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No New Abnormal

Tag: big band jazz

Revisiting a Lavish, Exquisitely Textured, Symphonic Big Band Album by Brian Landrus

Listening to one Brian Landrus album makes you want to hear more. It’s impossible to think of another baritone saxophonist from this era , or for that matter any other, who’s a more colorful composer. Landrus’ masterpiece so far is his titanic Generations big band album, which hit the web about four years ago and is streaming at Spotify. A grand total of 25 players go deep into its lavish, meticulously layered, completely outside-the-box charts .

It opens with The Jeru Concerto, equally inspired by the patron saint of baritone sax big band composition, Gerry Mulligan, as well as Landrus’ young son. Right off the bat, the band hit a cantering rhythm with distant echoes of hip-hop, but also symphonic lustre, the bandleader entering suavely over starry orchestration. He ripples and clusters and eventually leads the group to a catchy, soul-infused theme that could be Earth Wind and Fire at their most symphonic and organic.

A tightly spiraling solo baritone interlude introduces the second segment on the wings of the string section, Landrus’ soulful curlicues and spacious phrasing mingling with the increasingly ambered atmosphere and an unexpected, cleverly shifting pulse. The third movement calms again: watch lights fade from every room, until a more-or-less steady sway resumes. The textures, with harpist Brandee Younger and vibraphonist Joe Locke peeking up as bustling counterpoint develops throughout the group, are exquisite.

The conclusion begins with an altered latin groove, the bandleader shifting toward a more wary theme, neatly echoed in places by the orchestra, ornate yet incredibly purposeful. Landrus moves between a balmy ballad and anxious full-ensemble syncopation, cleverly intertwining the themes up to a casually triumphant final baritone solo.

Orchids, a surreal reggae tune, opens with a starry duet between Younger and Locke and rises to a big sax-fueled peak. Arise is even more playfully surreal, a haphazardly optimistic mashup of Kool and the Gang and Gershwin at his most orchestrally blustery. The Warrior has a Holst-like expanse underpinned by a subtle forward drive from the bass (that’s either Jay Anderson or Lonnie Plaxico) as well as incisive trumpet and violin solos and a triumphant march out.

Arrow in the Night is a comfortably nocturnal prelude with a dark undercurrent: things are not always as they seem. With its persistent, top-to-bottom light/dark contrasts, Human Nature comes across as a busier yet vampier take on classic Gil Evans.

Ruby, dedicated to Landrus’ daughter, has as much gentle playfulness as balminess, with puckish accents, a lyrical baritone solo and an undulating rhythm: this kid is fun, but she’s got a plan and she sticks to it. The ensemble close with Every Time I Dream, a catchy, dancingly orchestrated hip-hop theme akin to a more lavish take on Yaasin Bey’s adventures in new classical music, flurrying trumpet pulling the orchestra out of a momentary reverie.

An epic performance from a rotating cast that also includes drummers Billy Hart andJustin Brown, Jamie Baum, Tom Christensen, Darryl Harper, Michael Rabinowitz and Alden Banta among the reeds; Debbie Schmidt, Ralph Alessi, Igmar Thomas, Alan Ferber and Marcus Rojas as the brass; and a string section of Sara Caswell, Mark Feldman, Joyce Hammann, Meg Okura, Lois Martin, Nora Krohn, Jody Redhage and Maria Jeffers.

One Mighty Showstopper After Another on the JCA Orchestra’s Latest Live Album

The JCA Orchestra are the Boston counterpart to Miho Hazama’s rotating cast of big band jazz talent, whose home until the lockdown was the Jazz Gallery. But the JCA Orchestra have been championing the work of lesser-known composers since before Hazama was born. These days the Jazz Gallery has been repurposed as a web tv studio – temporarily, let’s hope – and the JCA Orchestra are on ice, at least for the time being. But they have a brilliant, wildly diverse and entertaining new album, Live at the BPC streaming at youtube.

