Bertrand Denzler/Onceim

Confront ccs 37

Satoko Fujii Orchestra Berlin

Ichigo Ichie

Libra Records 212 037

Circum Grand Orchestra


Circum-Disc CD 1401

Orcheatra Senza Confini/Orkester Brez Meja

Orcheatra Senza Confini/Orkester Brez Meja


Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris

Possible Universe

NBR SA Jazz 014

Something In The Air: Big Bands Redux

By Ken Waxman

Although most people associate big bands with the Swing Era dances and later, jazzier, manifestations such as Nimmons’n’Nine and The Boss Brass, despite the dearth of venues and difficulties of keeping even a combo working steadily, musicians persist in utilizing large ensembles. Like muralists who prefer the magnitude of a large canvas, composers, arrangers and players appreciate the colours and breath available using numerous, well-balanced instruments.

Case in point is Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii. Like a traveller who dons a new outfit when moving to a new locale, Fujii organizes a new big band. So Fujii, who recently relocated from New York to Berlin, debuts the 12-piece Orchestra Berlin (Libra Records 212 037), joining the large ensembles she already leads in New York, Tokyo and Nagoya. Although ABCD, the final track gives individuals solo space, including some dynamic string plucking and key slapping vigor from Fujii, the disc’s showpiece is the extensive, but subtle sound melding highlighted in the title suite. Treating the orchestra as one multi-hued instrument, most of the skillfully arranged climaxes have the seven brass and reed players operating as one undulating whole. At the same time, two drummers – Michael Griener and Peter Orins – keep themes on course during transitions with surging whitecap-like rhythms, buoyed by bassist Jan Roder’s robust walking. Brief, but zesty solos also appear like sophisticated scallops in the origami-like sound creation. For instance, Roder’s harsh thumps face off with trumpeter Natsuki Tamura on “Ichigo Ichie 3”, with the trumpeter later backing up to race guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi slurred fingering to a mountain top-high plateau of interlocked timbres. Trombonist Matthias Müller’s yearning plunger moans cut through the rumbling thunder-like tension from the other horns on “Ichigo Ichie 1”; while tenor saxophonist Gebhard Ullman’s metal-shaking glissandi reach raw quivering excitement on “Ichigo Ichie 2”, with his solo complemented by gravelly trumpet grunts. Instructively that track starts out with the group swinging as confidently as any traditional big band. All-in-all, Fujii’s pivotal talent coordinates radiant group motion plus stunning single showcases to create a challenging yet satisfying program.

Tellingly, drummer Orins plus trumpeter Christian Pruvost – both of whom play in a quartet with Fujii – are two of the dozen players who make up the Lille-based Circum Grand Orchestra. But its’ 12 (Circum-Disc CD 1401), only resembles Orchestra Berlin in number not style. Just as sushi and paté are wildly differently concoctions, but both are food, so the CGO’s composer/leader, electric bassist Christoph Hache’s take on a big band differs from Fujii’s. Hache’s six tracks float rather than swing, but avoid being lightweight by anchoring the tunes with a rhythm section of piano, two guitars, two basses and two drummers. From the top, 12 is constituted as a musical journey as a pre-recorded voice rhymes off itinerary stops. The pieces are also framed by their soloists. “Graphic” for instance slides awfully close to lounge music via Stefan Orins’ moderated piano licks plus wordless vocalizing from flugelhornist Christoph Motury. Even the subsequent tenor saxophone solo is so reminiscent of a lonesome night on a deserted street that it takes a tag-team effort from drummers Orins and Jean-Luc Landsweerot to enliven the pace. On the other hand “Padoc” could be “Peter and the Wolf” re-imagined by Ozzy Osbourne, as a buoyant flute and bass clarinet stop-time duet twirls into rugged melody characterized by wide flanges and distortions from guitarists Sébastien Beaumont and Ivann Cruz, thick tremolo keyboard strides and undulating, accelerating saxophone splashes. Putting aside the toughness suggested by reed shrills, string reverb and percussion clobbering that underlines much of the music the key to 12 is probably the title track. Like a model changing from an outfit of raw wool to one of sleek silk, the romantic continuum suggested by the graceful dual flugelhorn introduction is swiftly coloured with streaming counterpoint from the reeds and rhythm section, retreats to dual flute sonata-like patterns and climaxes by highlighting both interpretation in symmetrical fashion.

