Splasc (h) WS CDH 855

Before the Dawn

Downtown, they say, is a state of mind. So is so-called downtown music, as these two live big band sessions demonstrate. With polychromatic ideas enlivening both groups, and with composers extending and distend the status quo, the points of congruence between SPONTANEOUS — recorded in May 2002 at the epicentre of hip, Manhattan’s CBGB’s — and BEFORE THE DAWN — recorded 16 days later at a jazz festival in Hamamatsu, Japan — are closer than you’d imagine.

Each CD features a clutch of top-rank soloists and section players, although the first CD’s two compositions are firmly in the instinctive tradition of post-New Thing large ensembles, while the BEFORE THE DAWN’s five tunes are more carefully arranged. That difference may reflect the orientation of the leaders, though, rather than where each is domiciled.

Bassist William Parker, the unofficial mayor of New York’s Lower East Side, has been in thick of the avant garde for 30 years, playing with groups of every size and with everyone from Cecil Taylor to David S. Ware. Formally educated with degrees from both Japanese universities and Boston’s New England Conservatory, pianist Satoko Fujii has evolved her own style drawing on mentors like Paul Bley, traditional Japanese sounds and echoes of post-Rock. She also lives part of the year in Tokyo and part in New York, where besides leading smaller bands, she helms her Orchestra-West, with sidemen often closely allied to the Parker circle.

DAWN allows her to show off her hometown team as Orchestra-East, which is both good and bad. Some 0f the players have a history in the Island’s somewhat insular experimental music scene, and add unexpected textures to her composition. Others toil at more conventional gigs, which on this disc sometimes leads to the creation of vamps from the sections that are more reminiscent of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra than so-called outside large bands.

This musical schizophrenia is most notable on the almost 20 minute “Joh-Ha-Cue”. Initially moody and atmospheric, it begins by featuring Kunihiro Izumi, the alto saxist from Shibusa Shirazu (SS), a local avant-big band soloing in a reedy Klezmer-lite style. But in his showcase, Pikaia leader trumpeter Takao Watanabe moves between a whinnying muted lead line and a Maynard Ferguson-like screech. Almost before you know it, SS’s drummer Masahiro Uemura is bearing down on the sounds like a rock-influenced Buddy Rich and bassist Toshiki Nagata comes up with enough highly amplified thumb pops to fit in on a Brothers Johnson West Coast R&B session. Here and elsewhere, tenor saxophonist Hiroaki Katayama takes on the role Flip Phillips and much later Sal Nistico had in successive Woody Herman Herds: the reed sparkplug whose gruff growls and honks goose on the others.

Eventually swing gives way to gentle suggestion of gagaku music in the tune’s second section, with SS’s baritone man Ryuichi Yoshida, providing gentle, rural- sounding flute playing that could almost come from a shakuhachi. Cowbell thwacks and irregular patterns characterize the drummer’s contributions, until unison andante trombone lines give way to an open-horned, chromatic trumpet solo by Natsuki Tamura, Fujii’s husband and closest collaborator. Working with only the bass and drums behind him, his outbursts alternate with unison smears from brass and reed sections. As the other horns ascend and descend the chord structure, the drummer rolls and ruffs. Tamura then comes up with some unexpectedly gritty freylach tones, while the bassist’s unvarying rhythmic structure holds the tune together. Ending with all 15 musicians shouting out discordant timbres as loudly as they can, the coda showcases Jungle-style plunger work from the trumpeter.

Earlier, on “Pakonya”, baritonist Yoshida slurs, snarls, shouts and triple tongues out split tones, bouncing in and out of the altissimo range to confirm his avant-garde credentials. Added as well are darting Cecil Taylor-like arpeggios from the keyboard, one of the few times Fujii solos. Nevertheless, the underlying theme is strictly AfroCuban, complete with the band members noisily vocalizing, as well as a Randy Brecker-style high notes and brassy solo that isn’t ascribed to, but probably comes from trumpeter Yoshihito Fukumoto, who plays in Orquestra de la Luz, Tokyo’s (!) most acclaimed salsa band.

On other tracks there are effervescent and symphonic suggestions that meld conventional horn parts with contributions from Fukumoto, Free Improv veteran trombonist Tetsuya Higashi and tenor saxophonist Kenichi Matsumoto, whose slow, gliding aural walk contains a sprinkling of split tones. With wounded rhino squeals from the baritone sometimes vying with Arabic-sounding high reed interludes, and a restless drummer whose boppish bomb-dropping mixed with steady rock-like thump alternately pays homage to Kenny Clarke and Rush’s Neil Peart, other tracks seem to lack a cohesive vision.

