Big Band jazz is alive and well in Boston and beyond. Well-recorded examples of adventurous large ensembles in jazzy flight bring special sonic treats to our listening rooms: big pulses of dynamic sounds; exuberant soloing and the potential for broad and deep sound stages sparkling with layered drama. In past reviews, I have highlighted a number of Big Band gem recordings from Boston-based bands such as from Berklee College of Music’s Ayn Inserto [www.berklee.edu] and her Jazz Orchestra on their recording, Muse [Creative Nation Music; www.ayninserto.com] and New England Conservatory’s (“NEC”) Chair of Jazz Studies, Ken Schaphorst [www.necmusic.edu], conducting his Big Band on How To Say Goodbye [JCA Recordings].
Take a listen to Schaphorst’s “”Global Sweat” for a joyful dose of Big Band orchestration in which Schaphorst combines East and West with grooving bebop leaps; a searing trumpet solo and the pulses of Indian tabla, plied softly by NEC’s percussive maven, Jerry Leake.
Inspired by these local Big Band recordings, I went to catch another Big Band in action on September 28th at the intimate Ryles Jazz Club [“Ryles”; www.rylesjazz.com] located in Cambridge, MA. This time out, it was the spirited pianist, composer and bandleader, Bill Cunliffe, gathering an ensemble of Boston-based musicians to perform compositions from Cunliffe’s new recording, Bachanalia [Metre Records; www.billcunliffe.com].
Bachganalia is a Big Band lover’s dream and an audiophile treat. On this new recording, (offering startling sonic realism and an up-front dynamic presence), Cunliffe employs his three decades of writing for big bands (starting in the 1980’s with the legendary Buddy Rich) to mine beautiful melodies of some of his favorite classical pieces, re-imagining them with his own joyous compositional pen.
Bachanalia opens with the light breeze of Cunliffe’s version of J.S. Bach’s “Sleeper’s Wake,” a stick-in-your-mind melody that floats on the light wordless vocals of Denise Donatelli and the seamless flow of brass caresses. At Ryles, Donatelli performed “Sleeper’s Wake” with a fluid and carefree vocal presence. Her voice was nimble and bright, with a clarity to line and phrasing that glowed with playful intonation and pitch perfect soars.
Guitarist John Wheatley added a prancing guitar solo and Cunliffe a dance-infected piano solo that all spritely led to a reprise of Bach’s irresistible melody on the soars of light brass and twinkling cymbals. Following this light romp, Donatelli joined Cunliffe in a duet in which they performed a glowing ballad highlighted by Donatelli’s relaxed vocal phrasing (ranging from gentle expressive soars to a final earthy hold) and Cunliffe’s light patter of keyboard runs and twinkling blues-tinged chords.
Bachanalia contains delectable Cunliffe concoctions that swell with brass power and rhythmic invention. At their Ryles show, Cunliffe’s Big Band played brilliantly with a let-it-all-hang-out style. On Cunliffe’s Latin-tinged “Afluencia,” drummer Tim Horner’s propulsive and slippery feel drove the pulsating groove with trumpeter Bjon Watson piercing the firmament with clarion power. On Cunliffe’s comic and scampering version of “I’m Late, I’m Late” (inspired by Stan Getz’s version from his classic album Focus in which Getz was inspired by the music of Bela Bartok), Cunliffe leapt from his piano to conduct the ensemble in a piece that moved from a flurry of sax and trombone action to a slowly burning glow, highlighted by Tucker Antell’s churning sax solo.
The set ended with Cunliffe’s centerpiece to Bachanalia, his “Goldberg Contraption,” an inventive ode to J.S. Bach that runs the musical gamut from samba to New Orleans romp. Cunliffe’s big band explored each musical niche of “Contraption” with glee: trumpeter Jeff Claassen led the charge with a solo of cool metallic glow (with Watson adding his piercing horn staccato hits) as the ensemble simmered low underneath. Bassist Bruce Gertz then pumped his acoustic bass strings and led the charge into a blistering swinging melody propelled by trombonists Jeff Galindo and Artie Montanaro (bursting forth with booming metallic urgency) that sent Cunliffe’s colorful and inventive party swinging home.
