Lush, Lavishly Ambitious Big Band Jazz With Miho Hazama & M-Unit at Lincoln Center

by delarue

Pianist/organist/conductor Miho Hazama writes big, blustery, fearlessly energetic big band jazz themes. Her music is cosmopolitan in every sense of the word: sophisticated, individualistic and innovative. There’s no one in the world who sounds like her. She loves dynamics – despite the heft of her compositions, half the time only half of her band, or even smaller subsets of the group, are playing. She loves bright, catchy hooks, and her material is obviously a ton of fun to play: a good percentage of New York’s top big band jazz talent comprise her epic large ensemble M-Unit. They have a gig at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Jan 25, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is pricy, $30, but this group is worth it. It’s good to see such an interesting band getting a chance to play to a more or less captive audience.

It was a lot of fun to catch the group playing one of the series of midday shows at another midtown spot, at St. Peter’s Church on the east side, back in August. Coventional wisdom is that musicians don’t really wake up til the sun goes down, but the group was a the top of their game despite the relatively early hour. Their first number, Mr. O opened with momentary pageantry from the strings, then quickly gave way to a clustering piano theme beefed up by the ensemble, then down to a bustling, bouncing alto sax solo over the rhythm section. Hazama’s chart gave the group a chance to have fun throwing big, bright splashes of color against the sonic canvas, piano adding a solo that rose to breathless, towering heights. A yakuza gangster undercurrent added devious suspense.

They followed with an enigmatic piano theme over a syncopated clave beat, vibraphone carrying the melody over a lustrous backdrop with hints of both Russian Romanticism and cheery 70s Philly soul, hitting another suspensefully rippling piano-and-rhythm-section interlude before the piece rose again. Like her colleagues Darcy James Argue and John Hollenbeck, Hazama loves unorthox pairings of instruments: this one featured bass clarinet in tandem with violin.

The string quartet opened the number after that, then backed as a moody flugelhorn solo quickly turned into a clever Rodgers and Hart quote. As the strings rose toward the end, a sense of melancholy and longing developed, increasing as the music dipped to the strings and piano. That’s typical of how counterintitively Hazama works.

Maybe predictably, Hazama’s earliest composition on the bill followed the set’s most trad, swinging trajectory. The most ambitious was the title track to her lavishly brilliant 2012 debut album Journey to Journey, anchored by a tensely circling piano riff while individual voices shifted in innumerable directions, an uneasily dancing alto sax solo in the center of it all. The group dipped to a charming, balletesque exchange of pizzicato strings, then rose to a vintage 70s soul riff and an explosive outro.

There was plenty of other material on the program, but that’s where the recorder ran out of juice. And it was hard to hear the band intros to keep track of who was playing what in the boomy church basement space. That won’t be a problem in the plush sonics at Lincoln Center.

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