The JCA Orchestra are the Boston counterpart to Miho Hazama’s rotating cast of big band jazz talent, whose home until the lockdown was the Jazz Gallery. But the JCA Orchestra have been championing the work of lesser-known composers since before Hazama was born. These days the Jazz Gallery has been repurposed as a web tv studio – temporarily, let’s hope – and the JCA Orchestra are on ice, at least for the time being. But they have a brilliant, wildly diverse and entertaining new album, Live at the BPC streaming at youtube.
A couple of extremely colorful compositions by violinist Mimi Rabson open and then close this concert from early October, 2018. The former, Romanople, imagines a Turkish entourage journeying to ancient Rome, only to be drafted into the army and killed in battle. The Strings Theory Trio – Rabson, cellist Junko Fujiwara and violinist Helen Sherrah-Davies – slink along on a cantering Near Eastern theme, turning it over to the brass for a boisterous Balkan dance with a simmering Phil Scharff clarinet solo. The orchestra’s eerie nebulosity as the two themes mingle is deliciously disquieting; Fujiwara’s similarly bracing solo is tantalizingly brief. Everything falls apart, as empires tend to do, a ghost of a melody undulating into the sunset.
The closing number, Super Eyes – Private Heroes is a sort of big band take on Spy vs. Spy-era John Zorn, a bustling swing tune with an incisively bluesy Sherrah-Davies solo over a halfspeed breakdown, trombonist David Harris’ tongue-in-cheek solo triggering an irresistibly funny coda.
The middle of the set is every bit as entertaining. The slow, enigmatic swells that introduce The Latest, the first of two Harris compositions, don’t hint at the electra-glide latin groove that follows, Melanie Howell-Brooks’ crystalline bass clarinet solo over a catchy theme that looks back to McCoy Tyner’s orchestrated 1976 classic, Fly With the Wind. Subtle variations on Thai-influenced pentatonics and a fanged, prowling Norm Zocher guitar solo raise the energy from there.
Harris’ conduction on his other tune here, Yellow, Orange, Blue, blends Butch Morris-style massed clusters and bursts with a catchy, allusively Middle Eastern clave theme, strongly bringing to mind Amir ElSaffar‘s adventures in largescale improvisation. Trombonist Jason Camelio’s invigorating solo as drummer Tony “Thunder” Smith drives this beast doublespeed and then cuts loose himself is one of the album’s tastiest interludes.
Trombonist Bob Pilkington’s epic The Sixth Snake sheds its skin more times than you can count, from suspenseful atmosphere puncuated by Vessela Stoyanova’s vibraphone, to Darcy James Argue-like insistence, to an eerie, spacious Maxim Lubarsky solo piano break. The composer follows with a sagacious solo as the rhythm edges toward a funky sway; Lihi Haruvi’s sailing soprano sax narrowly averts a collision with Scharff and draws an explosion of applause before the funky romp out.
Uneasy microtones filter through the airy introduction of another equally epic number, Darrell Katz’s A Wallflower in the Amazon, a setting of text by his late wife, poet Paula Tatarunis. Soprano Rebecca Shrimpton gives velvety, soaring affirmation to an embattled individualist finally finding her footing in an unexpected milieu, the band reaching from a lustrous sway, to a bubbling waltz, to a tropical duel between the string section and Hiro Honshuko’s EWI. Rick Stone’s agitated alto sax fuels a shivering massed coda; Shrimpton pulls the volume down and the intensity back up to all-stops-out squall. They take it out elegantly.
A richly conceived accomplishment by a group that also includes trumpeters Mike Peipman, Dan Rosenthal and Jerry Sabatini, horn player Jim Mosher, percussionist Gilbert Mansour and bassist Jesse Williams.