New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: big band jazz

The Ghost Train Orchestra Steam Back to Upbeat, Playful Terrain

Back in January, this blog asserted that “It’s impossible to think of a better way to start the year than watching Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra slink and swing their way through the darkly surreal album release show for their new one, Book of Rhapsodies Vol. 2 at Jazz at Lincoln Center.” The album is actually far more lighthearted and frequently cartoonish, with ambitious charts that strongly evoke 50s lounge jazz oddball innovator Juan Garcia Esquivel. Once again, the ensemble have created a setlist of strangely compelling obscurities from the 30s and 40s.

In an era when nobody buys albums anymore, the Ghost Train Orchestra have sold an amazing number of them, topping the jazz charts as a hot 20s revival act. Yet for the last five years or so, frontman/trumpeter Carpenter has been revisiting his noir roots from back in the 90s, with lavishly rewarding results. This release – streaming at Bandcamp – is characteristically cinematic, but seldom very dark. It opens with cartoon music maven Raymond Scott’s Confusion Among a Fleet of Taxi Cabs. a romp with horn and siren effects that comes together with a jubilantly brassy, New Orleans-tinged pulse, bringing to mind the Microscopic Septet at their most boisterous.

Likewise, Mazz Swift’s violin and Dennis Lichtman’s clarinet spiral and burst over the scampering pulse of bassist Michael Bates and drummer Rob Garcia in Hal Herzon’s Hare and Hounds – meanwhile, some goof in the band is boinging away on a jawharp. Reginald Forsythe’s Deep Forest, which Carpenter wryly introduces as “A hymn to darkness, part one,” is closer to Esquivel taking a stab at covering Black and Tan Fantasy, guitarist Avi Bortnick adding spikily ominous contrast beneath the band’s the ragtimey stroll.

The strutting miniature Pedigree on a Pomander Walk, the second Herzon tune, is just plain silly. Carpenter’s tongue-in-cheek muted lines mingle with Ben Kono’s tenor sax and the rest of the horns in Alec Wilder’s Walking Home in Spring, Ron Caswell’s tuba bubbling underneath. The latin-tinged Deserted Ballroom, a final Herzon number, has a balmy bounce over a creepy chromatic vamp, a choir of voices supplying campy vocalese over lush strings and a Chicago blues solo from Bortnick. A neat trick ending takes it into far darker, Beninghove’s Hangmen-ish territory.

The disquiet is more distant but ever-present in A Little Girl Grows Up, a Wilder tune, despite the childlike vocals and coyly buoyant, dixieland-flavored horns. The band make Esquivellian Romany swing out of Chopin with Fantasy Impromptu: Swift’s classical cadenza toward the end is devilishly fun. They follow that with another Wilder number, Kindergarten Flower Pageant, which would be tongue-in-cheek fun save for that annoying kiddie chorus. Sometimes children really should be seen and not heard.

A playful minor-key cha-cha, Lament for Congo – another Forsythe tune – has bristling guitar, lush strings, faux-shamanic drums, Tarzan vocals and a lively dixieland interlude. The strings in Wilder’s The House Detective Registers look back to Django Reinhardt as much as the winds take the music back a decade further. The final tune, by Forsythe, is Garden of Weed, which doesn’t seem to be about what you probably think it is. It’s a somber, early Ellingtonian-flavored ragtime stroll, Garcia’s hardware enhancing the primitive, lo-fi ambience, up to a livelier exchange of voices.

Advertisements

Cécile McLorin Salvant Premieres Her Macabre, Majestically Relevant New Suite at the Met

“The man is lying!”

Cécile McLorin Salvant’s voice rose with an ineluctable, fearsome wail through that accusatory phrase as the orchestra behind her reached hurricane force. In the year of Metoo, fake news emanating daily via Twitter from the nation’s highest office, and Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers risking their lives to deny rape culture a seat on the nation’s highest court, Salvant could not have picked a more appropriate time to sing that.

