Thursday, June 20, 2013

Large Ensemble, Big Band (Part 2)

When you stop to think about the composers who came out of the Great Black Music movement of the 1960s-70s, many are still active today.  Muhal Richard Abrams (82 years old), Anthony Braxton (68), Roscoe Mitchell (72), Joseph Jarman (75) and Wadada Leo Smith (71) all came to the attention of the critics and public in the post-John Coltrane era.  All are fairly active and all continue to make music that cannot be categorized.

In 2012, Wadada Leo Smith released "10 Freedom Summers", a work that combined his Golden Quartet/Quintet with a large Chamber ensemble. The music was a journey through historic moments in the Black Liberation Movement that started with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, came to the first of many "heads" in the 1950s and 60s and is ongoing in the 21st Century.  Not one to rest on any of his laurels, Mr. Smith has now created "Occupy the World", a 2-CD, 5-song set featuring the 18-member Todella Uuden Musikin Orkesteri (TUMO) plus double-bassist John Lindberg issued on the Finnish TUM label.  TUMO is composed of 4 brass players, 3 multi-reed players, piano, harp, 2 electric guitars, quarter-tone accordion, 2 violins, viola, cello, bass and 3 drummer/percussionists.  The program is inspired by the "Occupy Wall Street" movement of 2011-12 but also contains a piece dedicated to and featuring Lindberg ("Mount Kilimanjaro") and a work inspired by the poetry of Sterling Allen Brown (1901-1989) titled "Crossing On A Southern Road (A Memorial For Marion Brown)".  Lindberg, who has worked with Smith on numerous projects, is in fine fettle, his brilliant arco work standing out in its clarity and richness of tone.  "...Southern Road" is quiet then furious, foreboding, with sectional work that stands out, a "dream work" with the leader's clarion calls rising above the fray.  As the music moves forward, the muted trumpet stands apart from the siren calls of the strings.  Marion Brown, who passed in 2010, was good friends with Smith, working and recording together in the early 1970s.  This work captures the poetry of Brown's music without imitating it.

"Occupy The World For Life, Liberty And Justice" is the longest piece of the set at 33:29; the opening melody, played by the strings, is stunning in its richness. When the ensemble enters, the piece turns darker, with the low brass, marimba and electric guitars standing above the strings.  There is a "white noise" section that gives way to the strings.  Whereas on "Ten Freedom Summers", the strings were not always integrated with the Quintet, here they are an integral part of the presentation.  Smith's trumpet work is stellar throughout as is the work of TUMO. This is music that asks a lot of the musicians and, like Anthony Braxton's large ensembles, the players give 100% every step of the way.

As with "Ten Freedom Summers", one has to give him- or herself over totally to the music. "Occupy The World" is not background music nor does it sound good as you are speeding down the highway with the windows open and top down.  This is musical story-telling of the highest order, with complex themes that weave intricate patterns.  Wadada Leo Smith continues his life-long search for truth, perhaps with the knowledge that beauty can exist in the harsh reality of the human condition.  His music, like that of his contemporaries, does not pander nor coddle, does not set up false expectations and asks that one be open and non-judgemental.  Occupy indeed!  For more information, go to

In a career that has spanned nearly 2 decades. guitarist/composer Joel Harrison has created music for all sizes of ensembles, from duos to quartets to septets to a effort for string quartet plus 2 guitars.  With the release of "Infinite Possibility", he has now created a work for a large ensemble.  Credited to the Joel Harrison 19 (JC Sanford, conductor) and issued on Sunnyside Records), this is a collection that lives up to its name and to the ambitious goals of the leader.

Harrison assembled quite a lineup for this project.  The rhythm section features Rob Garcia (drums), James Shipp (vibes, marimba, hand percussion), Kermit Driscoll (acoustic + electric bass) and Daniel Kelly (piano, keyboards).  The stunning reed section includes Michel Gentile (flutes), Ned Rothenberg (alto sax, bass clarinet, clarinet, flute), Ben Kono ( alto sax, soprano sax, oboe, english horn, flute), Donny McCaslin (tenor sax on 2 cuts, flute on 1), Ben Wendel (tenor sax on 4 tracks), Rob Scheps (tenor sax, clarinet and flute) and Andy Laster (baritone sax).  The trumpet section includes Seneca Black, Taylor Haskins, Dave Smith and Justin Mullens while Alan Ferber, Jacob Garchik and Curtis Fowlkes fill the trombone chairs. Ben Stapp plays tuba on 2 tracks while Joe Daley adds his tuba and euphonium on 4.  Anyone who pays attention to the ensembles of Maria Schneider, Darcy James Argue and Ryan Truesdell's Gil Evans Project will recognize these names and many are leaders on their own.

Gospel and blues sounds infuse the opening 2 tracks.  "As We Gather All Around Her" opens quietly with Everett Bradley singing the lyrics of an Appalachian hymn while shadowed by Kono's oboe.  The vibes sound like falling water in the background as the melody lines is shared by the flutes. The piece builds slowly then moves into a medium-tempo section for the solos of Haskins, McCaslin (tenor) and Kelly.  As Kelly moves through his unaccompanied spotlight, Bradley returns and delivers a verse over the piano's cascading notes.  "Dockery Farm" has a harder, darker, edge.  In the liner notes, Harrison writes that the piece "is inspired the Mississippi plantation where Charlie Patton, Howlin' Wolf and others picked cotton and learned the Blues."  The arrangement makes a slight reference to Patton's mixed heritage (it is believed that he had Native American relatives) but is blues all the way through, the highlight being Harrison's roaring solo followed the unaccompanied trombones and tuba 4-way conversation.

Vocalist Liala Baili makes an arresting appearance on "Remember", an impressionistic work that blends the different colors of the ensemble as well as numerous shifts in the dynamics.  Ms. Baili has only the title word to sing throughout the 5:49 but her haunting delivery and the swirling sounds around her create a meditative feel.

One could go on about how strong Joel Harrison's writing is, how intelligent the arrangements and just how enjoyable the program.  Plus the soloists really shine.  Still, the curious listener should complete this journey on his or her own. Get a taste by going to or

"Infinite Possibility", like "Occupy The World" above, should be seen and heard in a concert hall. Both are efforts that deserve wide audiences, both display mature composer/arranger/performers in full bloom and both leave one wanting more of this challenging and rewarding music.

The Joel Harrison Big Band will play a "CD Release Party" July 16 and 17 in Dizzy's Club Coca Cola, part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex.  Click on for more information.

No comments:

Post a Comment