Big Bands Redux

Although most people associate big bands with swing-era dances and later, jazzier, manifestations such as Nimmons ’n’ Nine and The Boss Brass, despite the dearth of venues and difficulties of keeping even a combo working steadily, musicians persist in utilizing large ensembles. Like muralists who prefer the magnitude of a large canvas, composers, arrangers and players appreciate the colours and breadth available using numerous, well-balanced instruments.

01 Ichigo IchieCase in point is Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii. Like a traveller who dons a new outfit when moving to a new locale, Fujii organizes a new big band. So Fujii, who recently relocated from New York to Berlin, debuts the 12-piece Orchestra Berlin (Libra Records 212 037, joining the large ensembles she already leads in New York, Tokyo and Nagoya. Although ABCD, the final track gives individuals solo space, including some dynamic string plucking and key-slapping vigour from Fujii, the disc’s showpiece is the extensive, but subtle sound-melding highlighted in the title suite. Treating the orchestra as one multi-hued instrument, most of the skillfully arranged climaxes have the seven brass and reed players operating as one undulating whole. At the same time, two drummers – Michael Griener and Peter Orins – keep themes on course during transitions with surging whitecap-like rhythms, buoyed by bassist Jan Roder’s robust walking. Brief, but zesty solos also appear like sophisticated scallops in the origami-like sound creation. For instance, Roder’s harsh thumps face off with trumpeter Natsuki Tamura on Ichigo Ichie 3, with the trumpeter later backing up to race guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi’s slurred fingering to a mountaintop-high plateau of interlocked timbres. Trombonist Matthias Müller’s yearning, plunger-moans cut through the rumbling thunder-like tension from the other horns on Ichigo Ichie 1; while tenor saxophonist Gebhard Ullmnan’s metal-shaking glissandi reach raw quivering excitement on Ichigo Ichie 2, with his solo complemented by gravelly trumpet grunts. Instructively, that track starts out with the group swinging as confidently as any traditional big band. All-in-all, Fujii’s pivotal talent coordinates radiant group motion plus stunning single showcases to create a challenging yet satisfying program.

02 CircumGrandOrchestraTellingly, drummer Orins plus trumpeter Christian Pruvost – both of whom play in a quartet with Fujii – are two of the dozen players who make up the Lille-based Circum Grand Orchestra. But its 12 (Circum-Disc CD 1401, only resembles Orchestra Berlin in number not style. Just as sushi and pâté are wildly different concoctions, but both are food, so the CGO’s composer/leader, electric bassist Christoph Hache’s take on a big band differs from Fujii’s. Hache’s six tracks float rather than swing, but avoid being lightweight by anchoring the tunes with a rhythm section of piano, two guitars, two basses and two drummers. From the top, 12 constitutes a musical journey as a pre-recorded voice rhymes off itinerary stops. The pieces are also framed by their soloists. Graphic for instance slides awfully close to lounge music via Stefan Orins’ moderated piano licks plus wordless vocalizing from flugelhornist Christophe Motury. Even the subsequent tenor saxophone solo is so reminiscent of a lonesome night on a deserted street that it takes a tag-team effort from drummers Orins and Jean-Luc Landsweerdt to enliven the pace. On the other hand Padoc could be Peter and the Wolf re-imagined by Ozzy Osbourne, as a buoyant flute and bass clarinet stop-time duet twirls into rugged melody characterized by wide flanges and distortions from guitarists Sébastien Beaumont and Ivann Cruz, thick tremolo keyboard strides and undulating, accelerating saxophone splashes. Putting aside the toughness suggested by reed shrills, string reverb and percussion clobbering that underlines much of the music, the key to 12 is probably the title track. Like a model changing from an outfit of raw wool to one of sleek silk, the romantic continuum suggested by the graceful dual flugelhorn introduction is swiftly coloured with streaming counterpoint from the reeds and rhythm section, before retreating to dual flute sonata-like patterns and climaxes that highlight both interpretations in symmetrical fashion.