The character she was voicing in that moment, the most fervent in a night full of metaphorically-charged, magic realist narrative, was a robin. It was warning the protagonist in Salvant’s new suite, Ogresse, to beware of a would-be suitor’s ulterior motives. It was possibly the highest peak that Salvant and the band reached in almost two hours of lush, sweeping big band jazz drawing on a hundred years’ worth of influences.

Yet the world premiere of the work, performed to a sold-out crowd last night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, turned out to be juat as firmly rooted in the here and now. Many of the suite’s themes mirrored Rachelle Garniez’s fabulist reinventions and Rose Thomas Bannister’s great plans gothic as much as they did Billy Strayhorn, or Cole Porter, or Ellington.

The book on Salvant is that she can personify just about any singer from jazz’s golden age. That may be true, but as much as the night’s more coy moments brought to mind Dinah Washington, along with Sarah Vaughan in the more somber ones and Ella Fitzgerald when the music swung hardest, Salvant was most shattering when she sang without the slightest adornment. Knowingly, she went to that calm purity at the night’s most telling junctures.

The suite began with a hypnotically atmospheric, practically Indian lustre and ended with a bittersweetly low-key glimmer. In between, In between, Salvant bolstered her chameleonic reputation with expertly nuanced, torchy ballads, stark delta blues, epic swing anthems and a couple of detours into French chanson and all sorts of blue-neon Lynchian luridness. Late in the score, the band finally alluded to the Twin Peaks theme for a couple of bars.

Darcy James Argue conducted and also arranged the suite. Having seen him many times in the former role over the last few years, he seemed to be having more fun than ever before – then again, he plays his cards close to the vest onstage. Whatever the case, Salvant’s songs have given him fertile territory for his signature, epic sweep and counterintuitive pairings between individual voices in the ensemble.

Helen Sung’s poignant, lyrical piano traded off with David Wong’s similarly inflected bass during a graveyard waltz. Tenor saxophonist Tom Christensen’s plaintive oboe, vibraphonist Warren Wolf’s sepulchrally sprinting marimba, and trombonist Josh Roseman’s surprisingly lilting tuba all rose to the surreal command demanded by Argue’s wicked chart. The solo that drew the most awestruck applause was from Alexa Tarantino’s soprano sax, a particularly poignant, emotionally raw salvo.

Brandon Seabrook began the show on Strat but quickly switched to banjo, which anchored the 19th century blues-inflected interludes. Yet he never picked with traditional three-finger technique, hammering on enigmatic open chords or aggressively tremolo-picking his phrases. Maybe that was Argue’s decision not to dive deep into the delta swamp.

Salvant’s lyricism is as deep and vast as her music. The suite’s plotline involves a rugged individualist who has her own grisly way of dealing with the menace of the townspeople outside – we learn toward the end that she’s no angel herself, either.

Father had flown away sometime ago
My face was all he left behind
But soon he left my mother’s mind
She remarried a shadow

That set the stage for the grim ramifications of that particular circumstance, which Salvant and the group slowly unveiled, up to a literal forest fire of a coda. The conclusion, which Salvant had been foreshadowing all along, drew a fervent “Yessssss!” from an alluring, petite brunette in glasses and a smart sweater seated to the author’s immediate right. The audience echoed sentiment that via three standing ovations, a triumph for a group that also included purposeful trumpeter Kirk Knuffke, percussionist Samuel Torres and the sweeping strings of the Mivos Quartet.

This could have been the best concert of the year – and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has many more. Some of them are free with museum admission: you could see plaintive Armenian duduk music played by the duo of Gevorg Dabaghyan and Vache Sharafyan in Gallery 199 at 5:30 PM on Oct 26.

