New York Music Daily

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Tag: big band jazz

Lush, Kinetic, Imaginatively Purist New Big Band Jazz From Dan Pugach’s Nonet Plus One

How do you get the most bang for your buck, to make a handful of musicians sound like a whole orchestra? Composers and arrangers have been using every trick in the book to do that since the Middle Ages. One guy who’s particularly good at it is drummer/bandleader Dan Pugach, whose retro style harks back to the 60s and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band. Over the past couple of years, Pugach’s Nonet Plus One have refined that concept, gigging all over New York. They’re playing the album release show for their debut album tonight, May 18 at 10 PM at their usual hang, 55 Bar.

The opening track, Brooklyn Blues, is definitely bluesy, but with an irrepressible New Orleans flair. Pugach likes short solos to keep things tight and purposeful: tenor saxophonist Jeremy Powell and trombonist Mike Fahie get gritty and lowdown while Jorn Swart’s piano bubbles up occasionally amid lushly brassy flares from the rest of the group.

Coming Here opens with a comfortable, late-night sweep anchored by Carmen Staaf’s glimmering piano, punctuated by gusts from throughout the band, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen soaring triumphantly and lyrically, Powell more pensive against Staaf’s hypnotic, emphatic attack. The tightly chattering outro, held down by bassist Tamir Shmerling, baritone saxophonist Andrew Gutauskas and bass trombonist Jen Hinkle, is a tasty surprise.

You wouldn’t think a big band version of the Dolly Parton classic Jolene would work, but this group’s not-so-secret weapon, singer Nicole Zuraitis, gives it a Laura Nyro-like intensity as the group punch in and out throughout Pugach’s darkly latin-tinged arrangement. Staaf’s spiraling, serioso chromatics are spot on, Jensen taking that intensity to redline.

Andrew Gould’s optimistic alto sax and David Smith’s catchy, fluttering trumpet solo take centerstage in Zelda, a slow, swaying ballad. Individual and group voices burst in and out of Belo’s Bellow over Pugach’s samba-funk groove, bolstered by Bernardo Aguilar’s pandeiro. Then they reinvent Chick Corea’s Crystal Silence as blustery, arioso tropicalia, Zuraitis’ dramatic vocal flights and Gould’s bluesy alto over Swart’s terse, brooding piano and Pugach’s lush chart and cymbals.

Likewise, Pugach’s piano-based arrangement of Quincy Jones’ Love Dance gives it a welcome organic feel. Zuraitis’ Our Blues gets a powerhouse arrangement to match her wry hokum-inspired lyrics and defiant delivery: “You’re much more clever when you shut your mouth,” she advises. Smith’s sudden crescendo, using Swart’s piano as a launching pad early during the subtle syncopations of Discourse This might be the album’s high point. Keeping a large ensemble together is an awful lot of work, but it’s understandable why a cast of musicians of this caliber would relish playing Pugach’s inventively purist charts.

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High-Voltage Suspense and State-of-the-Art Big Band Jazz From Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society Uptown Saturday Night

The suspense was relentless throughout Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society’s sold-out concert Saturday night at the Miller Theatre. Although a couple of numbers on the bill had genuinely visceral suspense narratives, there was no central mystery theme. That’s just the way Argue writes. What a thrill!

Throughout the show, four of the composer/conductor’s favorite tropes jumped out over and over again: artful variations on simple, acerbic hooks; circular phrases that widened and sometimes contracted; unexpected pairings between instruments, and high/low contrasts that often took on a sinister quality. Gil Evans did a lot of that, but drawing on vintage swing; Argue does that with just as much symphonic sweep, but more acidic harmonies.

Obviously, with a eighteen-piece big band, there was a whole lot more to the night than just that. They opened the first of their two marathon sets with Phobos, a mighty showstopper from the group’s debut album Infernal Machines, inspired by the moon of Mars which will someday either crash into the planet or shatter under the force of gravity. Drummer Jon Wikan’s first ominously shuffling notes of the night introduced bassist Matt Clohesy’s grim, gothic riffs that bookended the piece, guitarist Sebastian Noelle’s smoldering chords looming behind the steady interweave of brass and reeds. Tenor saxophonist John Ellis’ lyrical solo proved to be a red herring.

They’d revisit that catchy, cinematic ominousness with a pulsing take of Transit, seemingly slower and more portentous than the album version, to close the first set with a mighty, cold ending that nobody but the band could see coming.

Blow-Out Prevention, a shout-out to Argue’s late influence Bob Brookmeyer, juxtaposed bright but astringent brass harmonies against a shifting, lustrous backdrop. All In, a tribute to the late, longtime Secret Society mainstay and “trumpet guru” Laurie Frink, got a Nadje Noordhuis trumpet solo which offered somber homage to her old bandmate, then took a triumphantly spiraling turn and eventually wound down against pianist Adam Birnbaum’s stately, Satie-esque minimalism.