03 Orkester SenzaIt’s hard not to envision symmetry when dealing with Orkester Brez Meja/Orchestra Senza Confini (Dobialabel As the title indicates this 17-piece ensemble was spawned by merging the Italian Orchestra Senza Confini (OSC) with the Slovenian Orkester Brez Meja (OBM), as Slovenian drummer Zlatko Kaučič and Italian bassist Giovanni Maier share composing and conducting credits. Magari C’È the second and final track is skittishly volatile, notable for its consolidation of magisterial beats from drummers Marko Lasić and Vid Drašler as well as crisscross alto saxophone riffs from Gianfranco Agresti and trumpeter Garbriele Cancelli’s carillon-like pealing. But in reality it’s an extended coda to Brezmejniki, the nearly 32-minute narrative that precedes it that defines the disc. As Brezmejniki moves in a rewarding chromatic fashion, like sophisticated surgeons during a difficult operation who allow appropriate anesthesia or incisions as necessary, the co-conductors add and subtract soloists. At points, one of the three tenor saxophonists erupts into a crescendo of honking tones; angled string strokes and jerky flutter tones arise from three double bassists; a cellist evokes contrapuntal challenges; and soothing harmonies result from Paolo Pascolo’s celestially pitched flute. Sometimes vocalist Elisa Ulian sounds distant gurgles; elsewhere, Adriatic-style scatting. Throughout, while certain rock music-like rhythms are heard, the sound perception is of looming storm clouds, conveyed by the ensemble resonating calculated accents and wrapped up by crunching bass and drum patterns that rein in and concentrate the horns into a time-suspended dynamic finale.

04 Possible UniverseKaučič’s and Maier’s project uses conduction, which is directing improvisation through gestures. Lawrence “Butch” Morris (1947-2013) originated the concept and Possible Universe (NBR SA Jazz 014, a newly released session from the Italian Sant’Anna Arresi Jazz Festival in 2010, confirms its skillful application. This eight-part suite by a 15-piece European-American band encompasses hushed impressionism and hard-rocking with the same aplomb. Like a theatre director, Morris knows when to scene-set the proceedings with moderate polyphonic insouciance and when to have soloists let loose with dramatic emotions. Floating ensemble tones dominate Possible Universe part two for instance before giving way to a slurry Ben Webster-style tenor saxophone solo. Supple patterning from percussionists Hamid Drake and Chad Taylor maintains the linear theme on Possible Universe part four, even as kinetic plinks and jitters from guitarists Jean-Paul Bourelly and On Ka’a Davis threaten to rip it apart. Lumbering grace is imparted as the ensemble members improvise in unison, with sophisticated dabs from Alan Silva’s synthesizer adding a contrapuntal continuum. Spectacularly, one curtain-call-like climax occurs on Possible Universe part seven. David Murray’s ocean-floor-deep bass clarinet smears create the consummate intermezzo between the entire band’s upwards-floating crescendo that precedes it and theme variations on the final track. At nearly 13 minutes, lengthier than anything that precedes it, Possible Universe part eight quivers with a semi-classical romanticism through affiliated cadenzas from the guitars, double basses and Silva’s synth’s string setting, even as atonal splutters from Evan Parker’s tenor saxophone and an equivalent blues-based line from Murray’s tenor saxophone struggle for dominance against the two trumpeters and one trombonist’s brassy explosions. Following numberless theme variations at different pitches, volumes and speeds from nearly every player, the finale is a calming timbre consolidation.

05 MorphHowever, the most unconventional use of a big band here is on Morph (Confront ccs 37 Swiss-born, Paris-based tenor saxophonist Bertrand Denzler’s composition for Paris’ ONCEIM ensemble is a hypnotic, structured drone that transforms the entire group into a solid mass of tremulous polyphony. Considering that the length of the piece – 29 minutes – is actually one numeral less than the total players – 30 – Denzler’s skill in uniting tones and suppressing bravado is unsurpassed. Simultaneously acoustic and electric, Morph is all of a piece, but like the finest wine additionally manages to hint at other sonic flavours from the brass, reeds, strings, percussion and electronics. Three-quarters of the way though, the pace speeds up infinitesimally but distinctively, adding more tinctures of sound. A single guitar string strum is heard in the penultimate minutes as the timbres align more closely, uniting into a murmur that’s lively, seductive and tranquilizing.

Hearing any of these sessions easily demonstrates that contemporary large group compositions and arrangements have long surpassed Moonlight Serenade or Take the A Train to plot and meet individual challenges.

01 morgan childs album coverOn the Street of Dreams
Morgan Childs
Independent (

Morgan Childs is, as a composer, a drummer, an accompanist and a soloist, deeply rooted in tradition, well-informed, incredibly proficient and bubbling with unmistakable personality. All of this and more is on display in his newest release, On the Street of Dreams, a live album which, over the course of around 70 minutes, presents a compelling argument for going to see Childs play live.

Street of Dreams is a compilation of recordings made by Childs’ quartet during two 2013 gigs, cut together as one cohesive set. Included are excellent, underplayed selections from the standard repertoire such as The Man That Got Away and It’s All Right With Me, as well as some original Childs compositions.

Such tunes are often tributes to eras past, such as Theodore, a playful tune with a Caribbean vibe that evokes St. Thomas, and Parting of the Rocks, a composition of barely contained righteous anger, reminiscent of jazz protest songs by black composers of the 1960s. That title is an English translation of Attawapiskat; Childs wrote it as “a response to the lack of response by the Harper government to the crisis at Attawapiskat.” In both the composition and the group’s approach, John Coltrane’s classic quartet comes to mind.