Bobby Sanabria Brings His Brilliant, Electrifying Reinvention of the West Side Story Score to Harlem This Weekend

Latin jazz drum sage Bobby Sanabria’s mission to tackle Leonard Bernstein’s iconic West Side Story score is ambitious, and a little hubristic. And it’s been done before: The Oscar Peterson Trio, the Stan Kenton Big Band, Dave Brubeck (obviously), Dave Liebman and Dave Grusin have all recorded various sections of the most radical Broadway score prior to Fela, with results from the sublime to….you get the picture. Sanabria and his Multiverse Big Band debuted their West Side Story Reimagined at Lincoln Center last month (sadly, this blog was in Brooklyn that night). Good news for anyone who missed that show: the band are reprising it at the amphitheatre in Marcus Garvey Park this Friday, Sept 14 at 7 PM. If you want a seat, you need to get there early.

As you would expect, the new double album – streaming at Spotify – adds plenty of welcome texture, sonic color and emphatic groove to Bernstein’s orchestration. Compared to previous jazz interpretations, what’s new about it is how heavy it is. The original is a lithe ballet score livened even further by Bernstein’s puckish wit. This version is gritty and in your face.

Sanabria is a connoisseur of just about every rhythm from throughout the Afro-Latin diaspora and beyond, and locks in on how eclectically inspired Bernstein was by all sorts of different rhythms from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico and beyond. Yet Sanabria is also very highly attuned to the Stravinskian severity that makes such a stark contrast with the score’s lyricism, particularly as far as the ballads are concerned. Maybe it’s the focus on how much of a clave underscores so much of the music here, with charts by a grand total of nine separate arrangers, Sanabria included. Or maybe it’s just as much of a focus on the storyline’s stark relevance to current-day anti-immigrant paranoia.

This is not a solo-centric album: brief, punchy features for members of the ensemble go on for maybe eight bars at the most, with as many deft handoffs as momentary peaks amidst what Sanabria has very aptly described as a pervasive unease. Since the days of Tammany Hall, the ruling classes have pursued a relentless divide-and-conquer policy among New York’s innumerable ethnic groups, and the 1950s were no exception. In this hands of this mighty band, Bernstein’s keen perceptions are amplified even further.

Much as the new charts put the spotlight on the group’s amazingly versatile percussion section – alongside Sanabria, there’s Takao Heisho, Oreste Abrantes on congas and Matthew Gonzalez on bongós and cencerro – they hew closely to the original score. The deviations can be funny, but they have an edge. A Yoruba chant and a sardonically blithe dixieland interlude appear amid noir urban bustle, toweringly uneasy flares and noir urban bustle. Even the ballads – not all of which are included here – are especially electric. The band that rises to the challenge and succeeds epically here also includes Darwin Noguera on piano; Leo Traversa on bass; trumpeters Kevin Bryan, Shareef Clayton, Max Darché and Andrew Neesley; saxophonists David Dejesus, Andrew Gould, Peter Brainin, Jeff Lederer and Danny Rivera; trombonists Dave Miller, Tim Sessions, Armando Vergara and Chris Washburne; flutist Gabrielle Garo and violnist Ben Sutin.

A Gusty, Gutsy Return by Brooklyn’s Most Individualistic Guitarist and His Band in Red Hook

An enigmatic mist of sound rose from the inner courtyard at Pioneer Works to the top of a makeshift tower with a spiral staircase scarier than any Hitchcock movie set a couple of weekends ago. As Uncivilized bandleader/guitarist Tom Csatari finally edged his way through the clouds of horns, and keys, and drummer Rachel Housle’s deftly muted polyrhythms, into the iconic two-note phrase that opens Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks theme, the subtext screamed. Distant menace seldom hits so close to home.

Csatari and his more-or-less-nine-piece band were really on a roll until the midde of last year, when it suddenly looked like they might be finished. But Csatari dodged a bullet, survived a brain tumor operation and has reemerged with both his chops and his band intact. In an era when New York jazz musicians under forty who can afford to play live regularly are as rare as rent-regulated apartments, that’s a big news.

Csatari’s music sways and careens a little when the whole unit is going full tilt. The game plan seems to be that everybody has license to stray a little but not too far. The result is lot of tense, unresolved close harmonies, making a deliciously uneasy contrast with all the catchy riffs that permeate the mix. Few of those melodies ever return once they’re gone. Csatari can sound like Kenny Burrell or Wes Montgomery if he wants, but he hardly ever does – Americana of all kinds is more his reference point. You could call him a scruffier Bill Frisell if you wanted. 

