The Erica Seguine/Shannon Baker Jazz Orchestra Bring Their Epic Sweep and Irrepressible Fun Uptown

by delarue

The most intriguing big band concert of this new year isn’t happening at the Vanguard, or Birdland, or the Jazz Standard or even Brooklyn’s home to exciting new large ensembles, Shapeshifter Lab in Gowanus. It’s happening January 27 starting at 6 PM when the Erica Seguine/Shannon Baker Jazz Orchestra play two sets uptown at Shrine. There’s no cover, and it’s happy hour. What more could a jazz fan possibly want, cheap drinks and some of the most individualistic, colorful charts you could hear in 2016?

On one hand, it’s a miracle that the big band jazz demimonde still exists. It’s hardly a moneymaking venture for artists (although venues love it since it draws a crowd). Yet composers persist in keeping the genre alive. Mot big bands play either standards, or the repertoire of a single composer (the Mingus Orchestra and related bands, for example), or their bandleader. The Erica Seguine/Shannon Baker Jazz Orchestra divide their time between the work of their two distinctive composers. It would be overly reductionistic to say that Seguine defines herself with cleverness and eclecticism and Baker with singleminded intensity, but those qualities assert themselves throughout each composer’s work.

Seguine, who conducts the ensemble, distinguishes herself with her vivid, cinematic narratives, counterintuitive Gil Evans-like color contrasts….and her sense of humor. It’s hard to think of another composer whose work can take such amusing twists and turns as as hers does. She also likes to incorporate other genres, from spaghetti western to Romany jazz and carnivalesque themes, into her music. And she likes to swing, hard. Saxophonist Shannon Baker’s compositions tend to be more specifically focused and defined by tectonically shifting sheets, atmospheric cresecendos and long panoramic stretches that provide a launching pad for the band’s individual voices. Yet there’s crossover between the two: they’ve been a good influence on each other.

The orchestra’s music page features audio and video from both. Seguine’s pieces begin with a coyly erudite tango-jazz arrangement of a Bach Adagio which develops into a shapeshifting, multi-segmented epic with plenty of room for solos throughout its kaleidoscopic sweep, Steve Kortyka’s thoughtful and playful tenor sax solo at the center. A segment from her Phases of Water suite builds around a suspenseful pulse straight out of Holst’s The Planets,with eerie chromatics channeled via an agitated trombone solo, mighty swells juxtaposed within its spacious charts, and balletesque hints of Tschaikovsky.

Baker is first represented by The New Day Bends Light, a suspenseful tableau where a choir of voices comes in wordlessly toward the end, then Sonia Szajnberg takes the mic. “We shall not succumb to the shadows” is her mantra. Ed Wood Goes to the Beach takes one of Baker’s signature moody, spacious expanses and fills it up with blazing electric guitar over a careening surf beat. That’s just for starters.

Their most recent show at Shrine was this past September, an exuberant and tight performance from the massive eighteen piece group which included two familiar standouts from the New York big band jazz scene, alto saxophonist Ben Kono and trombonist Scott Reeves (also leader of his own distinctive big band). Considering how tightly the orchestra was packed into the lowlit back room, it was hard to tell who else, other than Baker, was playing. In practically two hours onstage, they aired out a lot of new material, the most stunningly serpentine number being a phantasmagorical suite of sorts by Seguine that warped in and out of a furtive Balkan-tinged theme. If a trip uptown on the 2 or 3 express to 135th seems daunting, the group will be the centerpiece of a massive big band triplebill at Shapeshifter Lab on March 8 at 7:30 PM for $15.