Over the last fourteen months, composer/pianist Miho Hazama has programmed an ambitious series of concerts at the Jazz Gallery showcasing new works by some of the jazz world’s best big band composers. Thursday night’s program was a pretty radical shift, featuring compositions for string quartet – often bolstered by Hazama’s own piano plus percussion and alto sax – from the books of three imaginative, individualistic up-and-coming tunesmiths. One of them was Hazama herself.
Like the similarly colorful, imagistic Maria Schneider, Hazama is best known as a composer and conductor. This show was a welcome opportunity to catch her flexing her chops on the keys. The night’s opening suite by Nathan Parker Smith had some almost maddenly tricky, punchy rhythms, which she handled seamlessly. Her closing nunber, the simply titled Fugue, from her 2015 Time River album, was more chordally challenging, with a succession of cleverly intertwined voicings from the entire group
The strings – violinists Tomoko Akaboshi and Maria Im, cellist Marta Bagratuni and violist Matt Consul – bristled with uneasy close harmonies, fierce microtones and slashing, incisive, cellular motives alongside Hazama and drummer Lee Fish throughout Smith’s suite. The opening movement came across as something akin to the Sirius Quartet covering Rasputina, and came full circle at the end. In between, there were unexpectedly shimmery, atmospheric passages and cycling interludes closer to indie classical than jazz: of all the pieces on the bill, this was the most acerbic and bracingly acidic.
Ethan Helm played lyrical, kinetic, brightly spiraling alto sax over the strings and drums in his own four-part suite, inspired by his first trip to Amsterdam. In case you might be wondering, there was no reggae involved: these particular memories came across in what some people might consider to be shockingly sharp focus. Echo effects recalling light playing off the canals; a stark tableau inspired by van Gogh’s Yellow House, featuring some especially poignant violin from Im; and a restless, bustling, constantly shifting portrait of the red light district numbered among many highlights.
The most unselfconsciously gorgeous piece on the bill was the New York premiere of Hazama’s Chimera, featuring the full ensemble. True to the title, it was an Escher-like, multifacted, interlocking web of voices, spiced with biting chromatic descents and a series of false endings. Hazama’s colors, from murky lows to starry highs, often both at once a la Gil Evans, were typical. Watching her play them against each other, whether with fiery vigor or pointillistic elegance, was a revelation..