There were more than a few moments throughout this characteristically epic show where the group brought to mind the Grateful Dead – but with two Bob Weirs and no Jerry Garcia. Csatari’s fellow guitarist Julian Cubillos is typically a noisier foil than he was this time out, the two shadowing each other with terse, even flitting riffs from 60s soul, or 70s country, or older blues. Meanwhile, the horn section bubbled and scooched to both sides, usually pretty seamlessly. There wasn’t a lot of soloing. Saxophonist Levon Henry got a bright, cheery one early on, then a trumpeter whose sweet old canine friend had gone onstage and wandered amid the band earlier, joined the melee and contributed a similarly boisterous one of her own.

The whole band weren’t all constantly playing at the same time, either: there were brief, suspenseful moments for keys and rhythm section, and for the two guitars. References to the Dead at their most qawwali-influenced, the Modern Jazz Quartet and the AACM – especially in the most orchestral moments – shifted with remarkable grace for a unit who never appear to be all in the same place at the same time. Yet Csatari always anchored the wafting ambience and frequent gusts with his nonchalantly incisive, tersely resonant flickers of melody.

Csatari’s webpage doesn’t show any upcoming gigs; watch this space. And the free semimonthly outdoor shows out back of Pioneer Works continue this Sunday, Sept 9 at 7:30 PM with an even more careening group, Haitian tropicalia punk band Ram. You’re supposed to rsvp, but last month this blog’s owner and girlfriend both just walked in without any hassle. Even the security guy out front was chill. Go figure. 

A Stormy, Epically Relevant Jazz Standard Show by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society

In their late set last night at the Jazz Standard, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society threw caution to the wind with a stormy, careeningly dynamic career retrospective of sorts. Which isn’t what you might expect from the conductor’s intricate, tightly clustering compositions. But this era’s most thrilling, relevant large jazz ensemble’s approach perfectly fit his material’s relentless angst, white-knuckle suspense and cynically cinematic, Shostakovian portraiture.

Argue’s albums are meticulously orchestrated and produced – which is not to imply that they suffer from the digital sterility of so many big band albums these days. Even so, this show was especially fresh and full of surprises. The group opened somewhat counterintuitively with an older tune, Flux in a Box – Argue explained that he took the title of the subtly polyrhythmic, Jim McNeely-like number, with its cell-like mini-spirals and bursts, from a vast, sarcastic fictitious filmography in a David Foster Wallace novel. Alto saxophonist Alexa Tarentino chose her moments carefully for variations on staggered, fragmented phrases, pianist Adam Birnbaum offering comfortably lyrical contrast.

Then they immediately launched into the ferocious, fearlessly political material Argue has made a name for himself with in recent years. First was a series of tunes from his withering critique of gentrification, Brooklyn Babylon, kicking off with Matt Clohesy’s mighty bass chords, Sebastian Noelle’s resonant guitar astringencies, a vividly nightmarish portrait of grand construction schemes run horribly amok. Seemingly hell-bent on getting to the end, they leapt through tense pairings of instruments among the band’s eighteen members to a harried take of Coney Island, which was strangely more enigmatic here than the album’s horror-stricken, plaintive coda.

Three pieces from the group’s latest conspiracy and conspiracy theory-themed album, Real Enemies were next on the bill. Amped up to a level remarkable at this sonically pristine spot, The Enemy Within came across as a mashup of the Theme from Shaft and the Taxi Driver theme as done by an epic version of John Zorn’s Spy Vs. Spy, maybe. Dark Alliance had wry woozy P-Funk textures grounded by relentless Bernard Herrman-esque glimmer and ghostly flickers, alto saxophonist Dave Pietro resisting any possible urge to find any kind of resolution in his exquisitely troubled, modal solo. A duel with trombonist Ryan Keberle followed – not waterboarder and waterboardee, but allusively so.

