New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: big band jazz

Muhal Richard Abrams Leaves Us With a Knowing Wink

Muhal Richard Abrams knew as much about writing for large improvising ensembles as anyone who ever lived. So it’s no surprise that one of his late largescale works, Soundpath, would be as erudite as it is playful and fun. The seventeen-piece Warriors of the Wonderful Sound’s new recording – streaming at Bandcamp – is creative jazz as entertainment, a lively, dynamic uninterrupted, roughly forty-minute suite.

The group are a mix of big names, up-and-coming players and familiar faces from the free jazz demimonde. They unfold this brighty, brassy theme and variations symphonically, with plenty accommodation for individual contributions. Abrams uses every trick in the book to his advantage: false endings, suspenseful foreshadowing with varying numbers of voices, and conversations everywhere. The full ensemble is only engaged all at once in maybe twenty percent of the piece, if that. Otherwise, it’s remarkably spacious, with lots of pairings and moments where the whole orchestra emphatically punches in and out.

The genial, brassy floating swing behind the opening theme recurs throughout the performance, but there are plenty of airy interludes where the rhythm drops out. Pianist Tom Lawton excels in the bad-cop role: he’s the only one who gets anything in the way of disquieting modes. Bassist Michael Formanek is as much rhythmic center, maybe more than drummer Chad Taylor, the latter of whom gets to lead the shenanigans as the coda, with its innumerable moments of amusement, gathers steam.

While there are interludes where this could be any reasonably inspired chordless trio kicking into an energetic solo from the horn player, this is more about interplay, whether via jousting, or the whole ensemble in contrast to a soloist. Bass trombonist Jose Davila’s wryly gruff solo gets a very subtle but no less amusing reality check from Taylor, on his rims. After walking the changes for much of the time, Formanek finally gets to carry a thematic variation by himself amid the orchestra’s densely hovering atmosphere.

There’s a vastly dynamic, duotone-spiced tenor solo – sounds like that’s Hafez Modirzadeh – which cues Taylor that it’s time to introduce a steady clave; the way the polyrhythms shift from there is artful to the extreme. The ending is pure Beethoven: try listening all the way through without smiling. Impossible. At a time when in most parts of the world, music like this is not only illegal to invite an audience to, but also illegal to play, we need recordings like this more than ever to remind us how desperately we need to return to normal. A triumph from a cast that also includes ringleader and alto saxophonists Bobby Zankel, Marty Ehrlich and Julian Pressley; Mark Allen on baritone sax; Robert Debellis on tenor sax;, Steve Swell, Michael Dessen and Al Patterson on trombones; Duane Eubanks, Josh Evans and Dave Ballou on trumpets; and Graham Haynes on cornet.

Dynamic Big Band Music For Transcending Troubled Times

Big band composer Daniel Hersog took the title for his album Night Devoid of Stars – streaming at Bandcamp – from a Martin Luther King quote about how love is the only power strong enough to defeat evil: “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.” Hersog wrote most of the record in the wee hours with tv news on in the background. This was before the lockdown, and there doesn’t seem to be any specific political commentary here, but the backdrop is ugly. Clearly, music kept this guy sane – and will continue to do the same for you.

Hersog conducts a sixteen-piece orchestra throughout a dynamic, smartly spacious mix of material that only reaches gale force once in awhile. They open with Cloud Break, a cheerily marching feature for lead trumpeter Brad Turner’s judicious, occasionally feral lines, especially when the group pick it up with a racewalking swing. Tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger artfully echoes a similar intensity as pianist Frank Carlberg glimmers uneasily before the band swing it again: it ain’t got a thing, etc.

Carlberg gets to take a rare detour into spare gospel in the second number, Motion: big band compositions seldom get as quiet as this one does. Preminger’s meticulously voiced solo as the rhythm section takes it into funkier territory is one of the album’s high points. The orchestra finallly return in waves at the end.

