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Tag: big band jazz

The Todd Marcus Orchestra Play a Riveting, Epic Set at Smalls

Last night Smalls was packed for the New York debut of the Todd Marcus Orchestra’s new Middle Eastern jazz suite In the Valley. Much as the band onstage was cooking, these people had come to listen. Bass clarinetist and bandleader Marcus gets a mighty sound, bigger than you would expect from a nine-piece outfit. Part of that stems from Marcus’ use of the whole sonic spectrum, Gil Evans-style. The other is how much gravitas he builds in the lows, best exemplified by the punchy contrapuntal interweave during the first set’s towering final number, Horus, Marcus teaming up with trombonist Alan Ferber against the highs: Troy Roberts’ tenor sax, Brent Birckhead’s alto and Alex Norris’ trumpet, pianist Xavier Davis hitting the midrange hard.

Marcus’ compositions draw a pretty obvious comparison to Amir ElSaffar’s work. But Marcus relies more on chromatics than distinctly microtonal melodies, and typically employs the traditional jazz model featuring individual soloists instead of pairings of musicians or seesawing between contrasting frequencies. And as formidable as Marcus’ orchestra is, it’s smaller than ElSaffar’s current huge ensemble: if ElSaffar is the Red Sea, Marcus is the Nile.

Marcus’ heritage is Egyptian, and the suite draws heavily on his recent travels there. The group opened with the towering, cinematically suspenseful, chromatically pulsing title track, inspired by the Valley of Kings, featuring long, methodically crescendoing solos from Norris and Roberts. The night’s most colorful number was Cairo Street Ride, a depiction of a crazy cab negotiating what Marcus called “controlled chaos.” Rising from a bustling thicket of voices, the music straightened out with a jaunty bounce and eventually an irresistibly funny interlude where the cab’s engine revs up, then the driver shifting through the gearbox. People still drive stickshift in Egypt!

Ferber got to add some wry, Wycliffe-style humor of his own in the next tune, The Hive, the bandleader finally adding a rapidfire, spiraling solo of his own over the band’s lustre. The brooding ballad Final Days built artful variations on a somber stairstepping riff anchored by Jeff Reed’s bass. And the closing epic was a real showstopper. Drummer Eric Kennedy took a regally tumbling solo against Davis’ eerily circling piano loops as it gained momentum, Marcus launching into the most wildly gritty, intense solo of the night before the jousting at the end kicked in. Chamber Music America, who commissioned this piece, got plenty of bang for the buck. And that was just the first set.

You’ll see this on the best concerts of 2017 page here later this month.

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Revisiting Some Classics by Mingus and His Many Advocates

Trombonist Ku’Umba Frank Lacy is a mainstay of the New York jazz scene, with a list of recording and touring credits a mile long as a both a bandleader and sideman. His Live at Smalls album, a red-hot straight-up postbop sextet date at the well-loved West Village basement spot, got a big thumbs-up here in 2014. And as big band fans know, Lacy is also an excellent singer with a distinctively gritty, dynamic low register. New Yorkers have at least three chances to catch him over the next week or so. He’s leading his own group on Dec 5 at 10:30 PM at Smalls, their usual haunt; cover is $20. In addition, he’ll be with the Mingus Big Band at the weekly Monday night Mingus ensembles’ residency at the Jazz Standard on Nov 27 and Dec 4, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $25

Lacy’s latest album with the Mingus Big Band, Mingus Sings – streaming at Spotify – is his star turn in the studio with the group. Although Charles Mingus’ music pretty much speaks for itself, he was an underrated wordsmith, and there are four tracks here representing his poetic side, along with others by Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, and a rarity  by his widow and longtime champion Sue Mingus.

Interestingly, Lacy doesn’t play on this record, although the band otherwise is as much of an allstar outfit as it always its, comprising trumpeters Alex Norris, Jack Walrath and the late Lew Soloff; trombonists Coleman Hughes, Conrad Herwig and Earl McIntyre; saxophonists Craig Handy, Wayne Escoffery, Alex Foster, Ronnie Cuber, Abraham Burton and Brandon Wright; bassists Boris Kozlov and Mike Richmond; pianists David Kikoski and Helen Sung, and drummer Donald Edwards.