A couple of extremely colorful compositions by violinist Mimi Rabson open and then close this concert from early October, 2018. The former, Romanople, imagines a Turkish entourage journeying to ancient Rome, only to be drafted into the army and killed in battle. The Strings Theory Trio – Rabson, cellist Junko Fujiwara and violinist Helen Sherrah-Davies – slink along on a cantering Near Eastern theme, turning it over to the brass for a boisterous Balkan dance with a simmering Phil Scharff clarinet solo. The orchestra’s eerie nebulosity as the two themes mingle is deliciously disquieting; Fujiwara’s similarly bracing solo is tantalizingly brief. Everything falls apart, as empires tend to do, a ghost of a melody undulating into the sunset.

The closing number, Super Eyes – Private Heroes is a sort of big band take on Spy vs. Spy-era John Zorn, a bustling swing tune with an incisively bluesy Sherrah-Davies solo over a halfspeed breakdown, trombonist David Harris’ tongue-in-cheek solo triggering an irresistibly funny coda.

The middle of the set is every bit as entertaining. The slow, enigmatic swells that introduce The Latest, the first of two Harris compositions, don’t hint at the electra-glide latin groove that follows, Melanie Howell-Brooks’ crystalline bass clarinet solo over a catchy theme that looks back to McCoy Tyner’s orchestrated 1976 classic, Fly With the Wind. Subtle variations on Thai-influenced pentatonics and a fanged, prowling Norm Zocher guitar solo raise the energy from there.

Harris’ conduction on his other tune here, Yellow, Orange, Blue, blends Butch Morris-style massed clusters and bursts with a catchy, allusively Middle Eastern clave theme, strongly bringing to mind Amir ElSaffar‘s adventures in largescale improvisation. Trombonist Jason Camelio’s invigorating solo as drummer Tony “Thunder” Smith drives this beast doublespeed and then cuts loose himself is one of the album’s tastiest interludes.

Trombonist Bob Pilkington’s epic The Sixth Snake sheds its skin more times than you can count, from suspenseful atmosphere puncuated by Vessela Stoyanova’s vibraphone, to Darcy James Argue-like insistence, to an eerie, spacious Maxim Lubarsky solo piano break. The composer follows with a sagacious solo as the rhythm edges toward a funky sway; Lihi Haruvi’s sailing soprano sax narrowly averts a collision with Scharff and draws an explosion of applause before the funky romp out.

Uneasy microtones filter through the airy introduction of another equally epic number, Darrell Katz’s A Wallflower in the Amazon, a setting of text by his late wife, poet Paula Tatarunis. Soprano Rebecca Shrimpton gives velvety, soaring affirmation to an embattled individualist finally finding her footing in an unexpected milieu, the band reaching from a lustrous sway, to a bubbling waltz, to a tropical duel between the string section and Hiro Honshuko’s EWI. Rick Stone’s agitated alto sax fuels a shivering massed coda; Shrimpton pulls the volume down and the intensity back up to all-stops-out squall. They take it out elegantly.

A richly conceived accomplishment by a group that also includes trumpeters Mike Peipman, Dan Rosenthal and Jerry Sabatini, horn player Jim Mosher, percussionist Gilbert Mansour and bassist Jesse Williams.

An Eclectically Catchy Big Band Album by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Players

Does listening to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Players transform them from a seventeen-piece big band into a trio? One of the premises of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is that some particles are so small that merely observing them changes their state. It’s an extension of the basic idea that some tools are too heavy for the job: you don’t use a hammer where just your thumb would do.

Ultimately, Heisenberg’s postulate challenges us to consider whether some things will always be essentially unknowable: a very Islamic concept, when you think about it. But you hardly need special powers of observation to enjoy this big band’s energy, and catchy themes, and pervasive sense of humor. Their album Gradient is streaming at Bandcamp. There’s a high-energy sax solo on almost every one of bandleader/conductor John Dorhauer’s compositions here, sometimes expected, sometimes not.