Carlberg’s paraphrase of My Favorite Things to introduce Makeshift Memorial leaves the question unanswered: a solemn exchange between Preminger and the brass develops, moments of stark lustre contrasting with a tentative ebullience. Candles left for a gangster only last so long.

Hersog reaches for early 70s Morricone-esque cinematics as the album’s title track gets underway, rising quickly to a punchy, grim urban funk tableau that the band decide to take swinging all of a sudden, Preminger in the catbird seat with a slit-eyed grin, Turner choosing his spots as the dancing pulse reaches toward redline.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is a great song just about all the time no matter who plays it, and Hersog makes a lustously horizontal epic out of it, from Carlberg’s casually cruel, Ran Blake-inflected lines, to hypnotically swirling orchestration and a swaying piano interlude that stops thisshort of jaunty. It’s a song about being haunted, and this is.

Indelible begins as a warmly swaying nocturne, and rises to a gritty peak on the wings of Michael Braverman’s soprano sax, Preminger offering calm over the increasingly acidic, spiky, funky pulse behind him. The ensemble close with Song for Henrique, Carlberg shifting with jaunty latinisms and a more unsettled Middle Eastern chormaticism as the bass and drums pulse tightly behind him. A vividly eclectic performance from an ensemble that also includes Chris Startup on alto sax; Tom Keenlyside on tenor; Ben Henriques on baritone; Michael Kim, Derry Byrne and Jocelyn Waugh on trumpets; Rod Murray, Jim Hopson and Brian Harding on trombones; Sherman King on bass trombone; James Meger on bass and Michael Sarin on drums.

The Webber/Morris Big Band Deliver a Smartly Thematic, Unique, Entertaining Sound

The Webber/Morris Big Band‘s album Both Are True – which hasn’t hit the web yet – is a treat for anyone who likes meticulously crafted new big band jazz. It’s unusual in that most of it is remarkably delicate for such a big ensemble. Bandleaders and saxophonists Anna Webber and Angela Morris gravitate toward the upper registers in the compositions here. Although much of this music is persistently unsettled, it’s not particularly heavy and has a welcome, sardonic sense of humor. Not everyone plays on every track: some include Dustin Carlson’s guitar, others have Marc Hannaford’s spare piano.

The opening epic, Climbing on Mirrors is a real roller-coaster ride. Delicate staccatto upper-register textures join the gently circling, distantly Afrobeat-inflected milieu one by one until a terse, plaintive Charlotte Greve sax solo slows the song as the ensemble recedes to just the rhythm section. The big crescendo brings everybody back with a joyously syncopated pulse. The way the brass bracingly shadow the reeds really ramps up the suspense, toward a lush chorale that brings the opening theme full circle – in more ways than one. Darcy James Argue seems to be the obvious influence.

The album’s title track has a similar but heavier syncopation that contrasts with a much more improvisational element, pairs of instruments seemingly choosing their own material to converse with, and moments of uneasy massed resonance where the rhythm drops out. Again, a sax solo pulls the music together; the pianp mingles with Patricia Brennan’s vibraphone, but not to the point of any big reveal. Is the sleekness that follows a signal that all is finally clear? No spoilers!

In Rebonds, the band shift from spacious rhythmic riffs and uneasy, dirty resonance,  guitar skronk front and center. They begin Coral with a Brian Eno-esque haze and then gradually move en masse to break it up with increasingly flickering textures, lingering, spacious Adam O’Farrill trumpet solos and a groove that could be Isaac Hayes on mushrooms.

And It Rolled Right Down is an amusingly cuisinarted mix of New Orleans-flavored riffs, with an ending that’s too funny to give away. With its echoey/blippy dichotomy, the massed improvisation Foggy Valley is aptly titled. The group close with the album’s longest epic, Reverses, a close-harmonied march from the horns over a spare, wary three-chord piano figure. Then the band echo it as a slowly syncopated pulse returns in the background, down to a moody Adam O’Farrill break and then up to an irresistibly stampeding payoff: it’s the most intricate and beefiest of all the tracks here.