From ballads to scorchers, this album immaculately captures the energy and sound of the group’s live performances; the rest is up to you. Grab a cold drink and enjoy.

02 Mary Halvorson CopyMeltframe
Mary Halvorson
Firehouse 12 FH12-04-01-021 (

In her mid-30s, Mary Halvorson has distinguished herself as the most original jazz guitarist of her generation. A veteran of numerous ensembles led by Anthony Braxton and a regular musical partner of Marc Ribot, Halvorson has touched on the radical fringes of folk and rock as well as jazz and has created a remarkable series of CDs leading a trio and quintet. Meltframe is her first solo CD, and it goes very close to the heart of what makes her such a compelling musician, her rare ability both to reach back to jazz traditions and forward to the possibilities while setting everything in an insistent present.

Whether it’s her embrace of Duke Ellington and an absurdly full-size hollowbody archtop guitar, or Ornette Coleman and an effects pedal that carries pitch bending to the stratosphere, Halvorson is at ease with fundamentals, corollaries and contradictions. They’re all here, from the dense electric roar with which she approaches Oliver Nelson’s Cascades to the (lightly amplified) flamenco touch she employs on Annette Peacock’s Blood. McCoy Tyner’s delicate Aisha occasionally surrenders to grunge rock. It’s more for those who like to be surprised than those who hate to be disturbed.

Coleman’s Sadness arrives amongst wildly bending arpeggios, while Ellington’s Solitude is a reverie in artificial reverb that moves at a glacial pace toward microtonal dissolution. Halvorson can create great drama with minimal means, evidenced in her treatment of Carla Bley’s Ida Lupino, which develops a kind of intense inevitability through deceptively simple strumming. Works by Peacock and Carla Bley may suggest their first advocate, pianist Paul Bley, whose stark keyboard lines and manipulations of timbre are paralleled here.

03 SonoluminTrioCD001Telling Stories
Sonoluminescence Trio
Art Stew Records ASR 003 2015

A band whose improvising is as enlightening as its name, which refers to light produced as sound waves pass through liquid, this trio combination confirms that fluid musicianship can easily overcome geography and separation. A tale of three cities – baritone saxophonist David Mott lives in Toronto, percussionist Jesse Stewart in Ottawa and bassist William Parker in New York – the Sonoluminescence three don’t play together very often. But when they do, intercommunication is paramount, because exposing unique sonic patterns is more important to all than sporting showy techniques.

Mott and Stewart are particularly cognizant of this. One feels the drummer would sooner lock himself in an airless crypt than shatter this partnership with blasting beats. As opposed to other baritone players who plunder its lower depths like deep-sea divers in the ocean, Mott emphasizes his horn’s moderato facility. He could be playing a tenor, save for some infrequent rhino-like snorts. As for Parker, he’s cognizant that the double bass can be treated as many instruments simultaneously.

This is expressed as early as Echoes of Africa, the CD’s first track, where the patterning from Parker’s strings could come from a berimbau or an ngoni and Stewart’s rhythms from a combination of a wood drum and a conga. Mott’s response isn’t further exoticism however, but comprehensive tongue flutters and expressive peeps. A comparable transformation appears on There’s the Rub, where the sum total of thickened bass string strums, timed percussion clatters and selective reed breaths add up to a New Music-like interlude, with the trio’s storytelling facilities intact. The three are also capable of outputting non-stereotypical rhythmic activity as on the slyly named Rumble for Jackie Chan. But the resulting hard-hitting beat is strained through sardonic 21st-century sensibilities, so that the metrical syncopation is brainy rather than merely brawny.

Mixing speedy rhythms, standard tune references and technical extensions when needed for additional colour and emphasis, the Sonoluminescence Trio does just what is promised in the title. It tells unusual stories energetically, with subtlety, but without artifice or showboating.

04 Jazz PiratesWind and Sand
Bruce Lofgren’s Jazz Pirates
Night Bird NB-4 (


With the release of this exceptional recording, talented Los Angeles-based guitarist, composer and arranger Bruce Lofgren has once again established himself as one of the most innovative and relevant jazz artists currently leading large ensembles. Lofgren has surrounded himself here with “Jazz Pirates” that include the crème de la crème of West Coast musicians, including two French horn players (reminiscent of the late Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass). Lofgren’s prestigious career as a composer/arranger (Airto, Flora Purim, Buddy Rich), as well as his instrumental skill, has informed every note of this project with a tasty smorgasbord of tempos, styles and feels.