The last of the triptych was the mighty, swaying Trust No One, Carl Maraghi’s serpentine baritone sax solo giving way to a sudden dip to creepy knock-knock riffs, deep-space pointillisms from Birnbaum and Noelle jumpstarting a flitting poltergeist choir from the saxes. They closed with Transit and its fiery, cloudbursting drama. Argue explained that he’d written it on a Fung Wah bus enroute from Boston to Chinatown – no wonder it’s so scary! In that context, the constant dodges between phrases rushing by, not to mention the irresistibly fun trick ending, made perfect sense. Trumpeter Jason Palmer’s solo turned out to be more of an expert series of Route 495 twists and turns than the launching pad for pyrotechnics that it usually is in concert. The takeaway: a frequently riveting performance by a crew also including but not limited to multi-reedman Sam Sadigursky, trumpeters Seneca Black and Nadje Noordhuis; trombonists Jacob Garchik, Mike Fahie and Jennifer Wharton and drummer Jon Wikan.

Majestic Menace and a Free Download From an Iconic Big Band

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society rank with the Maria Schneider Orchestra as this era’s greatest big bands, even if Argue’s eighteen-piece behemoth hasn’t been around as long as hers. While his recorded catalog is understandably smaller, he has more albums than you might be aware of, including a trio of live collections. OK, their 2011 release, Live at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is an ep – and you can download it for free at Bandcamp. Argue is bringing this mighty crew to the Jazz Standard on Aug 29, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is not cheap – $30 – but if there’s any band alive who’re worth it, it’s this one.

The ep has only three tracks, but they’re epic. Recorded on a brief East Coast tour, they constitute some of the most sinister material from the 2009 Infernal Machines album. The first number, Ferromagnetic is pure Lynchian menace, opening with a sinister Bernard Herrmann noir twinkle, then Sebastian Noelle’s guitar twangs and the reeds flutter. A mean guitar riff circles as the orchestra pulses and the skies redden, then everybody drops out for a suspenseful bass-and-synth interlude. Is that Ingrid Jensen on the solo trumpet, echoing and sputtering, before the guitar, low reeds and brass move in with a grim anthem?   

Right where Jon Wikan’s polyrhythmic intro to the album’s mightiest number, Phobos, is about to shift from suspense to “drum solo,” bassist Matt Clohesy steps in with his macabre, modal riffs, echoed by the guitar.The title refers to the Mars moon destined to someday either crash into the planet or shatter from the force of gravity as it falls, an angst underscored by John Ellis’ big tenor sax crescendo. A bit later Noelle reemerges to shadow its increasingly frantic Tourette’s, the rest of the group following an ineluctable course.

The final cut is Transit, another dark masterpiece with the same blueprint: whispery intro, ominously chromatic, mantra-like riffage and variations. Space: the final destination. Jensen’s roller-coaster of a trumpet solo has to be heard to be believed: people practice their whole lives and never play something so thrilling. Recommend this to your friends who might not know the band. It’s as close to a bite-size introduction as there is and a rare gem in the ever-more-imposing Argue catalog.

Mighty, Ambitious Large Ensemble Fun with Big Heart Machine at the Jazz Gallery

Considering the economic and logistical challenges of staging an album release show for new big band jazz, that Big Heart Machine were actually able to pull one together at all is reason for optimism. That they were able to sell out two sets last Thursday night at the Jazz Gallery is even more auspicious in light of the fact that what was once the civilized world’s default party music is now serious sitdown concert repertoire. We have Ellington to thank for that.

Ellington would have called this the first of the two types of music he was able to identify. The second set was everything a concert should be. On the album, Darcy James Argue’s production is tight as a drum; live, the orchestra threw caution to the wind with a careening intensity. Sure, there were some sonic issues, but so what. This is why we love jazz.

You don’t expect a guy who grew up meticulously copying metal guitar solos to be playing a flute – unless he’s Ian Anderson, maybe. Bandleader/composer Brian Krock does not stand on one leg while he plays, nor does he ask you to let him bring you songs from the wood. Instead, he joined the uneasy lustre of the opening of the group’s uninterrupted fifty-minute suite, Tamalpais, which rose far beyond the elegant sheen of the album version.