The record also includes a couple of casual, playful two-sax conversations to break up the tracks. An original and judicious triumph for a group who also include saxophonists Jay Rattman, Adam Schneit and Lisa Parrott:; trumpeters John Lake, Jake Henry and Kenny Warren: trombonists Tim Vaughn, Nick Grinder. Jen Baker anad Reginald Chapman; bassist Adam Hopkins and drummer Jeff Davis.

A Historic, Hard-Hitting New Album From the Radam Schwartz Organ Big Band

The new album by the Radam Schwartz Organ Big Band, Message From Groove and GW – streaming at Spotify – is the first-ever big band jazz release where the organist plays all the basslines. Dr. Lonnie Smith does that with his Octet, but they’re only eight guys in a world of even larger sounds. Historically, there have been very few big bands with an organ to begin with: Jimmy Smith with Oliver Nelson, and the mighty Eight Cylinder Bigband, to name a couple.

Here, Schwartz decides to walk the lows briskly all by himself, joined by the Abel Mireles’ Jazz Exchange Orchestra in a mix of imaginatively rearranged covers and originals. This isn’t just esoterica for B3 diehards: this is a rare example of gritty gutbucket organ jazz beefed up with bright, hefty horn harmonies, rather than a big band that happens to have an organ as a solo instrument.

Schwarz takes considerable inspiration from Richard “Groove” Holmes’ work with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, notably two cuts on their album where Holmes took over the basslines. Schwartz opens his record with an original, Trouble Just Won’t Go Away, a brisk, catchy swing tune with punchy solos from throughout the group.

The band remake Coltrane’s Blues Minor with an ominous bluster anchored by the low brass, alto saxophonist Danny Raycraft’s solo setting up a searing, cascading one from the bandleader. The Aretha Franklin hit Ain’t No Way gets reinvented as a stampede with jaunty solos from trumpeter Ted Chubb, tenor saxophonist Gene Ghee and guitarist Charlie Sigler.

Dig You Like Crazy, another Schwartz original, has bustling, vintage Basie-style horns, with terse solos from Chubb, saxophonist Anthony Ware and then the organ. What to Do, a catchy Mireles tune, is more of an early 60s-style postbop number turbocharged with brass and organ, drummer David F. Gibson raising the energy very subtly at the end.

They do the Isley Bros.’ Between the Sheets as muted, pillowy funk, with slit-eyed solos from Sigler and Ware. Baritone saxophonist Ben Kovacs, trumpeter Ben Hankle and trombonist Andrae Murchison smoke and sputter and soar in Schwartz’s tightly clustering, bluesy title track.

Trombonist Peter Lin’s moodily shifting, latin-tinged A Path to Understanding features an ebullient solo from trumpeter Lee Hogans handing off to the composer’s lowdown turn out front, then the bandleader’s spirals and rapidfire triplets.

Schwartz charges into his epically swaying arrangement of the Mingus classic Work Song, Hankle contributing a hauntingly rustic muted solo echoed by Murchison, Ware and then the organ taking the energy to redline. Likewise, the brass – which also includes trumpeter James Cage – kick in hard. It’s the album’s big stunner. They wind up the record with a benedictory composition by Bach. Leave it to an organist to go for baroque at the end.

Troubled, Intertwining Atmospherics in Trumpeter Nate Wooley’s Latest Seven Storey Mountain Installment

Trumpeter Nate Wooley’s ongoing Seven Storey Mountain project has a new sixth edition available and streaming at Bandcamp. It’s nothing like anything else in the series: haunting, often chaotic and even downright macabre in places. Although it was recorded prior to the lockdown, it uncannily seems to prefigure what the world has suffered this year.

The single 45-minute work begins with allusions to Renaissance polyphony fueled by the slightly off-key violins of C. Spencer Yeh and Samara Lubelski. Met by droning washes of harmonies from Susan Alcorn’s pedal steel, the atmosphere grows more ominous, Emily Manzo’s spare piano building funereal ambience.

