Composer/conductor Kyle Saulnier’s mighty twenty-piece Awakening Orchestra played one of the year’s best concerts last month at Shapeshifter Lab in Gowanus, on a fantastic doublebill with pianist Fabian Almazan‘s chamber jazz group, Rhizome. Saulnier’s most obvious comparison is Darcy James Argue, considering how fearlessly relevant and politically inspired the two composers’ recent work has been. Maria Schneider is another, in terms of epic sweep and textural lustre.
Pablo Masis introduced one of Saulnier’s favorite recent tropes, a long, searching trumpet solo to open the evening’s first song, an imaginative reinvention of the Low cult favorite, Murderer, sung over balmy high reed swirls and cloudbanks of brass by Julie Hardy and Seth Fruiterman. As would be the case throughout the performance, James Shipp’s lingering vibraphone provided unsettling, twinkling contrast, in the same vein as the Claudia Quintet, while trumpeter Seneca Black prowled the perimeter with a similar judicious unease, up to a simmering coda.
Jesse Lewis’ The Robert Frost Experiment gave alro saxophonist Vito Chiavuzzo a glistening backdrop for wistful pastoralisms, drummer Jared Schonig pushing toward a steady heroic theme, guitarist Michael McAllister adding enigmatic textures. Empty Promises, the second movement of Saulnier’s This Is Not the Answer suite from the band’s 2014 album, moved deftly from lushly nocturnal ambience to a steadier disquiet, echoing Bernard Herrmann with its subtly shifting rhythms, trumpet/high reeds dichotomies and a vivid wee-hours street scene of sorts from Chiavuzzo, rising to an angst-fueled peak.
As dynamic as the early part of the set was, the high point was Saulnier’s new election year suite, a work in progress. He explained that he’d originally envisioned the project as pretty grim, but that it had become much more complicated than that (Bernie Sanders had not yet conceded on Bastille Day, the date of this show). The first of these numbers, Free Labor, Free Land, Free Men draws on the original slogan of the Republican Party. Trombonist Willem De Koch supplied the wary, circumspect introduction, the orchestra reaching toward a vast, brooding panorama, Schonig finally kicking in and then turning it over to Shipp’s opaque atmospherics and then unexpectedly anthemic, psychedelic lines. De Koch’s wounded foghorn resonance took centerstage as early promise gave way to sheer dejection, chaos and then blaring, stentorian sarcasm. Let’s not forget that the Republicans began life as abolitionists. The second part, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité began with Aaron Kotler’s lyrical, neoromantically optimistic piano, RJ Avallone’s trumpet leading a bustling, swinging drive upward, Samuel Ryder’s bluesy tenor sax spiraling into a brief, harrowing conclusion.
Saulnier emphasized that he wanted to wind up the show on a positive note, and then led the group through a plush take of Hi-Lili, a summery chamber-pop reworking of an early 50s hit, Fruiterman on vocals. Altogether, a provocative and powerful performance by the group, which also featured saxophonists Andrew Gould, Andrew Gutauskas and Carl Maraghi; trumpeter Daniel Urness; trombonists Michael Boscarino, Matthew Musselman and Joe Barati, and bassist Nick Dunston. They return to Shapeshifter Lab to continue the suite this coming November 11 at 7:30 PM.
Almazan followed with a simlarly luminous, dynamic, more briskly paced set equally informed by neoromanticism and cutting-edge large ensemble jazz. The pianist fired off long, sinuous cascades, his balletesque leaps and bounds anchored on the low end by bassist Linda Oh, who really got a workout as the show went on. Guitarist Camila Meza added alternately misty and crystalline vocalese as well as decisive, emphatic chordal swells over the shifting sheets and tricky rhythmic pulse of a string quartet, fueled by the drums’ exuberant bluster. An anthemic, cinematic sweep gave way to brief, lively Afro-Cuban romps, a marionettish string interlude or two, allusions to Shostakovian horror and latin noir balladry. Following the Awakening Orchestra and managing not to be anticlimactic was quite the challenge, but Almazan and his crew delivered. He’s currently on West Coast tour; his next gig in that part of the world is on August 12 with support from the Aruan Ortiz Trio at the SF Jazz Center, 201 Franklin St. in San Francisco. $15 tix are available.