The Dennis Kwok Jazz Orchestra’s album Windward Bound – streaming at Bandcamp – opens with a mist of wave splashes and sounds of shorebirds. But those aren’t samples. That’s the band conjuring up remarkable facsimiles of both. It’s a characteristically playful touch for multi-reeedman Kwok’s six-part suite, inspired by sailing on Lake Ontario and the lore of the sea.
The opening theme, The Calling begins as a calm, baroque-influenced prelude for winds, the rest of the nineteeen-piece ensemble sweeping up and in with hints of a sea chantey. It has the same lush, bucolic familiarity as Maria Schneider‘s lake-themed compositions.
Pianist Augustine Yates’ expectant pedalpoint anchors Kwok’s balmy alto sax intro, singer Caity Gyorgy adding lustrous vocalese as Ready, Aye, Ready gets underway. Bassist Jonathan Wielebnowski and drummer Jacob Wutzke drive the orchestra to a triumphant series of peaks, then shift from a funky sway to suspense as the piece ebbs and rises again. There’s a moment where guitarist Aidan Funston takes over the pedalpoint that could be Darcy James Argue in a foreboding moment…except that this album is generally upbeat and optimistic.
A Flat Boat Is a Fast Boat has driving latin flair, horns bursting above a rapid swing that threatens to get frantic, then the saxes – who include Naomi McCarroll-Butler, Sophia Smith, Brenden Varty, Kyle Tarder-Stoll and Jonathan Lau – battle it out with the brass. The fluttery false ending before Funston’s spiky solo is a cool touch.
The album’s big improvisational epic is The Tempest, beginning with stark low-register foreshadowing from the piano, followed by a series of skeletal accents throughout the ensemble as the bass growls in the distance. Slowly they rise out of muted skronk to an increasingly nebulous but agitated swirl as flute and trombones soar and resonate. The storm recedes quickly with a few fitful flourishes.
The fifth number, Elegy is where the whole group really coalesce with a shadowy power, in variations on a broodingly rising modal piano riff. Kwok’s misty, melancholy lines pack a quiet punch when the music recedes. The lakeside imagery as the upward drive returns is characteristically evocative.
Kwok brings the suite full circle with the final number, Red, Right, Returning, building on the original high-seas theme with carefree sax and a soulful muted trumpet solo. The rest of this inspired crew include trumpeters Megan Jutting, Matt Smith, Paul Callander, Marie Goudy and trombonists Nick Marshall, Andrew Gormley, Charlotte Mcafee-Brunner and Inayat Kassam.
So where the hell was this blog when this album hit the web in 2017? Focusing on the New York live music scene. Concerts: remember those? It won’t be long before we’re all going out again just like we used to. This summer, everybody’s going to bust loose. Lockdowners, you’re surrounded, time to raise the white flag or else.