Isabelle O’Connor’s similarly minimalist Rhodes piano enters the picture and suddenly a disorientingly syncopated clockwork interweave appears, with the flutters from drummers Chris Corsano, Ryan Sawyer and Ben Hall. From there it grows even loopier, circular riffs and nebulous atmospherics filtering through the mix in the vein of a contemporary, electronically-enhanced horror film score. It’s here that Wooley’s agitated, echoey lines first appear through the sonic thicket.

Sirening violins, broodingly steady Rhodes chords and a kaleidoscope of flickering noise ensue. It’s not clear where or even whether guitarists Ava Mendoza or Julien Desprez join in, or whether those scrapes which could be guitar strings are coming from the percussion section, until finally an icy, squalling patch played through an analog chorus pedal. It’s probably Mendoza but maybe not.

Drums and guitars and who knows what else reach a terrorized Brandon Seabrook-like stampede as the band hit fever pitch. The group bring it full circle with what seems to be a twisted parody of an organ prelude and a baroque chorale: the final mantra is “You can’t scare me.” This is by far the darkest, most psychedelic, and ultimately most assaultive segment in Wooley’s series yet, perhaps an inevitability considering the state of the world in 2020.

Shapeshiftingly Electrifying Indian-Inspired Big Band Jazz by the Modern Art Orchestra

Irrepressible, paradigm-shifting Hungarian ensemble the Modern Art Orchestra‘s latest album is an electrifying blend of Indian music and big band jazz. Bandleader and trumpeter Kornél Fekete-Kovács’ epic 21-track suite Foundations – Yamas and Niyamas is streaming at Spotify. One of his primary intentions in creating this was to demystify current-day Western cliches relating to yoga, as well as underscore the meditative commonalities shared by yoga practice and musical improvisation.

Throughout the suite, dramatically forceful passages contrast with hypnotic ambience, livened with trippy electronics, spoken word, Márton Fenyvesi’s spare acoustic guitar and Veronika Harcsa’s impassioned, usually English-language vocals. The Brooklyn Raga Massive‘s similarly vast reinterpretations of John Coltrane classics are a good point of comparison, although this is the reverse image of that group’s work, Indian music through the prism of jazz rather than jazz themes played as ragas. And this is typically much more energetic.

The band open the suite with a morning prayer tableau, a steady, suspenseful drone that rises with big swells and ripples from throughout the instruments. As a portrait of ahimsa – the concept of nonvolence – a series of fluttering, circling, aggressive riffs gives way to calm. The bandleader provides a warmly triumphant intro, echoed by soprano saxophonist Kristóf Bacsó’s optimistic, sailing lines over a lush, luminous backdrop in their exploration of satya (truthfulness).

A delicious bass trombone loop foreshadows an utterly surreal jazz poetry piece featuring the starry pianos of Béla Szakcsi Lakatos and Gábor Cseke. János Ávéd’s bluesy bansuri flute solo, as the majesty behind him decays to rapt stillness to close the first disc, is one of the album’s high points.

The second disc begins with a contrast between sparse calm and barely controlled mass chaos, Áron Komjáti’s acoustic guitar a centering point. There’s no shortage of irony in how Bacsó and Harcsa channel trippy contentment in the album’s iciest, most echoey interlude.

Circling, tense Darcy James Argue-like phrases intertwine as the atmosphere grows even more hypnotic but energetic. Fekete-Kovács delivers his most lyrical, overtly Indian-tinged solo as the band waft their way into Tapas (referring to the yogic concept of self-discipline rather than Spanish snacks). From there János Ávéd’s ebullient, dynamic tenor sax makes a bridge to brooding svadhana (i.e. introspection). The group wind up the album with Fekete-Kovács’s muted trumpet drifting through the mist and then a benedictory jazz waltz sung by Harcsa.