The material spans the iconic composer’s career, from bustling swing to haunting third-stream epics. Lacy narrates Langston Hughes’ poetic commentary over slowly swaying lustre and then fingerpopping swing in Consider Me, a pensive Stormy Monday-inspired first-person commentary on black empowerment. Clearly, not much has changed in sixty years.

Dizzy Profile, part elegant waltz, part brisk swing, is a mighty, knowing reminder of how much controversy the pioneers of hard bop faced; again, somewhat ironically, it’s Coleman Hughes who gets to take a sagacious trombone solo instead of Lacy.

Weird Nightmare, as you would expect, is one of the real standouts on the album: Lacy holds back to let Mingus’ angst and longing really resonate while the band builds an eerily surreal backdrop. Portrait comes across as quite a contrast between the lyrics and the regal, almost somber quality of the music, animated by solos from Walrath and Handy. Another stunner, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat – with the first of the Joni Mitchell lyrics – is awash in grim, close harmonies, introduced by a gently plaintive Kikoski piano solo, Handy contributing a pensive, achingly angst-fueled alto solo.

Sweet Sucker Dance – from Mingus and Mitchell’s 1979 collaboration – has an infinitely more purist, epic sweep compared to the original and really does justice to Mitchell’s bittersweet, detailed character study. Likewise, Lacy digs in and wraps his tongue around Invisible Lady’s torrents of Elvis Costello noir iconography over murderous, tense  harmonies and nonstop, shadowy urban bustle: it’s the rare resurrection of a classic where the new lyrical dimension isn’t hopelessly ponderous.

Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love, which Mingus did write all by himself, is surprisingly restrained here: Cuber blows some purist blues spirals and Lacy saves his biggest melismatic moment for this one. Contrastingly, Dry Cleaner From Des Moines has a jaunty rumble to match Mitchell’s surreal beatnik narrative.

Noonlight – the one real obscurity here, posthumously discovered along with the scores for Mingus’ magnum opus, Epitaph – gets its lyrics and title from Sue Mingus. It turns out to be a saturnine-tinged but catchy and ultimately cheery ballad, shifting matter-ofl-factly between meters.

Mitchell’s lowdown vernacular and imperturbable narrative fit seamlessly with Chair in the Sky, with its sly bluesiness and unstoppable upward trajectory  – and Lacy has a ball matching its unhinged exuberance. Eclipse, the final number with Mingus’ words and music, is typically symphonic, a study in contrasts, slinky latin ballad morphing into towering anthem, Foster’s flute nailing both when the time comes. The final track is the second-line strut Jelly Roll, with a Costello lyric to match. It’s a good bet that most Mingus diehards already have this album, or at least have it playlisted somewhere; if not, hell, why not now?

Lush, Epic, Hauntingly Cinematic Jazz from the Robert Sabin Dectet

Today’s Halloween album, streaming at Bandcamp, is Humanity Part II, released by bassist Robert Sabin and his dectet in 2015. The black-and-sepia cd packaging leaves no doubt about this lushly Lynchian musical reflection on the horrible things people do to each other There’s a dead woman lying in the woods on the front cover, silhouette of a guy going after his wife with an axe in the cd tray and a gloomy quote about loss and absence from Albert Camus’ La Peste on the inside cover flap.

These piece are epic – the shortest one is more than five minutes and the aptly titled concluding number, Leviathan, clocks in at almost eleven. The title track, a relentlessly enveloping rearrangement of Ennio Morricone’s theme to the John Carpenter film The Thing, opens the suite. Sabin’s bass and Jeremy Noller’s drums keep a calm, clenched-teeth suspense going beneath the band’s tectonically shifting sheets of sound, both tenor saxophonist Jason Rigby and guitarist Jesse Lewis reaching for postbop blitheness but quickly getting pulled down into the mist.

