Progressive Big Band

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There are two big band genres at JMA; Big Band and Progressive Big Band. Although the term "progressive" might imply that the latter genre is more demanding and complex than the former, this is not always the case. Instead, Progressive Big Band is a term developed in the 1950s to refer to big band music that was not meant for dancing and entertainment, but instead was meant for listening to in a manner more similar to concert hall music. Other than that, the term "progressive" does not imply any sort of definable musical superiority.

Music found in the Progressive Big Band genre at JMA may have ambitions similar to lengthy concert hall pieces, and may also feature elements of the avant-garde and other modern tendencies. The Progressive Big Band genre begins with some extended works by Duke Ellington in the 1940s. Other early pioneers in this genre include; Stan Kenton, Sun Ra, David Amram, Gil Evans, Toshiko Akyoshi, Carla Bley, Don Ellis and others.

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SCOTT REEVES Portraits & Places

Album · 2016 · Progressive Big Band
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New York based composer, arranger and trombonist/alto flugelhornist, Scott Reeves formed his impressive orchestra in 2008, and while Portraits and Places marks its recorded debut, Reeves spent a number of years before that sharpening his composing and arranging skills at the highly regarded BMI Jazz Composers Workshop where he received guidance and mentoring from Manny Albam, Mike Abene, Jim McNeely and Mike Holober. The result is influenced here on eight numbers (three of which comprise the colorful L & T Suite), Reeves is an inventive writer with a strong grasp of the components needed to nurture exciting results and high quality performances from each member of a large ensemble.

Notable is his ability for melody, harmony and a most important element of counterpoint, this is where Reeves benchmarks, his compositions are stylish yet accessible, his arrangements meticulously polished and consistently engaging. His choice in sidemen is stellar with a lineup that reads like a who's who of New York’s most sought-after musicians.

The offering kicks off with "The Soulful Mr. Williams," a blues-based groover that immediately sets the tone of harmonic muscularity that this orchestra is about to unleash. Tight woven lines with dark harmonic flavors coupled with poignant solos by Reeves on alto flugelhorn and the imaginative pianist Jim Ridl. What is unique is the alto flugelhorn sound, close in nature to the trombone, Reeves primary instrument, gives this track a moody feel that is powerfully portrayed. "3 'n 2" is a driving tune with high flying trumpet notes and an fervent solo courtesy of tenorist Tim Armacost, and trumpeter Bill Mobley.

An intriguing journey to Asia can be found in "Osaka June," in which Sara Serpa's wordless ornamentations set the stage for spoken dialogue (in Japanese) by Emi Miyajima Nobe and Yuzuki Nobe (mother and child), which deceivingly sets up the tune that takes the listener though romping solos by Ridl and soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson, who puts forth a riveting performance.

Jobim, a master at writing bossa nova adorns Reeves offering with an arrangement by Reeves of "Aguas de Marco" a wonderful halfway stop to cleanse your pallet before embarking into the L & T Suite (3 movements), the suite features the nimble "Wants to Dance," featuring Wilson on alto and drummer Andy Watson, an introspective and darkly tuned "Trombonist's Tale" helmed by trombonist Matt McDonald, and the zestful "Hip Kitty," again showcasing Ridl's adroit piano skills. "Last Call," closes the session, showcasing low brass, giving the lower register players their due, especially notable are the solos by bass trombonist Max Seigel and baritone Terry Goss before complimented by Seneca Black's muted trumpet, that gently weaves the listener to the finality of the tune.

Reeves the director of jazz studies at CCNY, certainly walks the walk, and with Portraits and Places, he shows he can also bring forth a new generation of orchestra tunes that delight, challenge and push the lineage forward. Fantastic writing, top-notch playing by all, makes this a superbly preeminent orchestra offering. A highly recommended “must” to any collection.

ROB REDDY Bechet: Our Contemporary

Album · 2015 · Progressive Big Band
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Rob Reddy has been working out of the New York City jazz scene since the early 90s, mostly leading his own ensembles that play modern creative music that often draws a lot of influence from ‘roots music’, and early Americana. Given his interest in early jazz, its no big surprise that Reddy’s latest CD, “Bechet: Our Contemporary”, uses 1920s-50s jazz saxophonist Sidney Bechet, and his music, as an inspiration. The connection between the two is furthered by the fact that both play(ed) soprano sax, and both consider(ed) themselves as avante-gardists for their time. On this CD, Reddy presents a mix of original tunes and Bechet covers that seamlessly blend modern NYC with Bechet’s late 20s NYC. The two eras work well together because the late 20s was a very eclectic and experimental era in jazz, an era that produced many fast moving changes. A sly and subversive NYC centered fast paced hustle defines both eras.

This album opens with a Rob Reddy original, “Up South”, that uses Bechet type riffs to build an energetic punky jump blues chaos that features hot guitar from Martin Sewell. After this, Rob uses the colors of his mini orchestra to paint a cinematic tango version of Bechet’s “Petite Fleur”. From here, the album continues to alternate Reddy originals with Bechet covers, and the blend works perfectly. As is often the case with these sort of ambitious projects, there is a wide variety of musical styles at work, including; traces of Ornette Coleman, avant country blues, floating psychedelia, New Orleans style jam sessions gone beserk and plenty more. The music is pushed by hot solos from artists such as Curtis Fowlkes, Charlie Burnham, John Carlson and others.

All of the tracks on here are strong until we get to the album closer, “Broken Windmill”, on which Reddy and his crew try to play a Bechet arrangement from the 20s. Today’s players are clever and resourceful, but they don’t have the sort of physical commitment that it takes to play this kind of music. Reddy’s cover of this tune is interesting and humorous, but not entirely successful, still its inclusion is important for painting the big picture. Overall this is a great album, fans of modern NYC eclectic jazz will know what to expect, and fans of 20s jazz may be surprised at how well this all goes together. How many ensembles can use Sidney Bechet riffs to build floating pastoral Pink Floyd type textures.

