Sunday, December 4, 2016

Large Ensemble Music December '16

Hard to believe that it's been 13 years since composer, arranger, and trumpeter Ken Schaphorst has released an album.  It's not like he hasn't been busy - since 2001, Schaphorst has been the chair of jazz Studies at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, MA. He moved back to the East Coast after 10 years as the Director of Jazz Studies at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.

His new album, "How To Say Goodbye" (JCA Recordings), is his first large ensemble recording since 1998's "Purple". The Big Band features 18 musicians, most of whom have worked with the composer in the past including three of his NEC students.  The rhythm section is stellar and includes Matt Wilson (drums), Jerry Locke (percussion), Uri Caine (piano), Brad Shepik (guitar), and Jay Anderson, arguably the best contemporary large ensemble bassist.  The reed section includes Donny McCaslin (tenor sax), Chris Cheek (tenor sax), Jeremy Udden (alto sax), Michael Thomas (alto and soprano saxes, clarinet), and Brian Landrus (baritone sax and bass clarinet), the latter two being former students of Schaphorst at NEC. The brass sections include the trumpets/flugelhorns of Tony Kadleck, Dave Ballou, John Carlson, and Ralph Alessi while Luis Bonilla, Jason Jackson, Curtis Hasselbring, and Jennifer Wharton play trombones (Ms Wharton on the bass 'bone).
Over the course of the 10 tracks (70+ minutes), one hears a multitude of ideas and the overall feeling one gets is that much of this music has its foundations in the blues (the blues as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Woody Herman, Bob Brookmeyer, and Herb Pomeroy employed it).  Both of the last two composers were mentors of Schaphorst and each has a song in his honor in the program.  "Blues for Herb" is a vehicle for McCaslin's tenor and powerful surges of the rhythm section and the horns.  "Take Back The Country" is a sly up-tempo blues that takes its title from Brookmeyer's political stances. Instead of a scree (as one might have read in the late composer's blogs), the piece has a sweetness, a lightness that one hears in the brush work of Wilson and the guitar work of Shepik. Bonilla and Landrus create delightful solos but the the highlight of the track and the album (for me) is the Carlson's flugelhorn solo over Wilson's high-hat and Anderson's one-note percussive throb.  When the reeds and the brass enters, the piece takes on a gospel feel that is irrepressible.
This is an album with a surplus of wondrous moments.  Whether it's Udden's solo on "Floating"or the composer's gentle Fender Rhodes intro to "Mbira 1" (once the ensemble joins in, the piece is infused with sweet South African rhythms), the music breathes. There is a gentle quality to the swing of "Green City" (a touch of Thad Jones in this arrangement) and Cheek creates a long yet emotionally rich solo.  The brass and reed sections kick the piece up several notches in the final two minutes but not at the expense of the swing feel.  Shepik and Leake create a loping rhythm for "Mbira 2" over which the ensemble plays a handsome, percussive, melody.  The guitarist takes the first solo, moving in and around the rhythm section with ease before giving way to a fine trombone spot from Jackson.

"Global Sweat" follows and its slow pace plus trance-like feel in the rhythm section leads the listener into darker territory. The somber work of Cheek and the composer (on trumpet here) atop the ominous chords soon drop into a bluesy pace for Schaphorst to continue to solo as the other trumpets play behind him.  Listen for the various musicians interpreting the melody behind as Caine carries on and Wilson pummels the drums.  It's a long slow build to the finish, the friskiness dying out so the music can land somewhat softly.  The final track, "Descent", is no downer, opening with a swell of brass and horns before Caine takes off on a delightful romp of a solo with just Wilson's dancing drums and Anderson's racing bass lines as companions - the arranger puts in a pair of short stops, almost a call-and-response, then a riff-filled section before Alessi steps out over cymbals and Caine's rich chordal work.  He continues to dance as Leake adds tabla drums, the brass and horns play little circular lines a la Steve Reich before the piece changes and Wilson frolics as there sections roar alongside.  A rapid-fire melodic fragment takes the piece to its abrupt finish and one is left waiting, wishing, for more.

If "How to Say Goodbye" had been released in any other month but December, the album would possibly have made numerous "Best of" lists.  Many lists for the year run from Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving and December albums often get short shrift.  Do not pass this album by - there is not a weak track, plenty of great solos and arrangements that have a richness and intelligence for the most sophisticated listener as well as someone who loves good music.  One hopes it's not 18 years before the next album by the Ken Schaphorst Big Band.  Please!