A Long Overdue New Live Album From Tom Csatari’s Drifting, Haunting, Maddening, Defiantly Individualistic Uncivilized Big Band

Back in 2016, this blog characterized guitarist Tom Csatari’s Uncivilized as a “tectonically shifting ten-piece ‘drone-jazz orchestra.’“ They earned a glowing New York Times review for a show at a short-lived Bushwick strip club. That gig also earned them a listing here on what was then a monthly concert calendar. Nobody from this blog ended up going.

The prolific bandleader’s compositions fall into a netherworld of film noir themes, bittersweet Bill Frisell pastoral jazz, the Grateful Dead at their dark early 80s peak and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. During the band’s long, mostly-monthly Barbes residency, they played several cover nights. Chico Hamilton night was shockingly trad and tight. It would have been fun to see what they did with John Fahey. The best of them all was Twin Peaks night in October 2017, where they played Angelo Badalamenti’s David Lynch film scores. The group’s transcendently haphazard take on that iconic noir repertoire was captured on the live album Uncivilized Plays Peaks.

They also released another, considerably shorter record as a salute to five separate music venues which were shuttered during the pandemic of gentrification that devastated this city right up until the lockdown. Their latest live album, Garden, is streaming at Bandcamp.

The title seems to stem (sorry, awful pun) from the fact that the tracklist matches the setlist they played at another killer show, outdoors at Pioneer Works in late summer 2018 with guest Jaimie Branch being her usual extrovert self on trumpet. There’s some of that show here along with material captured at various venues, including the Barbes residency.

Csatari’s arrangements span the sonic spectrum in a vast Gil Evans vein, Tristan Cooley’s upwardsly fluttering flute often engaged on the low end by Nick Jozwiak’s slinky bass and Casey Berman’s solid bass clarinet. A series of fleeting modal interludes separate the individual themes here, many of which are barely a minute long: fades and splices are usually subtle but inevitably obvious. Colorful, imperturbable drummer Rachel Housle is the Casey Jones who manages to keep this ramshackle train on the rails – barely.

Levon Henry’s alto sax bubbles and sails alongside Luther Wong’s trumpet, Dominick Mekky’s transistor organ ranging from spacy ambience to ripples and washes. Csatari tends to fling low-key but persistently uneasy chordlets and jangly riffs into the ether, Julian Cubillos typically carrying the harder-edged guitar lines, although the two sometimes switch roles.

Henry provides shivery ambience in a brief portion of Pink Room, from the Twin Peaks soundtrack. They segue into a starry, pulsing take of Csatari’s Melted Candy and soon edge their way to a slowly coalescing, genuinely joyous crescendo in the Twin Peaks title theme. You might think that joy would be completely out of place in that context but it isn’t.

Csatari’s Rowlings – in several parts – makes an optimistic, soul-infused segue. Likewise, the take of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock rises from a brief, broodingly sway to a triumphant country-soul anthem. The coda is Evil, deviously quoting at length from Paul McCartney: if we ever get out of here!

If this is the last album the band ever release – and it could be, since the lockdowners are hell-bent on destroying music and the arts – they went out with a bang. On the other hand, if we destroy the lockdowners, music like this will flourish. It’s a no-brainer: Microsoft, or Tom Csatari’s Unciviiized. At this point in history, we can’t have both.

Be aware that you need to make a playlist out of this to enjoy it as a full-length album. Otherwise, constantly having to reach for the play button in between these often very short tracks is like driving a loaded tractor-trailer along a steep mountain road, distracted by the need to double-clutch and downshift.

The Data Lords Are No Match For the Rest of Us in Maria Schneider’s Visionary Magnum Opus

Imagine what Hitler could have done if Facebook and Instagram had existed in 1938. There wouldn’t have been a single Jew or Romany person left alive in Europe. Or any musicians, artists, writers, or member of the intelligentsia.

All genuine art is transgressive. And fascists don’t like people who disobey.

There are a lot of little Hitlers working for the Trace and Track Corps right now who are datamining Facebook, Instagram, and every other digital platform including private phones.

You do the math.