The opening number, Boombox, makes a momentary Mission Impossible theme out of the old surf rock hit Tequila, then hits a Weather Report style faux-soukous bubbliness for a bit before shifting toward a gospel groove beneath Matthew Beck’s joyous tenor sax.

The second track, Nevertheless She Persisted is a slow, slinky gospel tune, Stuart Seale’s tersely soulful organ ceding the spotlight to a low-key, burbling trombone solo from Chris Shuttleworth and a big massed crescendo from the brass. Subject/Verb/Object has clever, rhythmless variations on a circling, Ethiopian-tinged riff, in an Either/Orchestra vein; the polyrhythms that ensue as the piece comes together and then calms to an uneasy syncopation are a cool touch.

Four Sides of the Circle begins as a stately, mysterious, Indian-tinged theme for choir and piano, then chattering high reeds take centerstage as the song almost imperceptibly edges toward dusky, modal soul over a familiar Radiohead hook.

The East African tinges return, but more cheerily in Plasma, with its rhythmically tricky interweave of counterpoint. Mahler 3 Movement 1 is exactly that: a moody, jazzed-up classical theme that rises from rumors of war, to brassy King Crimson art-rock fueled by Chris Parsons’ burning guitar, to chipper, Gershwinesque swing over a quasi-reggae beat and then back.

The record winds up with the Basketball Suite. The first segment, Switch Everything is the band’s Dr. J (that’s a Grover Washington Jr. reference). Part two, Point Giannis is probably the slowest hoops theme ever written: Dan Parker’s hypnotic bassline brings to mind a classic Jah Wobble groove on PiL’s Metal Box album. The band take a turn back toward booding, pulsing Ethiopiques with Schedule Loss, Adam Roebuck’s incisive trumpet contrasting with James Baum’s suave, smoky baritone sax. It ends with the album’s warmly funky, vamping title track An entertaining achievement from an ensemble that also includies saxophonists Natalie Lande, Kelley Dorhauer and Dan Burke, trombonists Michael Nearpass, Josh Torrey and Dan Dicesare, trumpeters Jon Rarick and Emily Kuhn and drummer Jonathon Wenzel.

Mind-Blowing Power and Tunesmiting on Derrick Gardner and the Big Dig! Band’s First Album

There hasn’t been a debut big band jazz recording as powerful, and lavish, and fun as Derrick Gardner and the Big Dig! Band’s first album, Still I Rise – streaming at Bandcamp – in a long time. Solos are brilliantly wild, Gardner’s compositions are colorful, unpredictable, explosive and have a frequently searing political resonance. It’s very brassy, as you would expect from a trombonist bandleader. The arrangements are a clinic in counterintuitive creativity. It’s the kind of record you want to transcribe, to steal every good idea from. It’s awfully early in the year to be talking about the best debut of the year, but if the world ended today, this would be a lock. We’ll see what else happens between now and December.

A couple of elegant rounds of baroque-inflected counterpoint followed by a couple darkly simmering, insistent massed riffs fueled by bassist Luke Sellick and pianist Zen Zadravec’s looming chords introduce the mighty first track, Push Come da Shove. Then the orchestra engage in Mozart-like exchanges of voicings up to a brightly enigmatic trumpet solo over drummer Curtis Nowosadl’s careening swing. Soprano sax bobs and weaves relentlessly in tandem with elephantine, undulating drums, then the band return. Eighth-note harmonies echo 1930s Ellington and lead to a firebomb of a false ending with the trumpets going full force. Told you this was fun!

The album’s title track is another hard swinger, trumpet spinning and soaring as layers of counterpoint burst throughout the orchestra, trombone taking over the spotlight with a steely focus. They keep the brisk pulse going with Soulful Brother Gelispie, guitarist Kasey Kurtz in punchy, trad mode even as the brass punch harder and harder all around. Soprano sax adds a fleeting pensive edge, but the conflagration returns. Kurtz gets another round over as the firestorm reaches fever pitch and once again keeps his cool, no easy task!