Returning from this ever-adventurous evening with Cunliffe and his band, I took a listen to a new recording from another composer who, in contrast to the melodic inventions of Cunliffe, utilizes the shapes and layered sounds of his large ensemble to create a more prickly, contemplative stew. Composer and baritone sax master, Brian Landrus, has deep connections to Boston. He is an alumnus of NEC and has performed with two Big Bands that I have reviewed in the recent past for their excellent recordings: The Maria Schneider Orchestra on their Thompson Fields [ArtistShare; www.mariaschneider.com] and Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project on their Lines of Color (Blue Note; ArtistShare; www.gilevansproject.com).
Landrus has now released his first recording as a bandleader, Generations [Blackland Records; www.brianlandrus.com) and here he partners with a stellar 25-piece orchestra in performances of original compositions, including his “Jeru Concerto” for baritone sax and orchestra.
Landrus’ “Jeru Concerto” (“Jeru” being both the nickname for Landrus’ hero, the baritone sax great Gerry Mulligan, and the name Landrus gave to his own young son) places Landrus’ expressive baritone in several creative settings. It joins a group of shimmering strings, light percussive touches and propulsive brass in the swanking First Movement and then is placed alone in the “Interlude” (where Landrus plays a rolling, clacking and breathy meditative baritone solo, all resonant and aglow in the recording space). In the Final Movement, Landrus’ baritone leaps and frolics, (with deep roiling plunges), amongst pinpoint colors from harp, vibes, staccato string plucks and dancing woodwinds in flowing, shapeshifting lines.
Landrus employs these same contrasts of light and dark forces to ignite the unfolding meditative feel of “Every Time I Dream” and the sleek staccato revel of “The Warrior” (with Joe Locke’s vibes and Ingmar Thomas’ trumpet dancing in thickets of pulsating brass and arching string crescendos). “Ruby” flows on a slow, meditative forward motion, punctuated by Marcus Rojas’ tuba and serpentine solos from trumpeter Ralph Alessi, violinist Mark Feldman and flutist Jamie Baum (on fluttering alto flute). All of this inventive and sparkling musicianship is captured in a recording that delivers the myriad textures of this orchestra with a crisp, up-front perspective. Landrus’ spirited baritone and bass clarinet lead the way, churning in its penchant for uncertainty principles in this roving and mysterious stew of orchestral sounds and flowing colors.
Big Band can also be straight ahead funky and full of toe-tapping swing. There is nothing funkier or finer than hearing the pungency of Christian McBride’s acoustic bass as it provides the soulful backbone to his music with his spirited Big Band on their new recording, Bringin’ It [Mack Avenue Records; www.mackavenue.com].
From the first blast of collective horns (and the galvanizing rhythm guitar of Rodney Jones) igniting McBride’s “Getting’ To It” we are off to the races with trumpeters Brandon Lee and Freddy Hendrix dueling to the top of their ranges with great metallic flair and urgency. On “Thermo,” this swanking brass parade continues with pianist Xavier Davis adding his keyboard twinkle and shine and drummer Quincy Phillips knocking home the dance with heavy snare and bass drum hits. The same swank dominates the funk and fun of “Used Ta Could,” built up from a boisterous sax and brass chorus floating over claps and yells and a trombone solo filled with comedy, tenacity and greasy slides. The recording captures all of this drama with good image dimensionality and crackling up-front energy, although there is a bit of treble glare in the highest dynamic brass reaches and in those big cymbal hits, as well as some limits to the depth and layering of the soundstage in this recording.
Alto and flute players Steve Wilson and Todd Bashore are in curvaceous form as they carve out lush and buoyant colors surrounding Melissa Walker’s vocals (filled with expressive ardor on “Upside Down”) or as they join tenor sax mates Ron Blake and Dan Pratt on the swinging funk of “Full House” (encouraging Carl Maraghi’s blistering baritone solo).
There are also creative surprises here: a looping “Mr. Bojangles” (swaying on Walker’s rich and sly vocals and the band’s swinging undertow) and a free-flowing version of McCoy Tyner’s “Sahara,” with wind-swept piano and sax solos that roil in the billowing ensemble sound. The recording ends with trombonist Steve Davis’ “Optimism,” a fitting blast of punctual surge and heat from this Big Band in grooving flight on the pumping wings of McBride’s incandescently joyful bass lines.