It’s hard not to envision symmetry when dealing with Orcheatra Senza Confini/Orkester Brez Meja (Dobialabel). As the title indicates this 17-piece ensemble was spawned by merging the Italian Orcheatra Senza Confini (OSC) with the Slovanian Orkester Brez Meja (OBM), as Slovanian drummer Zlatko Kaučič and Italian bassist Giovanni Maier share composing and conducting credits. “Magari C’È” the second and final track is skittishly volatile, notable for its consolidation of magisterial beats from drummers Marko Lasič and Vid Drašler as well as crisscross alto saxophone riffs from Gianfranco Agresti and trumpeter Garbriele Cancelli’s carillon-like pealing. But in reality it’s an extended coda to “Brezmejinki”, the nearly 32-minute narrative that precedes it that defines the disc. As “Brezmejinki” moves in a rewarding chromatic fashion, like sophisticated surgeons during a difficult operation who allow appropriate anesthesia or incisions as necessary, the co-conductors add and subtract soloists. At points one of the three tenor saxophonists erupts into a crescendo of honking tones; angled string strokes and jerky flutter tones arise from three double bassists; a cellist evokes contrapuntal challenges; and soothing harmonies result from Paolo Pascolo’s celestially pitched flute. Sometimes vocalist Elisa Ulian sounds distant gurgles; elsewhere Adriatic-style scatting. Throughout, while certain rock music-like rhythms are heard, the sound perception is of looming storm clouds, conveyed by the ensemble resonating calculated accents and wrapped up by crunching bass and drum patterns that rein- in and concentrate the horns into a time-suspended dynamic finale.

Kaučič’s and Maier’s project uses conduction, which is directing improvisation through gestures. Lawrence “Butch” Morris (1947-2013) originated the concept and Possible Universe (NBR SA Jazz 014), a newly released session from the Italian Sant’Anna Arresi Jazz Festival in 2010, confirms its skilful application. This eight-part suite by a 15-piece European-American band encompasses hushed impressionism and hard-rocking with the same aplomb. Like a theatre director, Morris knows when to scene-set the proceedings with moderate polyphonic insouciance and when to have soloists let loose with dramatic emotions. Floating ensemble tones dominate “Possible Universe part two” for instance before giving way to a slurry Ben Webster-style tenor saxophone solo. Supple patterning from percussionists Hamid Drake and Chad Taylor maintain the linear theme on “Possible Universe part four”, even as kinetic plinks and jitters from guitarists Jean-Paul Bourelly and On Ka’a Davis threatened to rip it apart. Lumbering grace is imparted as the ensemble members improvise in unison, with sophisticated dabs from Alan Silva’s synthesizer adding a contrapuntal continuum. Spectacularly, one curtain-call-like climax occurs on “Possible Universe part seven”. David Murray’s ocean-floor-deep bass clarinet smears create the consummate intermezzo between the entire band’s upwards-floating crescendo that precedes it and theme variations on the final track. At nearly 13 minutes, lengthier than anything that proceeds it, Possible Universe part eight quivers with a semi-classical romanticism through affiliated cadenzas from the guitars, double basses Silva’s synth’s string setting, even as atonal splutters from Evan Parker’s tenor saxophone and an equivalent blues-based lines from Murray’s tenor saxophone struggle for dominance against the two trumpeters and one trombonist’s brassy explosions. Following numberless theme variations at different pitches, volumes and speeds from nearly every player, the finale is a calming timbre consolidation.

However, the most unconventional use of a big band here is on Morph (Confront ccs 37). Swiss-born, Paris-based tenor saxophonist Bertrand Denzler’s composition for Paris’ Onceim ensemble is a hypnotic structured drone that transforms the entire group into a solid mass of tremulous polyphony. Considering that the length of the piece – 29 minutes – is actually one numeral less than the total players – 30 – Denzler’s skill in uniting tones and suppressing bravado is unsurpassed. Simultaneously acoustic and electric, Morph is all of a piece, but like the finest wine additionally manages to hint at other sonic flavors from the brass, reeds, strings, percussion and electronics. Three-quarters of the way though, the pace speeds up infinitesimally but distinctively adding more tinctures of sound. A single guitar string strum is heard in the penultimate minutes as the timbres align more closely, uniting onto a murmur that’s lively, seductive and tranquilizing.

Hearing any of these sessions easily demonstrates that contemporary large group compositions arrangements have long surpassed “Moonlight Serenade” or “Take the A Train” to plot and meet individual challenges.

—For The Whole Note Deecmeber 2015