The one person in the house who seemed to be having more fun than anyone else was conductor Miho Hazama. Like Krock, her own work is vast and picturesque, so it was no surprise to watch her dancing while directing the ensemble. During that introductory Butch Morris-like massed group crescendo and the others that followed, she sat and waited for the orchestra to get it out of their system before returning to the score.

Krock told the crowd that he’d taken its inspiration from a hiking trip around the Bay Area. But what a trip that must have been, akin to that Dawn Oberg song about literally running across the corpse of a suicide in Golden Gate Park. Those big swells reached an angst hardly alluded to on the album. Likewise, tenor saxophonist Kevin Sun ran with an allusively troubled chromatic melody for all it was worth, echoed later in a momentary, bittersweet, after-the-rain crescendo by pianist Arcoiris Sandoval and trumpeter Kenny Warren. And guitarist Olli Hirvonen, who took centerstage throughout the show – and not necessarily volumewise – built dense dry-ice tableaux when he wasn’t anchoring one of the night’s most gorgeously poignant, circular interludes with big, booming, Porcupine Tree-like chords.

The group hit a couple of mighty high points late in the suite, trumpeter John Carlson’s muted steeliness eventually giving way to a steady, circling, elegaic theme that seemed to draw on the morose conclusion to Argue’s Brooklyn Babylon as much as, say, Ligeti.

They encored with the album’s opening number, Don’t Analyze, where Sandoval switched to synth and played what has to be the most unselfconsciously buffoonish solo on any jazz stage in town this year. She didn’t blink, either, using a lo-fi imitation of the fast-click attack you can grind out of a B3 organ if you monkey with it enough. Somewhere Bernie Worrell was grinning. The song’s gusts took on cumulo-nimbus extremes; as Hirvonen did throughout the set, he worked his pedals for keyboard and bass effects – and was a choir stashed away in the pedal too? Krock’s flitting, cold ending, which on album comes across as hard to fathom, was puckishly triumphant here.

Watch this space for Big Heart Machine’s next show. And Argue has a night coming up on Aug 29 at the Jazz Standard with his Secret Society. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30; cover is steep, $30, but they’re worth it.

Violinist Meg Okura Brings Her Kaleidoscopic Melodic Sorcery to Jazz at Lincoln Center

Anne Drummond’s flute wafts over Brian Marsella’s uneasily rippling, neoromantic piano as the opening title track on violinist Meg Okura‘s Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble’s new album, Ima Ima gets underway. Then the piano gives way to Riza Printup’s spare harp melody before the rest of the orchestra waltz in elegantly. That kind of fearless eclecticism, love of unorthodox instrumentation and laserlike sense of catchy melodies have defined Okura’s work for over a decade. The new record is streaming at Bandcamp. She and the group are playing the album release show at Dizzy’s Club tomorrow night, August 20, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is steep, $35, but this is an amazing record with a brilliant band.

The lush cinematics of that first number winds up with a shift in tempo, a wistful Sam Newsome soprano sax solo and a big crescendo based on those distantly ominous opening ripples. The epic, practically eleven-minute A Summer in Jerusalem slowly coalesces with suspenseful textures from top to bottom, the high strings of the harp down to Sam Sadigursky’s bass clarinet, surrounded by ghostly flickers. As the piece gets going, it turns into a mighty, shapeshifting Middle Eastern soul tune, more or less. Marsella’s Rhodes piano bubbles enigmatically behind Tom Harrell’s stately Andalucian trumpet and Okura working every texture and microtone you could get out of a violin. Blithe ba-ba vocalese and spiky guitar against Okura’s calm, a gentle harp/trumpet duet and then a big magnificent coda fueled by the bass clarinet offer contrasting vignettes of a time that obviously left a big mark on the bandleader.