The group memorialize Trayvon Martin, murdered by a Florida racist who was later acquitted, in the lustrously brooding, blues-infused Melody for Trayvon. The conversational pairing of muted and unmuted trumpets packs a punch, as does the alto sax versus the whole ensemble later on and the gravitas of the trombone solo afterward. 

The band pick up the pace again with To Whom it May Concern, Kurtz’s cascading riffage setting off more of an elegant avalanche from the band. Likewise, Sellick’s sotto-voce, balletesque solo sets off another round of echoes from the orchestra, down to a cynical, circling theme and world-weary trombone solo. The ominously modal tenor solo afterward over a floating swing is one of the album’s calmer yet most riveting moments.

One Thing Led to Another is a terse but haphazard clave number with another tart, terse soprano solo, trumpet and trombone solos as voices of reason against all kinds of devious accents and riffs from the rest of the band: the devil is on everybody’s shoulder here.

Blues á la Burgess wouldn’t have a thing if it didn’t have that biting minor-key….you get the picture. Strange quasi-Ellingtonian reed harmonies will get you smiling; the wildly soaring trumpet solo afterward ignites the brass, tenor sax drawing a more titanic response from the rest of the orchestra.

8 Ball, Side Pocket is also a blues, part retro 30s, part Willy Wonka movie theme, with a long, suave tenor solo matched by the piano. The slinky next-to-last number, a more ambered blues, is titled DAAAYUUUM. Muted trumpet descends memorably from the clouds, signaling a return to a triumphant twin-trumpet trope; tenor sax brings contentment before the whole thing goes up in flames. The band wind up the record with the epic Heavens to Murgatroyd, in many respects a Spike Jones-class parody of basically everything they’ve just done here, the bandleader bustling at the center along with a slashing interweave of voices. DAAAYUUUM!

A performance for the ages by the bandleader and his brother Vincent Gardner alongside Joel Green, Anthony Bryson and Bill Green on trombones; saxophonists Mark Gross, Greg Gatien, Rob Dixon, Tristan Martinuson and Ken Gold; and trumpeters Bijon Watson, Jeff Johnson, Curtis Taylor and Andrew Littleford.

Revisiting One of the Funnest Albums Released by a Big Band in Recent Years

One of the funniest, most individualistically lavish albums ever to be featured on this page is Josh Green & the Cyborg Orchestra’s Telepathy & Bop, streaming at Spotify. The album cover image says a lot: a cartoon cyclops bounding down the subway stairs at 14th St. and 6th Ave., just as the doors on the L train are closing.

Just to be clear, this isn’t electronic music. Green’s compositions are totally organic, wildly picturesque and often irresistibly cartoonish. Brian Carpenter‘s many surreal rediscoveries from the 1930s and 1940s are a good point of comparison; Juan Esquivel’s most adventurous largescale works also come to mind. Green is a brilliant musical surrealist: all options seem to be on the table as these unpredictable and counterintuitive sonic narratives unfold.

The seventeen-piece group open the Basquiat-inspired first track, Boy & Dog in a Jonnypump with a big, brassy splash and then a wry, staggered cha-cha; Green very subtly builds tiptoeing but pillowy suspense, up to a long, gritty, Balkan-tinged Sungwon Kim guitar solo. Accordionist Nathan Koci takes over as everybody but the rhythm section drops out, then Green brings back the string section – that’s the PUBLIQuartet with violinists Curtis Stewart and Jannina Norpoth, violist Nick Revel and Amanda Gookin bolstered by violist Nathan Schram and cellist Clarice Jenson. As the orchestra punch in and out, Kim goes shredding again. By ten minutes in, Todd Groves has wrapped up his cheery flute solo and the strings do A Day in the Life. They would really love to turn you on.