For more information, go to

Here's the title track:

Composer, arranger, conductor and multi-instrumentalist Kyle Saulnier leads The Awakening Orchestra, a 19-member ensemble  whose 2014 Innova Recordings debut, "Volume I: This Is Not The Answer", was an expansive project that sounded unlike any other large ensemble other than Joseph Phillips Numinous Orchestra and, at certain times, Darcy James Argue's Secret Society.  The Orchestra's new recording is a track-by-track reimagining of guitarist/composer Jesse Lewis's 2008 album "Atticus." Titled "Interlude: Atticus Live! The Music of Jesse Lewis", the album is one of the initial releases on pianist Fabian Almazan's Biophilia label.  Lewis may be best known for his work with Amy Cervini, Jo Lawry, New York Voices, The Duchess Trio, and drummer Deric Dickens.  With the exception of the opening cut, "Looking Glass" (which is a solo piece as it is on the earlier album), Saulnier arranges the music to highlight its melodic components and rarely strays far from the original arrangements. Yet, a band this size, plus Lewis on guitars, give his "Atticus" project heft and fullness.

Jos. McCarthy Photography
After the quiet opening, the Orchestra makes its initial appearance on "Build!", a gentle melody that, at times, sounds like the band is tuning up but that leads into a brass round slowly opening into "The Adventures of Dirt McGillicuddy." Here, the melody is played by Lewis as the band churns below and around him, egged on by the powerful drums of Will Clark, the brass and reeds, and the solid bass work of Joshua Paris.  Trumpeter Jonathan Powell rises out of the rhythm section  to deliver a strong solo with the brass and reeds creating a wall of sound around him.  The title track opens with the round tones of Nadje Noordhuis on flugelhorn - she gives way to the main theme played by flute (Vito Chiavuzzo) and what could be bass clarinet (Andrew Gutauskas). With the entire band playing, the melody has a cinematic feel with Clark in the driver's seat.  After a long and melodic intro to "The Robert Frost Experiment", the rhythm section lays downs a torrid stop-time beat pushed forward by the bass and baritone sax.  Guitarist Michael MacAllister steps out in a big way, his guitar lines roaring over the band which fills in behind him.  Everyone but electric pianist Kotler drops out and, soon, alto saxophonist Chiavuzzo creates a most heart-felt solo.  Again, the band begins to fill in around him (the arrangement may remind one of the sound of Maria Schneider) and the saxophonist rises to the occasion.

"Quiet" and "Snowflake" offer a short reprise to the more tumultuous pieces. The former floats in on the percussion of James Shipp - the music does pick up steam but drops back down opening for a powerful tenor saxophone solo from Samuel Ryder.  The latter opens with quiet electric piano; soon the percussion and MacAllister enters followed by Lewis playing the melody.  The short interlude introduces vibes of JAmes Shipp and then the guitarists play the lead.  The full band does not enter until late in the performance as Lewis flying through his solo.

The final two tracks start with the aptly-titled "Turbulence", which starts off quietly but hits its stride around the three-minute mark as trombonist Michael Boscarino steps out for a strong solo.  "The Pasture (You Come Too)" closes the program; the lengthy opening features guitars and reeds playing softly supported by percussion.  Ms. Noordhuis rises out of the impressionistic sounds for a short yet emotionally rich solo.  The closing 90 seconds have the power of Ms. Schneider's music as well as touches of Aaron Copland.

One should not approach "Atticus Live" as your typical Big Band recording.  There's more rock than swing, moments when the guitars seem to be repeating the melody over and over, and other times when the swirling winds and brass don't go where you might expect. Still, the power is in the performances of the Awakening Orchestra, in the power of the rhythm section, and the way Kyle Saulnier uses the reeds and brass to color, not just as background noise, and in the different sounds produced by JAmes Shipp.  Recorded live at Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn, NY, the sound quality is excellent.  Give this music time to sink in - it's well worth the effort.

Trumpets; Daniel Urness, Seneca Black, Nadje Noordhuis (flugelhorn as well), Jonathan Powell
Trombones: Michael Boscarino, Sam Burtis, James Rogers, Max Seigel (bass trombone)
Reeds: Rob Mosher, Vita Chiavuzzo, Samuel Ryder, Andrew Gutauskas, Nick Biello
Percussion; JAmes Shipp, Will Clark, Rich Stein
Guitars: Jesse Lewis, Michael MacAllister
Keyboards: Aaron Kotler
Acoustic and electric bass: Joshua Paris
Arranger and conductor: Kyle Saulnier

Here's a track from the recording:

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