The CD kicks off with a re-imagined take on Invitation and segues on to the clever Bop Talk with a vocal by Karen Mitchell, whose lovely soprano is all about the beauty of the melodic line – with each vocal nuance perfectly placed. Mitchell adds her voice to two additional tunes on this recording, (including the stunning bossa nova, Find a Place) with equally wonderful effect. A true stand out is Lofgren’s composition, Far Far Away, which has deeply personal significance to him, and the writing conjures up an almost childlike quality of innocent longing. The addition of Glen Berger’s soprano solo is nothing short of breathtaking. The title track is another stunner – utilizing Lofgren’s superb rhythmic skills and musical vocabulary – as a guitarist, composer and arranger – and speaking of rhythm, Café Rio delivers everything that it promises as well as a face-melting keyboard solo from the gifted Charlie Ferguson.

Wind and Sand is arguably one of the most significant large ensemble jazz recordings of the year, rife with musical gems. It’s a must-have.

05 Serpents DreamA Serpent’s Dream
Michel Godard & Le Miroir du temps
Intuition INT 3440 2 (

Michel Godard may be the rarest and best kind of musician, filled with curiosity and energy and without prejudice. A master tuba player and member of the French National Orchestra since 1988, he’s even more distinguished as an explorer. Taking up the tuba’s ancestor, the serpent, he plays jazz on it as well as ancient music. His most distinctive work may be in the unusual hybrids he constructs between jazz and renaissance music, like A Serpent’s Dream with his quartet Le Miroir du Temps.

The band’s sounds are distinctly beautiful, blessed by a dry and ancient clarity in the case of Godard’s serpent and Katharina Bäuml’s shawm, though Bruno Hestroffer’s theorbo (a long-necked lute) sounds lightly amplified (at least with a microphone close to the steel strings) and Godard’s occasional electric bass is by definition. Percussionist Lucas Niggli employs a host of instruments to add colour, but it’s his hand drumming that comes to the fore. There’s nothing of the purist in Godard’s approach: most of the works heard here are his own compositions, and he’s just as happy setting them beside the ancient and anonymous In Splendoribus as Charlie Haden’s Our Spanish Love Song, with its distinctively contemporary – or at least romantic – harmonies.

Godard’s ensemble manages to reveal a subtle sense of order, some of it gleaned from archives and some just coming into being. Presented with the opportunity to play a serpent made in 1830 that is decorated with an ornate, gilded sea monster with scales and tail, Godard elects to play the blues, the traditional, specific and appropriate Old Black Snake Blues. It’s impossible not to be charmed.

06 Leo 35Leo Records 35th Anniversary Moscow
Gratkowski; Kruglov; Nabatov; Yudanov
Leo Records CD LR 719 (

Anniversaries of record companies usually only serve as a reminder of the longevity implicit in cannily peddling particular products. But the commemoration associated with this CD is more profound. Recorded at the initial Moscow concert of a quartet consisting of two Russians – Alexey Kruglov playing alto saxophone and basset horn and percussionist Oleg Yudanov – plus Germans, pianist Simon Nabatov and alto saxophonist/clarinetist Frank Gratkowski, the five tracks pinpoint the cooperative skills of players from both countries. Providing a forum for Russian free improvisers to demonstrate their advanced expertise was one of the reasons London-based Leo Records was founded 35 years ago. That neither the Eastern nor Western players can be distinguished on the basis of talent or sound on this celebratory disc is a tribute to the label’s ideas.

Russian-born and American-educated Nabatov provides the perfect linkage among the band members. The grandeur of his cascading runs on Our Digs for instance, creates emotional underpinning for the reedists’ atmospheric whispering; plus his emphasized wooden key stops provide the climax. At the same time he clatters phrases on the keys and slams the instrument’s frame to amplify the piano’s percussiveness on Homecoming, locking in with Yudanov’s smacks and rolls, never unduly forceful in themselves. Marathon-speed chording also adds to the saxophonists’ expositions that mix harsh Aylerian smears with reed textures as broad as wide-bore scanners. While as indistinguishable as corn stalks in a field, when alto saxophone bites emanate from both players, identifying resonation distinguishes Gratkowski’s bass clarinet and Kruglov’s basset horn on the reed showcase Hitting It Home. Exchanges between the Russian’s warbling yelps and the German’s sonorous hums that could be sourced from an underwater grotto are ornamented by the pianist’s ringing timbres and shaped into a pleasing narrative.

Since outsiders rarely associate Germans or Russians with humour, House Games is particularly instructive, when the woodwind players’ choked yelps and snarling pants make the exposition sound like an aural Punch and Judy show – and just as violent. However this tongue splattering and note spewing is eventually harmonized into a manageable melody by the pianist’s romantic interludes.

Overall, Leo’s more than three-decade-old promise is fulfilled with a connective session such as this one.

Back to top