Ebullient, bluesy muted trumpet, violin and bass clarinet spice A Night Insomnia, a steady Hollywood hills boudoir funk number that finally picks up steam with a juicy chromatic riff at the end. Birth of Shakyamuni (a.k.a. Buddha) opens with a balletesque, Tschaikovskian flair, then shifts to a Rachmaninovian bolero that brightens and flies down to Bahia on the wings of the guitar and flute. Then Okura shifts gears with an achingly beautiful opening-credits theme of sorts – would it be overkill to add Rimsky-Korsakov to this litany of Russians?

The steady, majestic, velvety Blues in Jade is all about suspense, peppered by judicious violin and vocalese cadenzas, enigmatic microtones floating from individual voices as Pablo Aslan’s bass and Jared Schonig’s drums maintain a tight, muted syncopation. Marsella’s chromatically allusive piano solo leads to a mighty crescendo that falls away when least expected.

Black Rain – a shattered 3/11 reflection from this Tokyo-born composer, maybe? – opens with Okura’s stark erhu soio, then rises with a bittersweet sweep to a more optimistic Marsella piano solo before Okura pulls the music back the shadows, ending with an almost frantically angst-fueled erhu theme.

The album’s concluding number is Tomiya, a wildly surreal mashup of Russian romanticism, vintage swing, Japanese folk themes and samba. This isn’t just one of the best jazz albums of the year – it’s one of the best albums of any kind of music released this year. Who do we have to thank for starting the meme that resulted in so many women of Japanese heritage creating such a vast body of amazing, outside-the-box big band jazz like this? Satoko Fujii, maybe?

Miho Hazama Reinvents Thelonious Monk

More about that Big Heart Machine show tonight, Aug 16 at the Jazz Gallery: Miho Hazama is conducting. Of all the major big band jazz artists right now who would be right for the job, Hazama is at the top of the list for this gig (along with Darcy James Argue, who produced the cinematic group’s killer debut album). Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30; cover is cheap by this venue’s standards at $15.

While Hazama’s own music is lush, wildly inventive and among the most exciting large ensemble work being written these days, she’s also in demand as an arranger and conductor. One prime example is The Monk: Live at Bimhuis, her forthcoming live album with the Metropole Orkest Big Band due to be streaming at Sunnyside Records this month. It’s a great opportunity to hear Hazama doing somebody else’s material, having what was obviously a great time in the process.

This is as close to a period piece as you’ll ever hear from her. She clearly gets the quirkiness, creepiness and also the deep blues in Monk’s music, right from the droll, pulsing opening of Thelonious, which seems to offer a nod to the similarly clever Monk interpretations of the Microscopic Septet. The group swing it with a brassy drive,Hans Vrooman getting the impossible task of playing the Monk role, and true to form he keeps things simple and proper. Trumpeter Rik Moi, tenor saxophonist Sjoerd Dijkhuizen and clarinetist Leo Janssen supply purposefully bluesy solos as the orchestra digs in and swings up to a jaunty dixieland crescendo.

Hazama’s charts here are often based on solo Monk piano recordings. Her take on Ruby My Dear begins with lingering, ambered Ellingtonian lustre, Moi contributing terse spirals as the rhythm section kicks in. Hazama’s deft, momentary exchanges of voicings throughout the ensemble are tantalizingly tasty, as is the return back to spare, sober glimmer.

Hazama’s most iconoclastic reinvention here bookends an otherwise gorgeous Friday the 13th with a cha-cha that borders on cartoonish  – not that Monk was necessarily opposed to that. Marc Scholten bubbles and leaps on clarinet, up to a nifty, suspenseful interlude centered around circling riffs by Vroomans and guitarist Peter Teihuis. Moi adds a bittersweet flugelhorn solo over a steady pulsing backdrop

The orchestra have a ball with Hazama’s Jersey noir allusions and contrasting swing blaze in Hackensack. Scholten and Teihuis go spinning through the blues, backed by big swells, brass glissandos and then a wry round robin of dixieland.

Round Midnight opens with a raptly muted moroseness, Moi’s flugelhorn carrying that legendary, brooding bolero riff over Vroomans’ judicious backing. Hazama’s cuisinart chart gives just about everybody a flickering moment in the spotlight as the voices shift like holiday lights about to go haywire.