The ten-minute, Ingmar Bergman-inspired Through a Glass Darkly builds morosely out of a brooding guitar vamp. Ben Stapp proves that there can be noir hidden deep in the valves of a tuba, Rigby follows with a long, vividly downcast, smoke-tinted solo of his own and Sabin’s top-to-bottom, Gil Evans-like orchestration is deliciously uneasy. As is the way the guitar, then the bass, then the whole ensemble stalk Noller’s drum solo and make a carnivalesque mambo out of it. Gato Loco ought to cover this.

Sabin takes his inspiration for Scarecrow from the scene of a hanged man in the desert depicted in Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. A tensely circling bass theme and ambered, spacious horns lead to an enigmatic John Yao trombone solo as the band swings straightforwardly.

Ghost is a portrait of a house whose occupant has just died, a somber belltone pavane punctuated with artfully suspenseful use of space, moody horns leading to a pensive Rigby solo. Noller and Lewis team up for an allusively syncopated latin noir pulse, then back away.

Tenebre, inspired by Dario Argento’s cult film, opens with moodily circling syncopation, alto saxophonist Aaron Irwn and trumpet Matt Holman reaching to poke a hole in the grey clouds overhead. The bandleader’s solo swings morosely and then stalks as Leviathan rises from the depths toward macabrely cinematic heights, Irwin offering a sardonically contented wee-hours solo, a crowded club full of unsuspecting victims. Then Lewis hits his distortion pedal and bares his fangs! As the credits roll at the end, the monster gets away to ensure that there will be a sequel – we can hope, anyway.

One of the most lustrously dark and troubled albums of recent years, this could be the great lost Gil Evans record, or the soundtrack to a cosmopolitan David Lynch thriller yet to be made.

The Jazzrausch Bigband Rock Lincoln Center in Their US Debut

“Who here has heard German techno big band jazz before? This is a first for me!” Lincoln Center impresario Meera Dugal grinned. “The second you hear this music, you’re going to want to get up and dance.”

Watching Munich’s Jazzrausch Bigband in their US debut last evening at Lincoln Center had the effect composer Leonhard Kuhn was shooting for: “rausch” means “drunk.” Standing behind his Macbook and bass synth, head bobbing like a turtle crossing the autobahn, he and his seventeen-piece outfit validated their reputation as one of the world’s most  distinctive and adrenalizing dance outfits.

What was shocking, and gloriously refreshing right from the first hammerhead beats of Marco Dufner’s kickdrum, was that this band swings. Which completely sets them apart from the machines and the would-be cyborgs who man them. At first the crowd didn’t know what to make of the band. “Why don’t you get up and party with us?” trombonist/bandleader Roman Sladek encouraged. Watching this massive outfit, the brass and reeds running the same motorik loop and then clever variations on it throughout their opening number, Moebius Strip was genuinely breathtaking: imagine the amount of practice that requires. Singers Patricia Roemer and guest Sara McDonald harmonized about being taken to the other side, Kuhn having fun mixing their vocals dubwise at the end.

Sladek also had the turtlehead thing going even when he was playing, through the relentlessly pulsing second number in lockstep with Kevin Welch’s piano and Maximilian Hirning’s bass. The Euclidean Trip Through Paintings by Escher (that’s the title) was a clinic in how to make odd meters not only look easy, but to get America kids to dance to them, propelled by an endless bass loop and peaking midway through with guitarist Heinrich Wulff’s steady, echoey pace down the runway to a final liftoff.

Welch took over the mic as the brass swelled and faded behind him, the band’s two tenor saxophonists taking kinetic tag-team solos, followed eventually by a gruff, wildly applauded baritone sax solo from Florian Leuschner that elevated the song above the level of generic 70s disco. By now the crowd had gotten over their shyness and were out on the floor.

Kuhn’s blippy electro beats, Sladek’s tight blasts and Jutta Keess’ similarly forceful low-register tuba propelled Jesus Christ Version 2.0: trumpeter Angela Avetisyan’s purist bluesy phrasing and blazing postbop trills in this context were a trip, to say the least. As the song unwound, alto saxophonist Daniel Klingl took an animated turn centerstage, Roemer’s disembodied vocals hovering as the rhythm section pedaled themselves to a big crescendo…and then shifted gears when the two singers pulled the harmonies together again.

