Big Heart Machine’s debut album – streaming at Bandcamp – is not for curmudgeons. It’s for people who appreciate robust tunesmithing and vivid, lavish arrangements with a sense of humor. That quality is all too often missing in big band jazz, which might explain why two of the heaviest hitters in the field – Darcy James Argue and Miho Hazama – have thrown their weight behind it. Argue produced the record; Hazama will be conducting the 20-piece orchestra at the album release show on Aug 16 at the Jazz Gallery. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $15, a real bargain at this joint.
Texture-wise, this is a very colorful album, loaded from the top to the bottom of the sonic spectrum like a pastrami sandwich at the old Stage Deli. Bandleader/tenor sax player Brian Krock writes cinematic, shiftingly kinetic music that at its most intense is almost a dead ringer for Argue’s work – it can be as impactful as it is sardonic. ’The opening track, Don’t Analyze opens with Krock’s balmy intro, then polyrhythms kick in with a laid-back sway and plush pulses throughout the ensemble. Variations on a stalking bass melody contrast with sly P-Funk keyboard textures; after a long crescendo, there’s no easy resolution.
The album’s centerpiece is a five-part suite, Tamalpais. The opening segment, Stratus builds high-sky ambience with microtonal understatement over a melody that slowly develops out of the bass. The segue into Deep Ravine comes across like Argue doing the Theme from Shaft. Nick Grinder’s trombone and Yuhan Su’s vibes do a wry dance over John Hollenbeck-esque pointillisms. Staggered motorik beats emerge from a haze, capped off by Olli Hirvonen’s shrieking guitar; flittingly amusing faux-dixieland gives way to battlefield guitar mist..
The somber piano/trumpet duet between Arcoiris Sandoval and Kenny Warren that introduces Stinson Beach brings to mind the muted angst of the conclusion of Argue’s Brooklyn Babylon, rising with jaunty swirls and pulses as the sun emerges over the Bay Area. And yet, a grim memory persists as Krock bobs and weaves, dark and bluesy, over the orchestra’s heavy resonance.
Gingerly tiptoeing vibes pair off against low brass foreshadowing as Dipsea Steps gets underway. The way the pairings shift afterward, from trumpet against guitar power chords, to neooromantic piano and vibes, up to where wary tenor sax and the orchestra coalesce, is as much fun as it is a clinic in clever composition
The suite comes full circle (a device Krock excels at) with Cirrus. Is this not as high as the intro? Sort of. Wistfully energetic muted trumpet spins over a resonant backdrop of guitar, Dr. Dre synth and orchestration throughout what’s essentially a tone poem.
There are two more stand-alone tracks. Jelly Cat emerges from wispiness to emphatic bursts of close harmonies and a spare interlude for trombone against the highs. The clarinet’s descent from the clouds is one of the album’s high points, up to a boisteously funky ending.
The epic closing number, Mighty Purty begins with peekaboo voices, shifts to allusions to trad 50s ebullience, a return to bittersweet piano and trumpet and a long upward climb. A gritty interweave of trombone, tenor and eventually the rest of the horns take it skyward over a heavy Pink Floyd sway. This is the frontrunner for best jazz debut album of 2018. Who would have thought that Krock’s roots are as a metal guitarist tirelessly copying Dimebag solos?