So it’s kind of a miracle that Maria Schneider has been able to release her new album Data Lords in the year of the lockdown. In a career where she’s been widely acknowledged as the foremost jazz composer since the 1990s, this is a magnum opus, her bravest and most musically ambitious release yet. And it ends optimistically. As Schneider sees it, the people – and the animals, and the lakes and the trees – are going to win this war.

It’s a double album, the first titled The Digital World, the second Our Natural World. Schneider grew up in Minnesota, an outdoorsy kid whose love and advocacy for nature remains a persistent theme throughout her work. That resonates more strongly than ever on the second disc.

The first is protest music on the highest level of artistic expression, with Shostakovian irony and defiant Mingus humor. Improvisation seems to play an even greater role than ever in Schneider’s work here, and her brilliant ensemble attack it with reckless abandon and attention to the most minute details. It would take a book to dissect each of these pieces.

The opening number is A World Lost. Reduced to lowest terms, it’s basically a one-chord jam. From Frank Kimbrough’s elegaic, modally circling piano and Jay Anderson’s somber bowed bass, drummer Johnathan Blake adds mutedly shamanistic color. The orchestra develops a chromatic menace anchored by the low reeds, Rich Perry’s hopeful, defiant tenor sax pulsing through what could be groupthink. Anderson signals a rise to a fullscale conflagration; Perry’s tumble out of the sky, shadowed by guitarist Ben Monder’s atmospheric lines, is one of the most stunning moments on the album. Is this a portrait of the innate feebleness of the data lords, whose machines have not liberated but disempowered them? Or is this the failure of the world to realize the sinister implications of digital media?

The sarcasm in Don’t Be Evil – you know, the Google motto – is savage to the extreme. The quirky intro hints that these dorks couldn’t hurt a fly – but wait! A folksy caricature grows more macabre, with stabbing horns and a spastic, tormented guitar solo as a marching lockstep develops. Trombonist Ryan Keberle plays momentary voice of reason, Kimbrough the gleefully evil architect of an empire of spies with his phantasmagorical ripples. This might be the best song Schneider ever wrote.

Although CQ CQ Is There Anybody There predates the lockdown, it could be a portrait of what Del Bigtree calls the “illuminati of clowns” behind it. This one’s particularly creepy. There’s a persistent rubato feel to a large proportion of this disc, and this song is a prime example, from acidically swooping atmospherics and a descent into the murk with guitar lurking just overhead. Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin provides ebullient contrast over the growl as Blake builds wave motion, then trumpeter Greg Gisbert and his pedal become a one-man cheer section for impending doom as the orchestra fall in and out of sync, until his shriek signals complete control. Those masks will never come off again.

Scott Robinson channels a vast range of emotions on baritone sax, from burbling contentedness to valve-ripping extended technique throughout Sputnik. Kimbrough introduces it somberly, then it becomes a contented deep-space theme. The way Schneider weaves the initial disquiet back in is nothing short of brilliant; the group bring it full circle. A 5G parable, maybe?

The album’s title track and centerpiece has a cold vindictiveness, from the glitchy electronic sarcasm of the intro, through an anxious flutter of individual voices as Blake circles his kit. Trumpeter Mike Rodriguez chooses his spots over a grim vamp, offers a guarded optimism but finally grows frantic. Could alto saxophonist Dave Pietro’s menacing chromatics and wobbly microtones over Kimbrough’s tinkle be a cartoonish take on a Bill Gates type?  When everything completely and abruptly falls apart, leaving only glitches behind, Schneider leaves no doubt that the data lords are doomed – and as the rest of the record attests, there are better things ahead.

Our Natural World begins with Sanzenin, a steady, calmly pulsing anthem which could be a largescale Claudia Quintet piece with Gary Versace’s terse accordion at the center. Steve Wilson’s coy blippy soprano sax is joined by warmly rippling piano, followed by whimsical conversation between accordion and sax in the carefree Stone Song, a rubato samba with lots of quick staccato bursts from everybody

Kimbrough’s glistening, incisive chords introduce Look Up, trombonist Marshall Gilkes echoing that bright lyricism throughout several solos. Gospel allusions from the piano filter through the orchestra’s lustre: Schneider’s signature colors shine especially in the inventive harmonies between low and high brass. There’s a jaunty son jarocho bounce as it moves along, Versace’s accordion coming to the forefront once more.