Uneasy echo effects between the two singers, big brass swells, an elephantine bass solo and finally a welcome detour into Afrobeat were next on the bill. If the epic, surprisingly subtly shapeshifting Dancing Wittgenstein –  not as bizarre a concept as some might think – is to be believed, the philosopher liked polyrhythms and minor-key vamps. McDonald bookended it with deadpan readings about – this is a paraphrase – how to achieve genuine lucidity. The group closed with the gargantuan Punkt und Linie zur Flaeche (Point and Line to the Area), Avetisyan channeling a high-voltage ghost with her airy phrases over the endless thump-thump, flitting voices from throughout the group filtering into the mix to max out the psychedelic impact.

If this is the future of EDM, it’s this band’s ODM that’s going to replace it – that’s a big O for Organic. The Jazzrausch Bigband make their Brooklyn debut at the Good Room in Greenpoint with McDonald’s similarly epic, more eclectic NYChillharmonic. on Sept 6 at 8PMish; cover is $10. The two groups are also at the Sheen Center on Bleecker just off Bowery at 7:30 on Sept 8 with a dadrock band for twice that. 

A Sneak Peek at One of the Year’s Most Enticing Big Band Shows

It used to be that an artist never got a Lincoln Center gig until they were well established. That’s changed. These days, if you want to catch some of the world’s most exciting up-and-coming acts, Lincoln Center is the place to be. This August 31 at 7:30 PM the mighty, cinematic and wildly danceable Jazzrausch Bigband make their Lincoln Center debut at the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd Street. The show is free, so whether you want a seat or a spot on the dancefloor, getting there on time is always a good idea.

Some mystery surrounds this largescale German ensemble. There isn’t much about them on the web other than a Soundcloud page and a youtube channel, which is surprising, considering how individualistic, cutting-edge and irrepressibly fun they are. Like the NYChillharmonic – whose leader, Sara McDonald, has also sung with them – their instrumentation follows the standard big band jazz model. Stylistically, they’re all over the map.

A listen to four tracks from their forthcoming album reveals influences that range from current-day big band jazz to EDM, autobahn krautrock, indie classical and disco. The result is an organic dancefloor thud like a much more ornate Dawn of Midi or Moon Hooch. Much as these recordings are extremely tight, the band have a reputation for explosive live shows, with roots that trace all the way back to the raucous European anarchist street bands of the late 1800s.

The first album track that mysteriously made its way into the inbox here is the aptly titled Moebius Strip. Loopy, pinpoint syncopation from the reeds -Daniel Klingl, Raphael Huber, Moritz Stahl and Florian Leuschner – leads to a suspenseful pulse fueled by the low brass, and then they’re off onto a whoomp-whoomp groove. “It’s a weird strip,” intones soul-infused chanteuse Patricia Roemer; at the center, before the strutting crescendo peaks out, there’s a jaunty alto sax solo.

The ten-minute epic Punkt und Linie zur Flaeche (Point and Line to the Area) has a relentless motorik drive, cinematic flashes and flickers from throughout the orchestra and a deadpan hip-hop lyric. Moody muted trumpet and dancing saxes punctuate the mist as the band build a towering disco inferno: is that white noise from Kevin Welch’s synth, or the whole group breathing through their horns?

The Euclidean Trip Through Paintings by Escher brings back the loopy syncopation, with a playfully bouncy melody that could be a fully grown Snarky Puppy, trumpet shifting the theme into uneasier territory until they turn on a dime with a little New Orleans flair. The last of the tracks, Trust in Me, is another epic and the most traditionally jazz-oriented number. When’s the last time you heard a disco song that combined flavors like Henrich Wulff’s lingering Pink Floyd guitar,Marco Dufner’s sparkling chicha-flavored drums and stern faux hi-de-ho brass from trumpeters Angela Avetisyan and Julius Braun, trombonists Roman Sladek, and Carsten Fuss and tuba player Jutta Keess?