With Hazama’s latin-inspired polyrhythms, taut close harmonies and blazing intensity, Epistrophy is the album’s big showstopper. Trombonist Louk Boudenstejn takes the long way around the launching pad, while Janssen is more low key, up to a triumphant coda. The night’s final number is a subtle, muted take of Crepuscule With Nellie, both Vroomans and the rest of the group matching Hazama’s terseness and clever polyrhythms.

It’s a triumph for the ensemble, which also includes Paul van der Feen and Max Boeree on saxes and clarinet, Ray Bruinsma, Nico Schepers and Martijn de Laat on trumpets, Jan Oosting, Jan Bastiani and Martin van den Berg on trombones, Aram Kershbergen on bass and Marcel Serierse on drums.

The All-Female NYChillharmonic Raises the Bar For Epic Big Band Grandeur

Finding twenty-two musicians capable of doing justice to singer/keyboardist Sara McDonald’s kinetic, stormy, intricately epic compositions is an achievement all by itself. Finding a night when they’re all available for a show in Gowanus raises that challenge exponentially. Now imagine leading that band on a broken foot.

That’s what McDonald had to contend with fronting her ensemble the NYChillharmonic back in May at Littlefield. Visibly in pain and steaming that she had to be helped onstage, she rallied and transcended the situation, singing with greater purr and wail than ever as the music rose and fell and turned kaleidoscopically behind her. Adrenaline can do that to you. She’s presumably in better shape now, and will be leading the group at Brooklyn’s best-sounding venue, National Sawdust, on Aug 2 at 7 PM. Advance tix are $20.

Unlike typical big band jazz, this unit is not a vehicle for long solos. Throughout the night, those moments tended to be cameos, an instrumentalist backed by just the rhythm section – Madgalena Abrego’s incisive guitar, Danae Greenfield’s spare piano, Adi Meyerson’s spring-loaded bass and Mareike Weining’s tersely inventive drumming. While much of the rhythm followed a slinky, swaying 4/4, sudden flares would erupt when least expected, sending the tempo and often the melody every which way. Occasionally these would take the form of clever, false endings McDonald loves so much.

The Radiohead influence that was so pervasive in McDonald’s earlier work is still there, intricately voiced, looping phrases and permutations filtering through every section of the orchestra. Yet throughout the set, from the tight sunburst pulses of Surface Tension through the mighty, cinematic closing number, Easy Comes the Ghost, the harmonies remained vastly more translucent than opaque. McDonald reached back for extra power in the gusting, crescendoing Blumen, in contrast with the smoldering lustre that peppered To Covet a Quiet Mind. With jazz inventiveness and spontaneity but also rock drive and raw power, McDonald’s music is its own genre.

McDonald didn’t address the issue that this was an all-female edition of the band until late in the set. “They’re great musicians,” she said, nonchalant and succinct, and left it at that. The lineup was a mix of established artists – notably Jenny Hill on tenor sax, Rachel Therrien on trumpet and Kaila Vandever on trombone – and rising star talent. The rest of the group, clearly amped to be playing this material, included Alden Hellmuth and Erena Terakubo  on alto sax, Emily Pecoraro on tenor and Mercedes Beckman on baritone with Leah Garber, Rebecca Steinberg and Kathleen Doran on trumpets; Nicole Connelly and Erin Reifler on trombones; Gina Benalcazar on bass trombone; and a string quartet comprising violinists Audrey Hayes and Kiho Yutaka, violist Dora Kim and cellist Jillian Blythe.

And a big shout-out to the sound guy. The latest Littlefield space is nothing like the old one: it’s a barewalled rock club, about the same size as the Footlight. Miking so many instruments with highs bouncing all over the place was a daunting task to say the least. That the guy managed to give the group as much clarity as he did was impressive all by itself, let alone without all sorts of nasty feedback. In the pristine sonics at National Sawdust next Thursday that won’t be an issue.