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.