Looking Back and Forward to Some of the Most Electrifying Large Ensemble Shows in NYC

There are very few eighteen-piece groups in the world, let alone New York,  led by women. Even fewer of those bandleaders are singers. Here in Manhattan we have Brianna Thomas and Marianne Solivan, who have assembled their own big bands to back them from time to time. But they play mostly standards. Sara McDonald, who fronts the NYChillharmonic, writes some of the world’s catchiest yet most unpredictable music for large ensemble. Watching their show at Joe’s Pub back in May was akin to seeing a young Maria Schneider emerge from Gil Evans’ towering influence twenty years ago – not because McDonald’s music sounds anything like Schneider’s, but because it’s so distinctive and irresistibly fun. And the scariest thing of all is that McDonald still growing as a composer.

Over the last couple of years, she’s invented her own genre, and concretized it with equal amounts depth and surprise. The occasional lapse toward the corporate urban pop she may have been immersed in as a child is gone, replaced by a lavish sound with equal parts puckishness and gravitas. Radiohead is the obvious influence, but McDonald switches out icy techiness and relentless cynicism for a far more dynamic range of textures. Keeping a big band together that plays steadily for a month or two and then goes on hiatus as the band members do their own thing is a herculean task, especially as far as tightness is concerned, but this time out she’d whipped them into shape to nail the split-second changes – and there were a lot of them.

A NYChillharmonic show is best experienced as a whole. Ideas leap out, only to be subsumed in a distant supernova of brass, or a starry trail from the strings, or a calming, beachy wash from the reeds. Then that riff, in any number of clever disguises, will pop out later. McDonald works from the same playbook the best classical and film composers use, beginning with a simple singalong hook, embellishing it and then taking it to all sorts of interesting places. McDonald’s are more interesting than most. The lucky crew who got to go there this time out comprised Albert Baliwas, Brian Plautz, David Engelhard, Dean Buck and Eitan Gofman on saxes; trombonists Karl Lyden, Seth Weaver, Nathan Wood and Dillon Garret; trumpeters Rachel Therrien, Michael Sarian, Caleb McMahon and Chris Lucca; pianist Eitan Kenner, bassist Mike DeiCont, guitarist Steven Rogers and drummer Pat Agresta, plus a string quartet of Kiho Yutaka, Audrey Hayes, Jenna Sobolewski and Susan Mandel

Throughout the set, she and the group employed just as many subtle shifts as striking ones. Odd meters would filter to the bottom and then straighten out as the whole ensemble would enter over a pulsing quasi-canon from the brass or moodily loopy electric piano. More dramatically, the orchestra would drop down to just McDonald and the rhythm section, then leap back in at the end of a bar or when a chorus kicked in, such as there are choruses in her music – recurrent themes are everywhere, but never where you expect them.

On the mic, McDonald – who’s also grown immensely as a singer over the last several months – would vary her delivery depending on the song’s content, whether slyly coy, or uneasily insistent, or with one fullscale wail late in the set to illustrate some kind of apocalypse or at least a dramatic end to something good. Lately she’s been lending her voice to the even more enigmatically improvisational rock band Loosie. And she’s also been known to sing with the much crazier, high-voltage Jazzrausch Bigand, who are making their Lincoln Center debut this August 31 at 7:30 PM at the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. If you’re going, get there on time because it could get pretty wild.

A Rare Manhattan Show by the Fiery Cecilia Coleman Big Band

Here are some highlights from the Cecilia Coleman Big Band’s show last year at St. Peter’s Church in midtown. If they played another after that, the monthly concert calendar (just completed – whew) didn’t catch it. They’re back this Wednesday, May 31 at 1 PM for one of the lunchtime concerts there.

Coleman didn’t come up in a big band milieu, but she’s a natural. Her charts manage to be both trad and cutting-edge. Big punchy crescendos and a brassy, energic drive are persistent tropes in her book. She likes to throw caution to the wind and let the band rip, and she’s not averse to ripping either.

