie Dillard, from her eloquent classic, Pilgrim At Tinker Creek [Harpers Press, 1974). At one point, Dillard describes how she sees “the tree with the lights in it” – revealing the complexity and beauty of Nature all around us when we take the time to stop and look. Schneider’s “Look Up” and her “Bluebird” (another swirling colorful ode to birdwatchers and preservers of Nature everywhere buoyed by Steve Wilson’s shining, romping alto sax), is on a similar quest to get us to stop, look, refresh and contemplate.
Sitting at the final turn of Data Lords is “The Sun Waited For Me”, a slow- brewing marvel grounded in the MSO’s regal brass power flowing underneath the passion of Gilkes’ trombone and Donny McCaslin’s charging tenor sax. I have had the good fortune of catching McCaslin at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston (“NEC”) in celebration of his music with the students of the NEC Jazz Orchestra and it is always a joy to hear his creative solo inventions. Here, on “The Sun,” McCastlin gifts us with his swanking R&B and bluesy side with his tenor sax pumping and soaring in dance with Schneider and her vital MSO – upwards and onwards in sunny glory.
Saxophonists Steve Wilson and Dave Pietro, both long time members of the MSO, have also jumped on board to contribute their impeccable swinging presences to another new big ensemble recording, one that shines with the grooving delights of classic big band jazz. On his new 2-disc recording, New Life [Jazz House Records;], legendary guitarist Peter Leitch leads the Peter Leitch New Life Orchestra in performance of originals and standards in rollicking, high-energy fashion. The recording quality here is superb with particular kudos to the recording team for ensnaring all the colors of a sprawling big ensemble (spread on a nicely lateral and impressively deep soundstage), with each player imaged and positioned in their own natural space and air. All instruments have a vivid, dynamic presence on this recording with excellent tactile detail and crisp timbres (with the only exception being Peter Zak’s twinkling piano set back a bit too distant to hear his instrument’s full weight and body).
Leitch’s originals teem with fresh combinations of sounds and colors. He has this great feel in his music to allow the space and time for his intrepid musicians to stretch out and frolic in each other’s company. For instance, if you are into trombone glory, look no further than Leitch’s soulful “Back Story”, combining the unique colors of bass trombone, (plied in growling glory by Max Siegel- testing your loudspeaker’s woofers at every glorious plunge!) with Matt Haviland’s regal trombone in a stirring, bluesy promenade. Other great highlights are the two grooving Leitch originals that launch each set, “Mood for Max (For Dr. Maxim Kreditor)” and “Exhilaration”, both frolicking with loose and grooving solos from Wilson’s cascading alto sax; Zak on his nimble, expressive keys and Duane Eubanks on crisp, soaring trumpet (contrasted nicely with the mellow hues of Bill Mobley’s flugelhorn).
Leitch also brings an agile compositional touch to his creative ballads. For instance, he blends the soft lilt of Tim Harrison’s flute with deep brass choruses and an inspired soprano sax solo from Wilson to propel the surging and beautiful ballad, “Elevanses.” Leitch’s “Long Walk Home” is the capstone highlight to this generous set of music. Its laid-back jam session feel gives everyone a chance to step out and soar, aided by the supple and pungent bass work of Yoshi Waki (whose lines are beautifully recorded here without compression), and the anchored-down foundation of drummer Joe Strasser’s creative stick work. This is one gushing joy ride of big band boogie and buoyant companionship swinging under Leitch’s inspired baton.
And, speaking of a gush of joy, lets end this big band home listening session with a boisterous, brilliant big band treat from another of our jazz treasures, bassist extraordinaire Christian McBride, leading his gleeful Big Band on their rollicking new recording, For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver [Mack Avenue Records; www.mackavenue.com].
Similar to Leitch’s New Life recording, McBride also focuses on placing a small core of players within the context of a big band sound to explore all the glowing funk and grooves in this rich chemistry. Joining McBride’s prodigious bass in his small core of players is the swashbuckling organ of Joey DeFrancesco, the intrepid, spinning guitar of Mark Whitfield and the sparkling drums of Quincy Phillips. This zestful quartet perform alone on a few swanking numbers on this new disc, including a breezy version of Freddie Hubbard’s “Up Jumped Spring” (lightly swinging on Phillips upward swishes of brushes on his tactile snare) and on “Don Is”, a funk fest on the rubbery pulses of a nimble McBride bass solo and DeFrancesco organ runs filled with his patented funky organ quips and bluesy, slippery holds.
On all these impeccably funky tunes, Whitfield and DeFrancesco swing with irresistible force. I was fortunate to catch Whitfield a few years ago performing at the Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival in Boston and I still recall him standing off demurely to one side of the street stage (joining his son, the dynamic pianist, Davis Whitfield) and captivating the crowd with the leaps of his guitar: spidery yet powerful, slippery and sparkly – all in the inventive service of swing.
The positive vibes and boundless solos continue on For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver when this zestful core of players meet up with the rest of the stellar Big Band in collective, fun-filled flights. Here’s the deeply pulsating “Medgar Evers’ Blues”, the quick cannonball shots of Miles Davis’ “Milestones” and the gutsy trombone-launched “Pie Blues” – a special highlight that ends the disc with everyone in the band, (including a pumping Carl Maraghi on his brawny baritone sax aided by sharp trombone choruses) scorch the blues in slow-brewing delight. For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver is all about the blues, the dance, the funk –in the hands of a razor-sharp big band primed for adventure and joy.
You can read more of Nelson’s concert reviews at www.bostonconcertreviews.com.