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Tag: Meg Okura‘s Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble

Violinist Meg Okura Brings Her Kaleidoscopic Melodic Sorcery to Jazz at Lincoln Center

Anne Drummond’s flute wafts over Brian Marsella’s uneasily rippling, neoromantic piano as the opening title track on violinist Meg Okura‘s Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble’s new album, Ima Ima gets underway. Then the piano gives way to Riza Printup’s spare harp melody before the rest of the orchestra waltz in elegantly. That kind of fearless eclecticism, love of unorthodox instrumentation and laserlike sense of catchy melodies have defined Okura’s work for over a decade. The new record is streaming at Bandcamp. She and the group are playing the album release show at Dizzy’s Club tomorrow night, August 20, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is steep, $35, but this is an amazing record with a brilliant band.

The lush cinematics of that first number wind up with a shift in tempo, a wistful Sam Newsome soprano sax solo and a big crescendo based on those distantly ominous opening ripples. The epic, practically eleven-minute A Summer in Jerusalem slowly coalesces with suspenseful textures from top to bottom, the high strings of the harp down to Sam Sadigursky’s bass clarinet, surrounded by ghostly flickers. As the piece gets going, it turns into a mighty, shapeshifting Middle Eastern soul tune, more or less. Marsella’s Rhodes piano bubbles enigmatically behind Tom Harrell’s stately Andalucian trumpet and Okura working every texture and microtone you could get out of a violin. Blithe ba-ba vocalese and spiky guitar against Okura’s calm, a gentle harp/trumpet duet and then a big magnificent coda fueled by the bass clarinet offer contrasting vignettes of a time that obviously left a big mark on the bandleader.

Ebullient, bluesy muted trumpet, violin and bass clarinet spice A Night Insomnia, a steady Hollywood hills boudoir funk number that finally picks up steam with a juicy chromatic riff at the end. Birth of Shakyamuni (a.k.a. Buddha) opens with a balletesque, Tschaikovskian flair, then shifts to a Rachmaninovian bolero that brightens and flies down to Bahia on the wings of the guitar and flute. Then Okura shifts gears with an achingly beautiful opening-credits theme of sorts – would it be overkill to add Rimsky-Korsakov to this litany of Russians?

The steady, majestic, velvety Blues in Jade is all about suspense, peppered by judicious violin and vocalese cadenzas, enigmatic microtones floating from individual voices as Pablo Aslan’s bass and Jared Schonig’s drums maintain a tight, muted syncopation. Marsella’s chromatically allusive piano solo leads to a mighty crescendo that falls away when least expected.

Black Rain – a shattered 3/11 reflection from this Tokyo-born composer, maybe? – opens with Okura’s stark erhu soio, then rises with a bittersweet sweep to a more optimistic Marsella piano solo before Okura pulls the music back the shadows, ending with an almost frantically angst-fueled erhu theme.

The album’s concluding number is Tomiya, a wildly surreal mashup of Russian romanticism, vintage swing, Japanese folk themes and samba. This isn’t just one of the best jazz albums of the year – it’s one of the best albums of any kind of music released this year. Who do we have to thank for starting the meme that resulted in so many women of Japanese heritage creating such a vast body of amazing, outside-the-box big band jazz like this? Satoko Fujii, maybe?

A Richly Tuneful, Darkly Majestic Twinbill in Gowanus on the 22nd

In terms of majestic sweep, cinematic scope and clever outside-the-box humor, it’s hard to think of a more interesting group in big band jazz than the Erica Seguine/Shannon Baker Jazz Orchestra. They’re playing Brooklyn’s home of big band jazz, Shapeshifter Lab on Feb 22 at 9 PM. Another excellent ensemble, violinist Meg Okura‘s Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble, opens the night at 8. Cover here is usually in the $10-15 range and has yet to be determined by the venue, at least according to their concert calendar.

The most recent (full disclosure: only) time this blog was in the house at one of the jazz orchestra’s shows was on a muggy night in September of 2015 at Shrine up in Harlem. Since that was a long time ago, it’s reasonable to expect their set to be somewhat different. While it’s overly reductionistic to characterize Baker’s work as marked by tectonically shifts and Seguine’s by picturesque narratives and sardonic, sometimes dark humor, those qualities factor heavily into their respective writing. Here’s what happened at that show many months ago.

An uneasily steady, insistent piano melody gave way to lustrous atmospherics with wordless womens’ voices sailing overhead. As the piece went on, it shifted further toward the macabre: Darcy James Argue seems to be a big influence on this one. A trumpet fluttered and finally flared as the enigmatic lustre grew and the rhythmic drive rose, then the piece finally went down an echoey rabbit hole into fullscale terror as the piano anvilled sardonically through the mist.

The next number on the bill began by building a stately, steady, similarly enigmatic atmosphere that went in just as much of an ominous direction as the first, an apprehensively bending tenor sax solo over grimly massed sustain from the orchestra; then they pounced along, sax going full steam, over a beat that was practically ska. They ended it quietly and suddenly with more of that insistent piano riffage.

A stormy brass-and-vocalese intro kicked off the tune after that, but then the band pulled back quickly in favor of a hypnotic, resonantly pedaled piano melody, vocalese hovering overhead. A cascading piano melody over moody modal changes kicked off the next lush series of waves, up to a mighty crescendo, a surreal drums-and-vocals interlude, a stuck car horn-like passage, a bit of a pause and then a return to calm moodiness. Looking back, this was a pretty dark set!

From there the group took a slow, relentless series of upward climbs in the next piece, punctuated by a fluttering and eventually wailing tenor sax solo, then a slowly strolling, saturnine lustre that made a long launching pad for a trombone solo that eventually fell away mournfully. The carnivalesque, latin-tinged theme that followed had to be a Seguine composition: nobody writes like her, and this was a blazing good time spiced with wry, evil cartoon trombone, a pirate’s-boot strut, twisted nickelodeon piano and more than one peek-a-boo ending. And that was just the first set.

Considering how much time has passed since this show, it’s hard to picture just who, out of a handful of familiar faces, was in the group, other than Baker on reeds and Seguine conducting out in front of the group with a confident grace. The ubiquitous Ben Kono on alto sax, probably, and Scott Reeves on valve trombone, maybe. Seguine and Baker’s compositions are so much fun to play that they always get top-tier talent for their infrequent gigs: if big band jazz is your thing, miss this one and be sorry later.