Green conjures a busy tv studio setting, individual voices bustling and skulking down the hallway in The Lauer Faceplant, based on a real-life head-on collision with a tv personality who was enjoying his fifteen minutes at the time. A gruff sax solo (that’s either Groves or Charles Pillow) leads to the moment of impact, which leaves the orchestra reeling, echo phrases bounding back and forth. A balletesque flute theme gives way to trombonist Chris Misch-Bloxdorf’s return to tongue-in-cheek gruffness. Are we having fun yet?

The album’s title track is a triptych. The first part is a mashup of a woozily sirening cartoon tableau, Georgyi Ligeti somberness and a sideshow shooting gallery of individual voices, dat wabbit thumbing his nose at Elmer Fudd. Green brings back an expansion of an earlier Indian-flavored sax riff for the acidically resonant, fleetingly brief part two. The group tiptoe and pounce up to caffeinated clarinet and sax solos, the latter a duet with drummer Josh Bailey and a reprise of an earlier theme that’s too good to give away. Telepathic? Maybe. Bop? No question.

The gorgeously epic centerpiece here is La Victoire, inspired by Magritte’s famous cloud floating through a disembodied door. A wistful accordion theme quickly sinks in lush, nocturnal ambience, a jaunty sax solo leading the group upward as Michael Verselli’s piano adds incisive gleam amid the warmly inviting wash of sound. A dip to folksy contentment with the accordion quickly grows more luminous, sax leading the vividly triumphant upward drive: it’s Maria Schneider-worthy music.

Verselli introduces the distantly haunting, Ligeti-esque Nebula with a similarly glistening, eerily modal solo, drifting into deep-space minimalism and then icy contrasts. With individual voices shifting through a Darcy James Argue-esque staccato theme, the humor in Reverie Engine: The Ambiguous Rhumba is more distant, at least until a ridiculous synth solo. The album’s closing cut, Soir Bleu – A Rag of Sorts draws on a surreal Edward Hopper image of a clown in a Parisian cafe. After a flicker of Django Reinhardt, the group work a pulse and a theme that grow more carnivalesque, Koci’s ambiguous solo enhancing the unease. With the strings edging into the macabre and Verselli’s noir cabaret solo, it’s by far the album’s darkest number. Nobody in this band is ever going to forget playing on this record: the rest of a very inspired cast includes clarinetist Jay Hassler, trumpeter John Lake and bassist Brian Courage.

So where the hell was this blog the night the band played the album release show at National Sawdust in the spring of 2017? At Barbes – big surprise, considering the New York music scene that year. Rest assured, there will be a music scene in this city again…and let’s hope Green has another album ready to go by then. How long it takes this city to be open to that eventuality is really up to us.

Romance Conquers Everything in Brian Landrus’ Lush, Quietly Thrilling Album

If there’s one thing the lockdowners fear even more than massive crowds of us assembling against them, it’s romance.

Millions of people out in the streets can get pretty fired up, but love conquers everything.

Ultimately, why did the lockdowners come up with their crazy six-foot rule? To keep people from falling in love. If we are kept in a constant state of terror, paralyzed by the fear that everyone we see is spreading a seasonal flu rebranded as the apocalypse, we are very easily divided and conquered.

But throughout history, people have fallen in love that no matter what, even in the Nazi death camps. And that’s why the lockdowners are destined to fail: because the one thing that could save them is alien to them, in fact, completely unattainable. Consider: there is no one more profoundly lonely than a tyrant. So today, let’s celebrate our ability to get close to the ones we love with one of the most unabashedly and eclectically romantic albums of the past several months: Brian Landrus’ For Now, streaming at Soundcloud.

Landrus is one of the kings of the lows. Baritone sax is his main axe. In moments where he wants to get particularly slinky, he’ll switch to the bass clarinet. He put out a lusciously lustrous big band album, Generations, about four years ago. But he obviously hasn’t gotten those epic, majestic sounds out of his system – and let’s hope he never does. This record is most notable for Landrus scoring Fred Hersch on piano, a guy who knows a little something about emotionally attuned sounds. Bassist Drew Gress and drummer Billy Hart keep things chill and close to the ground.

