If there’s a future for big band jazz, it’s in good hands with Christopher Zuar. Him, and Ben Kono, the ubiquitous multi-reedman who seems to be front and center at pretty much every good big band performance in this city these days, including plenty of lyrical work on alto sax and oboe at the Christopher Zuar Orchestra’s ecstatic, dynamic show Thursday night at Symphony Space..The nineteen-piece ensemble, including the composer out front on the podium, comprised members of the various Mingus repertory bands, the Maria Schneider Orchestra and the Alan Ferber Nonet. Notwithstanding this group’s camaraderie, never mind a program packed with strong tunesmithing and all sorts of ideas worth stealing, Zuar has staked a claim in an ever-shrinking field dominated by a few iconic composers and Jazz Hall of Fame personalities: Ron Carter, David Murray and Roy Hargrove, for instance. Suffice it to say that at the end of the day, filthy lucre is not the name of the game: you have to do this out of pure passion. This group had plenty of that, as does Zuar’s debut album, Musings, this blog’s choice as best jazz debut of 2016.
The concert gave an impressively full house a chance to revel in the nuance as well as the big hooks that Zuar has made his stock in trade. To see that the night’s best number was not a richly conversational new arrangement of Egberto Gismonti’s rippling, tropical epic 7 Aneis, or the plaintive ballad Lonely Road, but Zuar’s newest number of the night, portends well for his career. He introduced that diptych, Native Tongue, as his way of writing his way out of a musical existential crisis in the wake of the album’s release earlier this spring. The composition turned out to be a dynamically crescendoing anthem matching brooding Bach, bright Brazil, an enigmatic second part fueled by Mike Holober’s incisive piano paired with Mark Ferber’s terse drumming, a moodily expressive Charles Pillow clarinet solo that finally soared skyward, and an almost defiantly fiery, brass-fueled coda
Otherwise, despite the grandeur and majesty of the rest of the program, it was the subtle moments that resonated the most. The subtle handoffs between voices to complete a phrase, and the sarcastic trick ending that Zuar spun inside out at the end of the opening number, Remembrance, were among the most memorable. But so was the sheerly cantabile, singalong balance between brass and winds in Of Certain Uncertainty, which matched the actual vocalese, sung with relish by Aubrey Johnson. She’s a major addition to this band. Jo Lawry does a fine job on the album, but Johnson brought a touch of sass and brass, found the inner blue-eyed soul ballad at the center of Vulnerable States and brought out every ounce of it. She may be best known for her bell-like clarity, but this show reminded how much else she has up her sleeve.
Guitarist Pete McCann got a chance to chew the scenery with a completely over-the-top metal solo midway through Ha! Joke’s on You – centered around a “uh-oh, here comes trouble” funk riff – winding it up with a just plain hilarious, furtive glissando at the end that had both the band and audience in stitches.
The second set was a bit shorter but every bit as eclectic, including a spiraling, achingly lyrical soprano sax solo from Jason Rigby on the blustery So Close, So Far Away, along with the wryly humorous Chaconne – with elements of both Bach and Led Zep – and the aptly titled Anthem. In sum, a lush and incisive performance by a crew that also included Dave Pietro on alto sax, Carl Maraghi on baritone sax; Tony Kadleck, Jay Owens, Dave Smith and Matt Holman on trumpets; Matt McDonald, Mark Patterson and Alan Ferber on trombones; another ubiquitously welcome presence, Jennifer Wharton on bass trombone; and Aidan O’Donnell on bass. If everybody here can find time in their schedules, it would be rewarding to see this band get a traditional Monday night residency somewhere. Jazz Gallery, are you interested?