Codebreaker, a salute to Alan Turing, bristled with spy-movie twists and turns but never went over the edge into John Barry-style menace. The second set was a performance of Argue’s recent, mammoth, labyrinthine Tensile Curves, inspired by Ellington’s Crescendo and Diminuendo in Blue. The bandleader, who was in rare form as emcee, explained that he’d decided to assemble the piece – a commission requiring a full forty minutes of music – as a study in subtle rhythmic decelerations. And much as it was a clinic in the use of that effect, it also was packed with innumerable dynamic shifts, a wryly squirrelly Sam Sadigursky clarinet solo, a much longer and eventually wildly churning one from trombonist Ryan Keberle, and a characteristically translucent one from trumpeter Adam O’Farrill – among other things.

Animatedly loopy phrases filtered throughout the ensemble, from a snide, nagging introductory theme through a final comfortable touchdown on the runway. Let’s hope this mighty tour de force makes it to the web – and maybe even a vinyl record – sooner than later. A towering performance for the rest of the crew, including but not limited to saxophonists Dave Pietro and Rob Wilkerson, baritone saxophonist Carl Maraghi, trumpeters Seneca Black, Matt Holman and David Smith, trombonists Mike Fahie, Jacob Garchik and George Flynn.

The next show at the Miller Theatre is on Feb 13 at 6 PM with the Mivos Quartet playing new works by  Marisol Jimenez, Jeffrey Mumford, their own Victor Lowrie and Mariel Roberts. It’s one of the wildly popular free concerts here. Get there close to when the doors open at 5:30 and there might be free beer or wine; show up later and there probably won’t be.

Perennially Vital, Poignant, Epic Grandeur From the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble

In the history of jazz, is there a greater drummer/composer than John Hollenbeck?

Paul Motian wrote some great songs. And so has Tain Watts. Beyond that, it’s a short list. This past evening at the Poisson Rouge Hollenbeck and his long-running Large Ensemble validated his place on it with a lush, constantly shifting, uneasily enveloping set to celebrate the release of their latest album All Can Work.

As with the album, the centerpiece of the show was the title track, a dedication to his longtime collaborator, the late great Laurie Frink. Hollenbeck interpolated both brief, pithy phrases inspired by Frink’s trumpet etudes as well as excerpts from her similarly terse emails. Like Mozart but with infinitely more interesting rhythms, those phrases percolated and changed shape among subsets of the sixteen-piece ensemble as singer Theo Bleckmann’s voice loomed and eventually soared. “I will miss you all, and the music,” was the final mantra. The trumpet section, including but not limited to Tony Kadleck and Matt Holman, put their precision in the spotlight. This was a song, and a show about tunesmithing and narratives rather than displays of sizzling chops.

They’d opened with Elf, which takes its title and thematic grist from the Strayhorn piece that Ellington eventually appropriated for Isfahan. As the group’s tectonic sheets slowly built a lavish mosaic, alto saxophonist Anna Webber rose methodically to broodingly modal, Middle Eastern-tinged intensity while Hollenbeck did a somewhat more vigorous take on the kind of pointillism he likes to explore in the Claudia Quintet.

The night’s most lavishly shapeshifting number was Hollenbeck’s muscular arrangement of Kenny Wheeler’s Heyoke: among its several solos, a bittersweet couple of turns from tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and some deliciously deadpan piano voicings from vibraphonist Patricia Brennan stood out the most brightly. From Trees, inspired by a Mondrian triptych, rose out of a swirl of disembodied voices to emphatic variations on a series of rather stark riffs, down to a twisted, low-register corkscrew facsimile of boogie-woogie from pianist Matt Mitchell: it was the most unexpectedly stunning solo of the night.

Long Swing Dream, the one song to date that Hollenbeck has found in a dream, had a similar minmalism alternating between individual voices, Bleckmann providing an amusing bit of narration by reading Cary Grant commentary about LSD (Long Swing Dream, get it?). The final observation, “You can’t judge the day until the night,” became simply “You can’t judge,” which drew plenty of chuckles. Hollenbeck copped to never having tried the stuff – hey, there’s still time. You can’t judge the perception from the doors.

The final tune was Hollenbeck’s tongue-in-cheek, impressively swinging new arrangement of Kraftwerk’s motorik instrumental The Model. Again, Bleckmann got to entertain the crowd, this time simply by striking a pose or five as the group channeled a more subtle take on what German live techno crew the Jazzrausch Bigband might have done with it. Hollenbeck’s next gig is with the Claudia Quintet on March 24 at 8 PM at the Miller Theatre; tix as affordable as $20 are still available.

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.

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.