They open with The Signs, a genially blues-infused swing tune fueled right from the start by Michael Rodriguez’s low-key, purist trumpet. then Hersch brings his signature wit and erudition to the equation. Landrus echoes Rodriguez’s terseness; everybody harmonizes warmly at the end.

Hersch anchors Landrus’ wafting midrange and gentle upward spirals with an aptly crystlaline, chiming attack in the second number, Clarity in Time, bolstered lushly by the string quartet of violinists Sara Caswell, Joyce Hamman, violist Lois Martin and cellist Jody Redhage-Ferber.

Is The Miss a fond shout-out to a certain girl, or a lament for an opportunity gone under the bridge? Definitely the former, it seems, with Hersch, Rodriguez and the bandleader weaving over the pillowy backdrop.

Hart and Gress build a subtle latin pulse in JJ, Landrus’ simmering solo handing off to Rodriguez’s spacious optimism and Hersch’s balmy charm, although there’s something unexpected around the bend. Landrus switches to bass clarinet for the album’s brief. broodingly sweeping title track and sticks with it on an absolutely gorgeous, plaintive solo take of “Round Midnight, uncovering the song’s wounded inner bolero.

Back on the baritone, Landrus channels guarded hope and then genuine thrills in Invitation, which rises quickly to a mutedly cosmopolitan, anthemic bustle. By now, everybody is cutting loose more: it’s just plain killer.

Landrus overdubs an intertwine of bass clarinet and bass flute over a subtly cresdendoing upward drive in For Whom I Imagined. Likewise, he sticks with the bass flute as Rodriguez puts on his mute for The Night Of Change, a lively, allusively tropical jazz waltz.

With its brassy thicket of an intro, The Second is basically a segue, a calmly loping, serenely triumphant number that echoes one of the album’s big influences, Harry Carney With Strings.

Her Smile has an irresistible cheer and several LOL moments, the strings more energized then ever. Caswell following Landrus with a jauntily swinging solo of her own.

They go back to waltz time for The Wait, Hersch’s expectant joy matched by Gress, Landrus’ bass clarinet spiraling fondly up the scale. He’s one of many – this blog is another – who assert that Hersch is this era’s most insightful interpreter of Monk on the piano, so it makes sense that the two would close the album with a casually expansive, late-night take of Ruby My Dear. Seldom has romance been so dynamically portrayed, in both ups and downs, as Landrus does here.

Broodingly Gorgeous, Tightly Orchestrated Sounds From Organist Bence Vas’ Big Band

Large ensembles led by organists are about the rarest of any configuration of jazz musicians, yet they all seem to find this page. The 8 Cylinder Big Band, Radam Schwartz Organ Big Band, and now the stunningly mysterious Bence Vas’ Big Band, who might be the best of all of them. Their riveting, very tightly orchestrated Bartok-inspired new album Overture et. al. is streaming at Spotify. If you don’t agree that some of the best jazz in the world is coming out of Hungary, you haven’t heard this darkly elegant record. 

Vas weaves a series of stunningly memorable themes methodically and dynamically throughout this often sinister suite. It opens with a big swell from the deliciously noir overture, Vas and pianist Gábor Cseke scurrying with furtive purpose down to a precise, loopy piano solo and subtle, moody variations as the orchestra drift in and disappear just as suddenly. A detour toward comfortably clustering early 60s Prestige-style postbop sounds fueled by Cseke cedes centerstage to the bandleader’s eerily keening phrases, up and out.

The Overture at Late Afternoon takes that distantly Ethiopian-tinged chromatic riffage to even creepier new places, from a circling intro, through still, tense foreshadowing and a somber woodwind-infused sway. Cseke once again adds a convivial touch, then the requiem for what’s left of the afternoon returns. Vas’ judicious solo raises the intensity, classic gutbucket harmonies tinted with just enough menace to raise the disquiet, eventually bringing the gathering gloom full circle. As lockdown-era music goes, this really nails the zeitgeist. 