They kicked off that show with a brisk three-alarm if not five-alarm shuffle fueled by the bandleader’s enigmatically cascading, neoromantic-tinged piano, punctuated by big brassy accents. A tumbling drum solo kept the beat going steadily, the brass punching in again, then the group lept back into the bustling picture, just thisclose to frantic.

Lustrous Debussyesque high brass quasi-fanfare riffage contrasted with brooding lows as the next number got underway, a moody alto sax solo as the brass hammered the offbeat and the drums moved further toward the center. Then a trombone huffed and puffed, uneasily modal over an elusive, syncopated sway. They took it out with terse trumpet riffage that gave way to a big drum crescendo, the brass kicking in the door for good measure.

From there they flipped the script with an uneasy, richly lustrous, wistful theme, anchored by Coleman’s spare but resonant chords, a baritone sax solo soaring over the vamp as colors shifted through the orchestra, a prism spinning on a turntable, if you buy that analogy.

Rapidfire yet melancholy tenor sax opened the tune after that – i’ve Got You Under My Skin, maybe? – over just the rhythm section and dominated from there: memory and distance from the stage blur who it might have been, but those two solos were exquisite. Stairstepping chromatic foreshadowing and hard swing fueled the two songs that followed.

The set’s most epic number opened with a big ominous chromatic riff spiced with Coleman’s sparkly piano, then grew louder and more ominous, only to shift toward warmer balladry. then with a more tightly wound, angst-fueled edge. Spaciously energetic trumpet, trombone and then moodily modal alto sax took their turns over a syncopated sway

Coleman’s mighty, insistent brass arrangement of a stern minor-key gospel theme was breathtaking, a tensely incisive alto sax solo leading to an explosively joyous upward drive. There was other stuff in the set, but by now, you know the deal. Either you like this kind of exhilaration or you can’t handle it.

Hot Swing Jazz on a Cool Spring Night at Drom

A big ‘ooooh” went through the crowd when arranger/conductor David Berger announced Juan Tizol’s Casablanca, the noir cha-cha classic that turned out to be the high point of a dynamic opening set by his blazing Sultans of Swing Big Band at Drom last night. Berger is a founding member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: this gig, staged by the New York Hot Jazz Festival folks, gave him a chance to air out this stormy, allusively chromatic showstopper along with his other purist but inventive arrangements of swing tunes both popular and obscure.

Emcee Will Friedwald explained that everybody was there to celebrate the birthday of the “godfather of lindy hop,” Frankie Manning, the dance leader widely credited with springboarding the 90s swing revival here in Manhattan and around the world as well. Swing jazz was and will always be for dancers, but this was a concert for the listener too. There were at least as many people chlilling on the sidelines as there were on the floor, maybe more.

All evening, solos percolated throughout the band, individual members pairing off song by song until pretty much everybody got a few bars apiece. They kicked things off with a Mack the Knife-ish original that started out balmy, got brassy and then featured some neat syncopation between brass and reeds. A midtempo swing version of Happy Days Are Here Again, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s theme song, was next. “Maybe not,” Berger admitted. “Maybe later,” one of the sax section clarified.

Jelly Roll Morton’s Someday, Sweetheart had a jaunty Dan Block clarinet solo that gave way to suave trombone, and then Mark Hynes’ bubbling tenor sax. One of the clarinetists sang an opiated take of  Louis Jordan’s Knock Me a Kiss, lit up with another bustling Hynes tenor solo.

Berger explained away his stab at making swing jazz out the old early 1900s standard By the Light of the Silvery Moon as sarcastic: if a little tongue-in-cheek, it turned out to be fetching despite itself, with some pretty hip harmonies in the high reeds and brass, exchanges of bars throughout the band and a genial trombone solo. A little later they made a gorgeously lowlit, lush wee-hours swing ballad out of the old Scottish folk song Mighty Like a Rose, with a deliciously moody low brass arrangement: it turned into a dynamic feature for baritone sax.

Zoot Sims’ The Red Door got a lush snowstorm of drums, a brightly purposeful tenor sax solo and a bit of a bubbly one from bassist Jennifer Vincent – it was good to hear her amply amped in the mix, something that you can’t necessarily expect from the four string at a big band gig.