TOSHIKO AKIYOSHI Tales of a Courtesan (Oirantan)

Album · 1976 · Progressive Big Band
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'Tales of a Courtesan' didn't hook me the way the first two Akiyoshi/Tabackin collaborations did. It's certainly not a bad record at all, but I just didn't find the arrangements as engaging here.

There's still a lot of variety and punch (especially to the energetic 'Strive for a Jive') and some reflective pieces too, like 'Interlude', which reminds me a little of some CTI-era Freddie Hubbard, but I was surprised to find the title track a little too sparse. It almost sounds like it was scored for a film but suffers a touch without accompanying visuals. Still, some haunting flute from Tabackin in there.

The surprise stand out for me is the brooding 'Village' which brings more of the progressive big band feel to the fore.

For fans of either Akiyoshi or Tabackin, this is still worthwhile I'd argue, but maybe the start with their first two if you're looking for a spot to dip into their respective catalogues.

LINCOLN CENTER JAZZ ORCHESTRA Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis : Live in Cuba

Live album · 2015 · Progressive Big Band
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“Live in Cuba” is a collection of live cuts that the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra performed during their historic 2010 visit to Cuba. Due to a long standing embargo between the governments of Cuba and the US, it had been many years since an ensemble of this size had visited Cuba bringing the sounds of US jazz mixed with the rhythms of Cuba. These concerts were a big deal and the excitement shows in the performances. Its hard to bottle enthusiasm, but there is no doubting the passion involved when musicians and their audience have a chance to reach out to each other on this level. The people who were lucky enough to attend these shows were treated to a wide variety of jazz styles from modern Afro-Latin fusion to Ellington and everything thing else in-between.

The music on here is hot, but there is something a bit squeaky clean about the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. As one of the few state supported jazz groups in the US, the LCJO doesn’t have to compete on the street for jobs, they already have a steady gig, and much of that gig is about education. This bent towards young audiences and education explains the huge variety of music that the LCJO performs, and it also helps explain the nature of their sound and approach. More than just entertainment, the LCJO is a living, breathing education in jazz history. This is furthered by their director, the well known trumpeter, composer and arranger, Wynton Marsalis. Wynton’s approach to jazz has always had a tendency towards trying to educate people to the big picture. Despite his sometimes ill-considered remarks about some forms of fusion and the avant-garde, Marsalis should be given credit for his ability to discern those aspects of jazz that make it a unique art form, and his ability to illustrate those unique aspects in real performance.

As mentioned earlier, there is a large variety of music on here, but the tracks are arranged thoughtfully and the whole CD has a very logical flow to it. Modern original compositions sit side by side with covers of Ellington and Monk without anything sounding out of place. So many great tracks to mention here, some highlights include the spacey Latin fusion of “Dali”, the semi-free high energy post bop of “Inaki’s Decision” and “Doin (Y)our Thing” and the Ellington/Strayhorn tone poem colors of “Sunset and the Mockingbird”. All of these are nice, but possibly the best comes near the end when the band launches a high speed version of Dizzy’s “Things to Come”, on which Wynton unleashes one of the hottest trumpet solos you will ever hear anywhere.

TED HOWE Pinnacle

Album · 2015 · Progressive Big Band
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A well known jazz publication with a highly regarded reputation ran an unfairly short review on Ted Howe’s “Pinnacle”, in which the writer expressed his dismay over Howe’s classically oriented song titles, and made very little mention of the music itself. We expect better of our jazzy journalistic institutions, as it never hurts to listen to the music first before setting off to criticize. Had our writer of said review given this CD some more time, he would have found that although these titles sport lofty terms such as adagio, etude, suite, impromptu and other terms usually associated with ‘long hairs”, the music on here is pure jazz, and not the least bit stuffy or over arranged. As the song titles imply, Howe’s music does have a 3rd stream influence, but not much more influence than many other sophisticated modern big band arrangers, and the third stream element is just part of what Howe works with as he also draws from the history of post bop, artsy pop jazz and even Duke Ellington influenced swing.

“Pinnacle” opens strong with the odd metered pop influenced melodies of “Presto for Two Trombones”. If you are thinking odd-metered rhythms plus art pop tunes equals Don Ellis in the 70s, you couldn’t be more on target as those who may miss Ellis’ unique big band vision will definitely hear something familiar in “Pinnacle”. Throughout this CD, the make or break for Howe is how strong his melodic material is per track. In this respect, Howe’s strongest writing comes out on the opener, and “Movement 2” of the “Suite for Jazz Orchestra”. Most of the other tracks are good with the impressionistic “Adagio for Piano” showing off Howe’s considerable chops on the piano, and “Jazz Etude for Three Clarinets” featuring some uptempo jaggedy neo be bop. Probably the only weak track would be “Movement One” of the Suite, on which an unpleasant distorted guitar with intonation problems keeps announcing a rather dull melody.

As mentioned earlier, the mix of 3rd stream and art pop on “Pinnacle” may remind some of Don Ellis, other references could include Don Sebesky, early Bob James, or any of those early orchestrated CTI albums. Howe likes to cite Herb Pomeroy and Duke Ellington as influences. Ted shows a lot of potential on “Pinnacle”, and his work could rival Ellis and the others if his band can start delivering performances that are a little more dynamic and a little less pensive. This issue with dynamics could be related to allotted rehearsal time and studio production as well. All the same, if you have an interest in the current big band scene, “Pinnacle” is worth checking out.

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