Cseke’s clusters behind a wary march recede to an ominously minimalist flute solo over the orchestra’s brooding expanse as Jedna Minuta gathers steam. Elegiacally brassy variations and  fleeting flute gleam distantly amid the remaining expanse.

Kołysanka opens with balmy/moody contrasts fueled by guitar and flute until the bandleader lets the sunshine in with a gently gospel-infused, soulful groove that’s not quite a strut. They bring the chromatic menace back, the murk looms in and suddenly it’s over. The group close with One Last Attempt, Vas’ funeral-parlor atmosphere ushering in Cseke spirals, hovering brass and a brightly enigmatic Kristóf Bacsó alto sax solo in contrast with the darker flurries all around. That blustery false ending is a neat touch. It’s awfully early in the year to be thinking of the best jazz album of 2021 but right now the choice is between Satoko Fujii’s new vibraphone duo record and this one.

The South Florida Jazz Orchestra Smolder and Blaze Through Latin-Tinged Rick Margitza Tunes

Several years back, bassist Chuck Bergeron and his South Florida Jazz Orchestra put out an absolutely incendiary album featuring a six-trumpet frontline. Their latest release, Cheap Thrills – streaming at Spotify – is more subtle, joining forces with Paris-based saxophonist Rick Margitza for a diverse and cleverly orchestrated album of his compositions. There are plenty of thrills here, but the title is sarcastic: this is sophisticated fun. Margitza likes latin rhythms, which the group excel at, so the material here is a particularly good fit.

They open with the title track, a clustering clave tune that hits an uneasy chromatic drive, then the orchestra back away for spare guitar and piano solos from John Hart and Martin Bejerano, respectively. Margitza follows with uneasy modal sax over Bejerano’s spare incisions. From there they dip to a more suspenseful pulse and some neat polyrhythmic development

The opening coyness of The Place to Be is a red herring, as this jaunty little stroll gets more complex with lustrous reeds and horns. It’s a study in how radically different moods, from blithe to noir, can be created from exactly the same materials. Brace Yourself, an ebullient cha-cha, also has a funny intro, Hart and Margitza parsing its vampy changes up to where the brass takes it deeper toward salsa and then a series of amusing false endings.

Widow’s Walk – like many of these tracks, a new arrangement of an older small-group number – follows a brooding tangent from a pensive six-note piano figure up to a brass-fueled blaze, a gently wan Margitza solo over a bossa-tinged groove, a moody Chris Jentsch-ish guitar solo and a coda that seems completely out of place for a lament. Obviously, there could be more to this story: otherwise, it could be a Frank Foster tune from the 50s.

Gritty low brass gives a clenched-teeth intensity to 45 Pound Hound, then the group swing it with a jubilant Brian Lynch trumpet solo, Margitza taking it further into the blues before the full orchestra build slowly toward a fiery conclusion. It’s the most enigmatic, most subtly powerful number here.

Premonition is one of those one-take wonders that left the band and its leader pretty breathless when they realized they’d nailed its puffing, distantly ominous syncopation: bass and low brass figure heavily, Margitza’s solo guiding the band into cheerier terrain. Walls, originally a genially shuffling small-group number, gets fleshed out with flourishes from brass, piano and a scrambling Bejerano solo. It’s the album’s most trad composition.

The group bring back the clave in Sometimes I Have Rhythm,with its tongue-in-cheek references to a famous tune and an unexpectedly chill, soulful Greg Gisbert trumpet solo. Margitza’s swirls lead the group up to a jovial peak: once again, they show off the song’s salsa roots at the end. The lone cover here is a plush, increasingly slinky latinized and sometimes completely unrecognizable take of Embraceable You.