Then again would the unison vocal spirit chanting that mixes with riffing horns on “Wakerasuke” have an additional resonance for an Oriental, rather than an Occidental audience? Older pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi wrote a similar section in a composition on her SHOGUN album years ago. With the sound reminiscent of a crowd at a sumo wrestling match or amateur talent time in Bedlam, it adds a confusing subtext to the piece. Otherwise it’s all daringly speedy bass runs, mewling trombone slurs, honking, dueling tenor sax lines plus octave jumps and piano clipping from the leader.

More catholic in conception than Fujii’s CD, SPONTANEOUS is a sound monument to the bigger band currents that have been around since ASCENSION. Setting the pace with judicious rhythm at the beginning, Parker is subsequently heard as infrequently on his session as Fujii is on hers. Here he sets up the pulse, helps create some light, Gil Evans-like rhythmic underpinning, and then gets out of the way for the other 16 musicians.

Along the way Gold Sparkle Band (GSB) member Charlie Waters sounds out some shrill, split-tone swaggering clarinet tones and trumpeter Matt Lavalle moves from shrill slurs, a more mellow middle register and chromatic runs, with the double drum team hitchhiking along behind him. Lavalle ends his solo double-tonguing with an allusion to the Woody Woodpecker theme. Squealing, multiphonic alto work from Rob Brown, trombonist Dick Griffin’s more expansive brass vibrations, lockstep rhythmic patterns and double bass drum pedal action and press rolls set up other standards. As another point of difference between this group and Fujii’s, tenor saxophonist Sabir Mateen may double time and swoop over the massed sections playing behind him, but you wouldn’t confuse that work with what Joe Farell used to do with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band. This is especially true when Mateen introduces snarling panting dog tones.

Throughout, there’s enough room for the soloists as there would be in more traditional big bands, yet riffing tutti passages, with the occasional high trumpet trill poking through the other sounds, provide the connective tissue to holds this together. By the end of the first track, the sections are moving as one, with themes sounded at different times varying the beat, all of which finally combine into a lumbering, shuddering end stop.

Dedicated to bassist Charles Mingus, there are times on the second track that the offbeat shuffle from the drummers — who individually power the GBS or David S. Ware’s and Matthew Shipp projects — plus the wiggling, blaring brass are more reminiscent of Sun Ra’s Arkestra or a studio funk band than anything Mingus wrote. Still Alex Lodico, playing Jimmy Knepper to Parker’s Mingus, corkscrews out emphasized plunger tones with a bit of grit at the end, while longtime Parker associate, trumpeter Lewis Barnes glisses from bent notes to repetitions. As the band forges on polyrhyhmically, with a tuba’s pedal point ostinato added, trumpeter Roy Campbell, Parker’s associate in Other Dimensions in Music, makes his way up the scale in half step grace notes backed by a steady walking pulse from the bassist. All around him the brass peck out their parts as the reeds surge and smudge the bar lines below them. As spontaneous hand clapping breaks out — another Mingusian touch — Matten overblows himself into dog whistle territory. Spurring the band forward as it undulates back-and-forth at the same time, his reed-shattering, incendiary tones serve the same incendiary purpose tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin’s did with Mingus. With the reeds and brass still detonating sounds every which way the piece fades away.

Whether your preference is for downtown Tokyo or downtown Manhattan, if you’re a modern big band follower, you’ll probably want both these discs.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Spontaneous: 1. Spontaneous Flowers 2. Spontaneous Mingus*

Personnel: Spontaneous: Lewis Barnes, Roy Campbell, Matt Lavalle (trumpets); Dick Griffin, Masahiko Kono, Alex Lodico, Steve Swell (trombones); Dave Hofstra (tuba)*; Rob Brown (alto saxophone, flute); Ori Kaplan (alto saxophone); Charlie Waters (alto saxophone, clarinet); Sabir Mateen (alto and tenor saxophones); Darryl Foster (tenor and soprano saxophones); Dave Swelson (baritone saxophone); William Parker (bass); Andrew Barker, Guillermo E. Brown (drums)

Track Listing: Dawn: 1. Pakonya 2. Joh-Ha-Cue 3. Wakerasuke 4. Before the Dawn 5. Yattoko Mittoko

Personnel: Dawn: Natsuki Tamura, Yoshihito Fukumoto, Takao Watanabe, Tsuneo Takeda (trumpets); Hiroshi Fukumura, Haguregumo Nagamatsu, Tetsuya Higashi (trombones); Sachi Hayasaka, Kunihiro Izumi (alto saxophones); Hiroaki Katayama, Kenichi Matsumoto (tenor saxophones); Ryuichi Yoshida (baritone saxophone, flute); Satoko Fujii (piano); Toshiki Nagata (bass); Masahiro Uemura (drums)