Braided Together, the album’s shortest number, is a lustrously triumphant, anthemically pulsing pastoral jazz vehicle for fondly soaring alto from Pietro. Bluebird, the most epic track here, is a throwback to Schneider’s Concert in the Garden days, with Gil Evans sweep and expanse, a muscular rhythmic drive, Kimbrough fueling the upward climb. The rhythm section channel the Meters behind Wilson’s jubilant, blues-tinged alto sax; Versace leaps and spins like a seal in the water. The orchestra reach a blazing peak and then shuffle down to a fadeout

The Sun Waited For Me makes a benedictory coda, glistening highs mingling with burnished lows. Eventually, a soulful, increasingly funky ballad emerges,  McCaslin’s tenor ratcheting up the energy. A career highlight from a group that also includes trumpeters Tony Kadleck and Nadje Nordhuis, trombonist Keith O’Quinn, and George Flynn on the bass trombone.

As you would expect, the web abounds with live performances from Schneider’s rich catalog; at present, this is not one of them. Schneider has had a long-running beef with youtube, and considering what’s happened this year, who can blame her. This is a treasure worth waiting for when it comes out on vinyl. 

A Triumphant Protest Jazz Suite Celebrates a Landmark Arkansas Victory on the Long Road Toward Equality

Pianist Christopher Parker and singer Kelley Hurt initially conceived of their epic No Tears Suite  – streaming at Bandcamp – to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Little Rock Nine’s landmark victory over racism in public education. Taking their title from Melba Pattillo Beals’ memoir of the standoff, Warriors Don’t Cry, it blends spoken word, darkly lyrical jazz, some fascinating and troubling history, and a lavish Rufus Reid orchestral score.

The album comprises both the original septet arrangement, followed by a live large-ensemble version of the suite featuring the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. The initial overture begins with a series of wavelike variations, trumpeter Marc Franklin’s ambered lines over Parker’s ripples and foreshadowing: Wadada Leo Smith’s large-ensemble themes on the Ten Freedom Summers album are an obvious point of comparison.

Hurt enters over Parker’s darkly glittering phrases as the rhythm picks up, offering some historical background: the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the infamous deployment of the National Guard by racist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, and President Eisenhower’s final decision to provide a US Army escort so the students could finally start high school, almost a month late.

Parker opens To Be a Kid solo, rather somberly. As a jazz waltz develops, the music grows more carefree, with rather wistful horns over bassist Bill Huntington and drummer Brian Blade’s light-fingered groove, Franklin joined by Bobby LaVell on tenor sax and Chad Fowler on alto. The stark, rustic gospel quotes at the end leave no doubt that trouble is looming,

The band build slow, somber, rubato atmosphere as Roll Call gets underway, Hurt providing biographical background on each of the Little Rock Nine along with some of those who fought alongside them. The struggles these kids faced getting into the school were far from over: most of them soon moved away after Little Rock Central High closed down the following school year.

Don’t Cry (Warrior’s Song) blends a stern, Mingus-influenced swing with allusively gospel-inflected insistence and a regal, hard-hitting Parker solo, Hurt’s expressive mezzo-soprano resolute and understated. 

The September, 1957 crisis is over in two minutes of frantic bustle: Parker and Hurt can’t wait to Jubilate, reprising the waltz theme with gruffly joyous tenor sax, circling trumpet, bitingly modal piano and a summery, vampy, latin-tinged conclusion.