A breathtaking, uneasily carnivalesque take of Al Cohn’s Take Four was packed with brief, out-of-breath conversational phrases. A Neal Hefti number – “the swinginest chart ever,” Berger enthused – turned into a hopped-up vehicle for more baritone sax as well as the drums’ rolling, tumbling attack.

Then guest singer Hetty Kate, fresh off the plane from Australia, joined the band and launched into a coy, slinky take of Them There Eyes. She’s the real deal: she sings in character, every number different from the last one (you’d be surprised how many singers don’t do that), can bend a blue note any which way and make you smile or smirk or furrow your brow along with her.

You’re Too Marvelous for Words, with its simmering sophistication and surprisingly stark, bluesy trombone solo, contrasted with the bitingly brassy, sarcastic kissoff anthem A Fine Romance. And then channeled brittle hope and expectation in Louis Armstrong’s A Kiss to Build a Dream On. The band closed with an irrepressible dixieland flair.

The New York Hot Jazz Festival’s next big production is at Central Park Summerstage on July 1 starting at 5 PM with chanteuse Aurora Nealand, charming, female-fronted cosmopolitan swing crew Avalon Jazz Band and NYC’s arguably finest oldtime swing band Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks,

Haunting, Cinematic, Relevant State-of-the-Art Big Band Jazz from the Jihye Lee Orchestra

If tuneful, cinematic, vivid and distantly haunting big band jazz is up your alley, you should know that the Jihye Lee Orchestra are playing Symphony Space this Friday, April 14 at 8 PM. Cover is $25, which is reasonable for a Manhattan gig by a 20-piece ensemble. To give you an idea of what they’ll be playing, here’s what their gripping, picturesque debut album April Wind sounds like. It hasn’t made it to any of the usual places on the web yet, although half the tracks are up at Lee’s video page. 

The title track, which opens the six-part suite, begins with a rhythmless lustre and a distant sense of foreboding, the only place in the piece where that’s allowed to creep in. Sean Jones’ airy trumpet mingles with the bandleader’s wistful vocalese. Spare, carefree piano phrases from Alain Mallett mingle as the orchestra rises with brassy flair over an easygoing sway. A dancing rhythm comes to the forefront with an incisive piano solo. A casually spiraling Shannon LeClaire alto sax solo leads the ensemble in a return to gently swaying lushness.

John Lockwood’s tersely dancing bass hook opens the practically thirteen-minute epic Sewol Ho, then gives way to a bit of icy, chromatic piano and then an exchange of brass that picks up the melody. Suspense builds over an understated clave, a brooding call-and-response between brass and reeds that wouldn’t be out of place in the Chris Jentsch big band book. A minor sixth chord lingers, actual or implied, eventually edged out by uneasy close harmonies and then a seemingly free interlude pairing off spare, bubbling individual voices: trumpet, drums, bass, trombone each scrambling around in the waves. Rhythm returns with an ominous low-brass pulse underneath those voices: then the music literally slides down and out for a second. Then the bass clarinet leads a search party, more or less, over a bubbling, reedy groove that builds with considerable gravitas and shivery clarinet.

The way the piano and horns, then Lee’s voice paired with alto sax, mirror the previous number’s intro as Deep Blue Sea gets underway is especially artful. A carefree/foreboding dichotomy develops between highs and lows; again, the rhythm grows bouncier, this time on the wings of a gentle, smoke-tinted tenor sax solo. Lee takes the orchestra in a more ebullient, brass-fueled direction, then pauses and returns to a spare, moody piano-and-tenor interlude

Whirlwind begins over a brisk clave, cloudbanks of brass passing quickly overhead, punctuated by dynamic shifts, a piano solo bristling with icepick chords, and then a return to a brass-driven intensity. Building out of a spare piano phrase beneath emphatic horns, Guilty follows a martial beat up to Shostakovian, menacingly gavelling phrases that back away for a long, judicious Bruce Bartlett guitar solo, then a long, crushing coda that leaves no doubt what the verdict is. The final number is You, a slow ballad with a bright opening chart that backs away for a melancholy Jones flugelhorn solo and then brightens as the energy picks up. A series of pensive swells make way for a calmly lively Jones solo spot, then spring returns and everything is in bloom again.