Interesting charts and strong performances from a group that also includes reedmen Gary Keller, Gary Lindsay, Ed Calle, Jason Kush, David Leon, Phil Doyle and Mike Brignola; trumpeters John Daversa, Jason Carder, Alex Norris, Pete Francis, Augie Haas, Jesus Mato and Jared Hal; trombonists Dante Luciani, John Kricker, Andrew Peal, Derek Pyle, Haden Mapel and Major Bailey; percussionist Xavier Desandre Navarre and drummer John Yarling.

Big Band Jazz Has Never Been So Much Fun As It Is on Satoko Fujii’s Ninety-Nine Years Album

Satoko Fujii did a second album with her Orchestra Berlin because, she says, “These guys are total goofballs. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much ridiculous fun in the studio as I had with these clowns.”

That’s not really what she said. The official quote from the press release for the album, Ninety-Nine Years (streaming at Bandcamp) is “I think they bring out some part of me that the other bands don’t.” Like crazed, insane fun. Over the epic course of about ninety albums with umpteen ensembles since the mid-90s, Fujii’s own sense of humor tends to be much more subtle, and her music is almost always on the serious side. This is her cartoon soundtrack, an album for jazz fans with long attention spans who need a good laugh. And yet, there’s plenty of signature Fujii gravitas here as well.

Everything here but the closing number – which begins like Lunar New Year on East Broadway in Chinatown – clocks in at well over ten minutes, sometimes closer to fifteen. The first number, which seems extremely satirical, is Unexpected Incident, as the Japanese government euphemistically termed the Fukushima nuclear disaster (Fujii did a whole Fukushima-inspired album with her Orchestra New York, which this blog chose as best album of 2017).

Fujii’s main axe is the piano, which she plays here; she’s also an excellent accordionist.Tenor saxophonist Gebhard Ullmann shrieks and squalls over the group early on, bassist Jan Roder tirelessly running a loop. There’s a din of a trombone/tenor duel between Matthias Schubert and Matthias Müller, the orchestra picking up a loop of their own. Roder returns more syncopatedly behind an increasingly agitated Natsuki Tamura trumpet solo; the way Fujii sneaks a secondary theme in before Ullmann’s shrill solo coda is artful, and typical of her.

Roder opens the title track, a dedication to Fujii’s late mother-in-law, with an increasingly scrambling solo, eventually joined in wisps and flickers by drummers Peter Orins and Michael Griener and baritone saxophonist Paulina Owczarek, who works her way to a fond, lyrical upper-register solo. They bring it down to just the drums and Ullmann, who chews the scenery until Fujii signals a steady, bittersweet, chordally brassy theme while Ullmann keeps doing his bad cop in contrast with Owczarek. They end together, warmly.

The funniest number here is On the Way, from its suspenseful, shamanistic twin-drum intro, to brassy hints of reggae, a bit of the rudiments from the drummers, and a grumpily cartoonish solo from Tamura which somebody in the band tries to lure away – the joke is too good to spoil. The faux New Orleans outro will also make you smile.

Oops is a showcase for both vaudevillian absurdity and some very sobering interludes. A triickily rhythmic, circular massed theme gives way to Schubert’s unbridled exuberance, but that’s when Fujii signals for a dirge behind his revelry: there’s no escaping this dark undercurrent. Tamura goes to the Middle East, the bass bubbles tensely, until finally the band erupt in a Keystone Kops charge. A dirge and another charge return along with spacious, bright pulses in between.

They close with Follow the Idea, from crazed New Years festivities, to goofy conversational blips, droll low spitballs and all-stops-out squalling over a thump and a LMAO false ending, Fujii has never made another album like this before – it was one of a dozen she put out in 2018 to celebrate her sixtieth birthday year – and she probably never will again. Enjoy. Big up to the rest of the cast, which includes trumpeters Richard Koch and Lina Allemano; trombonist Matthias Müller; and guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi.

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.