The 1999-2000 Jazz Composers Collective Concert Series drew to a spirited close on a very rainy night in May. It had been a good year indeed, with performances by Ben Allison & Medicine Wheel, Dave Binney, the Herbie Nichols Project, the Ted Nash Double Quartet, Dave Tronzo and Stomu Takeishi, Michael Blake’s Malissippi, Rick Margitza’s quintet, and Frank Kimbrough and Noumena. On the bill for the season finale were Ellery Eskelin’s group and the Ron Horton Big Band playing the music of Andrew Hill.
Eskelin, a hatOLOGY recording artist and a member of Joey Baron’s Baron Down, presented an expanded version of his regular group with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black. Parkins’s keyboards and accordion, Black’s drums, and Eskelin’s tenor sax were complemented by the tuba of Joseph Daley and the cello of Erik Friedlander. The unorthodox instrumentation made for some highly unorthodox music, with a wide variety of stylistic references. Amorphous sounds from Parkins’s sampler framed lines precisely executed by tuba, tenor sax, and cello. Black’s energetic drumming was a highlight. Playing frenetic rock beats on "Title Piece," slow-grooving swing on "Museum Piece," and an almost bluegrassy feel on "Transistor," the grinning, diminutive Black provided the soloists with vigorous support and held together the abstract flow of each tune. Eskelin’s multiphonic soliloquy on "Ramifications," dedicated to his infant son Rami, evolved into a ballad-like tempo which closed the set.
And then something completely different. Ron Horton did not play a note during his first two big band arrangements, "Dusk" and "Divine Revelation." Instead, he conducted his 15-piece big band as it navigated the peaks and valleys of Andrew Hill’s compositions. Altoist John O’Gallagher and tenorist Adam Kolker were the first featured soloists. Horton did finally pick up the flugelhorn for the boppish "Laverne," a chart which featured Dave Ballou on trumpet, Mike Fahn on trombone, and Ben Allison on bass. Frank Kimbrough began "ML" with a beautiful piano intro, setting up the melody statement by Mark Vinci on alto. Horton wrung huge sounds from the ensemble on this one. Next was "Cantarnos," a medium latin number that featured Marcus Rojas on tuba, Rick Kriska on sax, and Joe Fiedler on trombone. Horton also played flugel on this and the next tune, "No Doubt," a ballad that had John O’Gallagher guest-conducting for a few bars toward the end. Horton and the band finished the set with the fast-swinging "Venture Inward," a tune with a distinct resemblance to Joe Henderson’s "Inner Urge." Frank Kimbrough contributed a strong solo.
It is not easy to take on the work of a musician as inimitable as Andrew Hill. But Horton, as a member of Hill’s current sextet, has had ample opportunity to get inside Hill’s music. The big band format in itself was a stroke of inspiration, for it highlighted the inner workings of Hill’s compositions in new ways. The largeness of the ensemble served to emphasize the largeness of Hill’s ideas. And yet Horton made sure to endow the music with his own eloquent twists. Andrew Hill himself was in the audience, and evidently he liked what he heard, for he regaled Horton with a bouquet of flowers once the final piece was finished. A better indicator of success would be hard to imagine.
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