Spoiler alert: if you want to find out for yourself what this is about, stop here, bookmark the page, give the album a spin or better yet, go see the show and then come back.

The backstory here is that Lee’s suite follows the narrative of the April, 2014 Sewol ferry disaster. More than three hundred passengers were killed when the vessel sank off the Korean coast. In Boston at the time, the Korean-born composer wrote much of the suite in the weeks that followed.

News reports on the disaster have been conflicted: what is apparent is that the ferry was overloaded, and many eyewitness accounts concur that the crew didn’t react immediately when it was obvious that the ship was in distress. The same thing happened over a hundred years ago north of Nova Scotia; an iceberg was involved that time. Nobody went to jail for that one. The owner of the Sewol was found dead, victim of foul play, a year after going on the run. That case also remains unsolved. 

A Lush, Epic Birthday Show by Richard Sussman’s Evolution Ensemble at Roulette

Tuesday night at Roulette, pianist Richard Sussman told the crowd that his nonet the Evolution Ensemble had played its signature composition, his Evolution Suite, maybe five or six times previously, and that this performance was the best of them all. It was his birthday, too. The lush, epic sweep and subtle humor of the performance more than validated the Chamber Music America grant responsible for it.

“I didn’t know I had something programmatic until I’d written it,” Sussman winkingly explained beforehand. Its five movements explore a creation myth, written mostly for piano, bass, drums and strings, with characteristically vivid, intuitive, lyrical solos and textural lustre from trumpeter/flugelhornist Tim Hagans and tenor saxophonist Rich Perry. The duo’s exuberantly intertwining counterpoint literally took the piece out on a high note: the ride there was just as much fun.

Austere fogbanks from the string quartet of violinists Mark Feldman and Mario Forte, violist Ron Lawrence and cellist Peter Sachon kicked off the first of Sussman’s uneasily glistening, spaciously Messiaenic passages that he expanded methodically. The first of Perry’s similarly considered, elegantly crescendoing solos handed off to Hagans, who put on a clinic in finding new and surprisingly subtle ways to color a long series of stairstepping upward and downward chromatic runs.

Since all the gods were tuckered out from creating an entire universe, it made sense that the suite’s second movement would have a balmy swing, in a Gil Evans/Miles Davis vein. Dreamily surrealistic piano ushered in a deep-space tableau spiced with microtonal strings, a drifting Perry solo, a balletesque interlude from bassist Mike Richmond and artful variations on a steady clave from drummer Clarence Penn, who would revisit that trope much more viscerally and impactfully later on.

A rather horror-stricken tritone riff set off the suite’s centerpiece, Nexus, and the chase was  on, with a darkly Mingue-esque bustle. A dancing violin solo from Forte heated the mix, Richmond’s black crude bubbles in stark contrast to Sussman’s starlit lines and the shivery string passage that finally fueled an enthusiastic clapalong from the crowd.

The fourth movement opened on an understatedly, portentous note, Penn’s dynamically nuanced and then explosive solo taking centerstage before the piece wound out on an unexpectedly jubilant tangent. Throughout the work, there were all sorts of wry accents: a wisp of a cymbal glissando from Penn; Sussman evincing resonance from the piano lid; and light electronic touches, some of which worked, some of which were superfluous. Wouldn’t it be even more fun if Sussman gets another commission to keep the saga going – maybe that could go in the other direction, an apocalyptic scenario or a cautionary tale at least.

Roulette may be home to some of this city’s most impressive indie classical and avant garde programming these days, but their roots are in jazz, dating back to the Tribeca loft scene of the early 80s. The next jazz show there is on March 20 at 8 PM with the Tomeka Reid Quartet featuring Jason Roebke, Tomas Fujiwara, and Mary Halvorson playing edgy cello jazz; advance tix are $20/$15 stud/srs.