The orchestral version of the suite –  also available with the DVD and cd as a a digital-only component – is as titanic as you could hope for, yet remarkably subtle. Often it seems to be more of a piano concerto where the orchestra are engaged in frequent and unusually interesting ways. Some solos get switched out for dynamically shifting, artfully textured strings and brass. Delicious details abound: menacing bowed basses in the overture; Fowler jumping out of his shoes in To Be a Kid; LaVell closely shadowing Hurt’s narration in Roll Call. And Hurt goes off script for one of the suite’s most telling moments: “Bodies can be buried, but not the past,” she advises.

This album has special resonance this year as public education in many parts of the country continues to melt down. On one hand, tens of millions of students are celebrating. More often than not, compulsory education in this country was a waiting room for the prison-industrial complex, plagued by violence, sadistic regimentation and a curriculum built around conformist propaganda.

On the other, what’s going to happen to the motivated minority of students whose interest in learning hasn’t been crushed by the system? And where are those who inspired them going to teach? Even in the worst public schools, there were always a handful of heroes whose classrooms were an oasis of inspiration, a refuge from the battle raging outside. Anybody who thinks that American kids are going to put in ten hours of screen time, five days a week to watch some robot teach the test is living in an alternate universe.

Colorful, Entertaining Reinventions of Famous Classical Themes From the Mike Fahie Jazz Orchestra

The Mike Fahie Jazz Orchestra‘s new album Urban(e) – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most genuinely orchestral jazz records ever made. On one level, it’s all about imaginative, outside-the-box arranging and playing. On another, it’s part of a long tradition of musicians appropriating tunes from every style imaginable: Bach writing variations on country dances; southern preachers making hymns out of old blues songs; the Electric Light Orchestra making surf rock out of a Grieg piano concerto. Here, Fahie takes a bunch of mostly-famous classical themes to places most people would never dare. It’s closer to ELO than, say, the NY Philharmonic.

Is this hubristic? Sure. Fahie addresses that issue in the album’s liner notes, assuring listeners he’s tried to be true to the intrinsic mood of each particular piece. The group’s reinvention of the third movement from Bartok’s String Quartet No. 1 – from when the composer was still more or less a Late Romantic – is a trip. Guitarist Jeff Miles gets to have fun with a few savage flares before Fahie makes chugging art-punk out of it, trombonist Daniel Linden’s blitheness offering no hint of how much further out the group are going to from there, through Vegas noir, a deliciously sinister Brad Mason trumpet solo, and more. It’s fun beyond belief.

To open the record, the group tackle Chopin’s iconic C minor prelude, beginning with a somber, massed lustre, bassist Pedro Giraudo and pianist Randy Ingram offering the first hints of revelry, Miles adding a word of caution. From there Fahie expands the harmonies many times over and the group make a latin-tinged romp out of it.

Tenor saxophonist Chet Doxas steps into the aria role in an easygoing remake of a piece from Puccini’s opera. There’s plenty of tasty suspense as Fahie’s epic suite of themes from Stravinsky’s Firebird coalesces from lush swells and glittery piano, through more carefree terrain, to a pensive yet technically daunting duet between the bandleader’s euphonium and Jennifer Wharton’s tuba.

Hearing Fahie play the opening riff from Debussy’s La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin on trombone is a revelation: that’s Pictures at an Exhibition! So much for musical appropriation, right? The rest of Fahie’s punchy, lustrous arrangement comes across as vintage, orchestral Moody Blues with brass instead of mellotron.

Fahie turns the second movement from Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony into a jaunty Swan Lake set piece, with a wistful solo from alto sax player Aaron Irwin and a more sobering one from trombonist Nick Grinder.

The group close the record with a lavish, nocturnal take of a brooding section of Bach’s Cantata, BWV 21. The theme is basically “troubles, troubles, troubles” – from Fahie’s clear-eyed opening solo, the counterpoint grows more envelopingly somber, up to some neat rhythmic inventions and a return back. This inspired cast also includes saxophonists Anton Denner, Quinsin Nachoff and Carl Maraghi; trumpeters Brian Pareschi, David Smith and Sam Hoyt; tombonist Matthew McDonald and drummer Jeff Davis.