There’s nothing like the sounds from a big band (from trumpet soars to the velvet crush of a chorus of woodwinds) to get the toes a-tapping and the spirit engaged. Ayn Inserto and her Jazz Orchestra (www.ayninserto.com) brought swanking big band grooves to their performances in the Boston area this past fall and I promised to follow up that earlier coverage with more big band glory. This time out, I focus on two of the most captivating big bands working on the scene today- both of whom have new audiophile quality recordings (each nominated for Grammy Awards this year) that unleash their respective orchestras in full creative flight.
Nothing seems to stop bandleader, composer and arranger Ryan Truesdell (a graduate of New England Conservatory of Music-www.necmusic.edu) and members of his Gil Evans Project (“Project”) orchestra (www.gilevansproject.com) from reaching new heights of big band swing and passion in their explorations of the music of legendary composer Gil Evans. I reviewed the Project’s earlier recording in these pages, their 2012 Centennial [Artistshare-www.artistshare.com], and found its music to be a fresh introduction to the shifting landscapes of Gil Evan’s prickly and visionary music.
Now comes their new recording, Lines of Color [Blue Note/Artistshare) that once again draws from the deep well of Gil Evan’s striking compositions to realize another great recording that crackles with galloping orchestral colors, rhythmic urgency and ebullient musicianship.
Lines of Color is a live recording made at the Jazz Standard in New York City (www.jazzstandard.com) and Truesdell’s linear notes are right on target when he states that Evan’s challenging music is further liberated in the high energy context of a live performance. The recording (engineered by the always reliable James Farber and his team) is superb. It provides a mid-hall perspective that picks up on all of the spatial clues of the Jazz Standard’s room; the precise positions of the players on its stage (in natural height and location) and delivers all the tactile, micro-details of the superb musicianship on display- if your audio system is up to the task. These include hearing into how Lois Martin plucks her viola in low, resonant drones in the background of “Concorde” or how master drummer Lewis Nash moves in soft pitter-patter on his snare with a swirling force of his brushes (in accompaniment to the soft crushed sounds of muted horns) on “Can’t We Talk It Over”- all layered and recessed deep in the soundstage.
With Evan’s impeccable compositional skill at busting down artificial boundaries between classical, jazz and blues styles, the music on Lines of Color is eclectic, wild and heady. There are propulsive numbers combining Dixieland, Blues and New Orleans sounds such as in “Davenport” (with Mat Jodrell’s trumpet crisp and metallic); “Gypsy Jump” (where Donny McCaslin’s rolling trills ignite a muscular soaring solo) and in “Avalon Town” (with clarinetist Steve Wilson cascading and slurring down his register while other soloists take brash, clean solos in rousing fashion).
There is also Evan’s mastery of the soft swing – cool, luscious and irresistible in the embrace of Wendy Gilles’ smooth vocals on “Sunday Driving” or in the momentum of “How High The Moon,” propelled along by muted horn blasts and trombone (Ryan Keberle) and tenor sax (Dave Pietro) solos that bring swing with a purpose. Finally, there is Evans’ roguish sense of adventure in composing tunes like “Time of the Barracudas” (with its prickly staccato flow combining the one-two punch of Marshall Gikes’ trombone and McCaslin’s sax) to the mysterious flow of “Easy Living Medley” with its thickets of shifting orchestral colors and challenging rhythmic changes (rooted, as Truedell notes, in the influences of Ravel and Prokofiev upon the intrepid Evans).
This same gift for the intrepid, as well as for the lyrical, lies at the crux of the music of another fine composer and bandleader, Marie Schneider.
I last reviewed Schneider and her Orchestra after their magical performance during a summer evening at one of my favorite places to hear music: Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood (www.bso.org/tanglewood). At this performance, Schneider and her orchestra held the audience transfixed as they performed several new compositions that now appear in all of their glory on their latest release, The Thompson Fields [ArtistShare].
In the beautifully crafted booklet that accompanies The Thompson Fields Schneider talks about how she gained inspiration for her new music from exploring sources from science and literature, as well as from her own childhood memories in growing up on the prairie in Minnesota and wandering her neighbor’s field: the Thompson Field. One of her influences is the strikingly beautiful poetry of Ted Kooser. Here is one haiku from Kooser’s book of poetry, Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards To Jim Harrison [Carnegie Mellon University Press] that sets the stage beautifully for Schneider’s lilting musical explorations to be relished in The Thompson Fields:
Clouds to the west, clear to the east.
Older this morning, the moon
hid most of her face
behind a round gray mirror.
In a half-hour’s walk, I saw
six shooting stars, Celestial notes,
I thought, struck from the high end
of the keyboard.
Like Kooser’s poetry, Schneider’s compositions lure us in with their lyrical beauty and lilting melodies and cadence. They then tease with their surprises of gnashing rhythms, orchestral colors and the soar and dip of great instrumental soloing.
The Thompson Fields commences with the soft, tranquil “Walking By Flashlight” (inspired by another Kooser haiku) with Scott Robinson’s meandering alto clarinet caressing a sweet and searching melodic line nestled in the soft brush work of drummer Clarence Penn. The title piece is another glowing gem as guitarist Lage Lund provides flowing rounded guitar notes that intertwine in fine patterns over Jay Anderson’s bass foundation and pianist Frank Kimborough’s soft punctuations. “Home” (dedicated to our local hero and Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein), is another beautiful example of how Schneider creates a wide-open canvas (utilizing big brass and woodwind holds along with Gary Versace’s breathy accordion accents) to allow an intrepid soloist –here, Rich Perry on tenor saxophone- to launch into a surging solo that explores the nooks and crannies of Schneider’s lyrical themes within the sprawling orchestral sounds and colors weaving underneath.
Those same piquant orchestral sounds and colors also lend great momentum and power to Schneider’s compositions that capture the kinetic forces of Nature and the spinning forward of Evolution. “Nimbus” rides on a whirlwind of contrasting rhythms and colors as Steve Wilson’s alto saxophone trills and careens in a thicket of propulsive brass and percussive colors.
“Arbiters of Evolution,” is cast in a bebop swing that exuberantly moves forward on McCaslin’s flights of tenor sax fancy (squawking and quaking) joined by Scott Robinson’s baritone sax’s breathy bleats (moving in and out of Kimbrough’s staccato piano hits). In contrast, there is the tip-toe lightness of “The Monarch And The Milkweed” where both Marshall Gilkes’ trombone and Greg Gisbert’s flugelhorn navigate through Schneider’s world of small musical gestures and prickly colors, always moving in lyrical and surprising directions.
Everywhere you turn, there is a new twist in the road in Schneider’s astounding works of art: a heady crescendo here, a spirited call there – all locking and interlocking in a new musical adventure that finds joy and leaps of faith everywhere.