Like it or not, a new wave of young composer / arrangers has surfaced, scrupulously guiding big bands into heretofore uncharted waters, now and then smooth, at other times choppy, but always intriguing and inspired. Maria Schneider
, Mace Francis and many others, each one lending his or her singular voice to the lexicon of big-band jazz. Now comes another strong contender, German-born Maria Baptist, whose musical voice is arguably the clearest since Grammy-winning Schneider burst on the scene some two decades ago.
Baptist's most recent plunge into the big-band sea, appropriately titled Music for Jazz Orchestra, comprises eleven of her forward-leaning compositions and arrangements. Much like Schneider, Baptist sketches word picturestone poems, if you willoften bending but never overlooking the basic elements of jazz including melody, harmony and rhythm, all of which can be found in abundance in her provocative charts. The first ten were recorded at a studio in March 2011, the last, "Minotaurus," seven months later at Jazz Fest Berlin. Although Baptist limits her duties to writing and conducting in the studio, her persuasive piano introduces the tasteful "Minotaurus," whose other able soloists are trombonist Lukas Jochner and tenor saxophonist Nils Wrasse. The leader puts her best foot forward with the straight-on opener, "AVUS" (solos by drummer Julian Fau, alto Kati Brien), and follows up with the seductive "Blue Pictures" (Christian Mehler, flugel; Clemens Oerding, guitar; Julian Kulpmann, drums), which builds to a powerful climax, and the sinewy "Ibiza Conversations" (Lukas Brenner, piano; Johannes Roosen-Runge, trumpet).
"On Top of the Mountain" is picturesque and passionate, as are "The Blossom," "Lingering" (with its faint echoes of Rob McConnell
) and "Goodbye," whereas "Avenue Walk" (Adrian Hanack, tenor), "Rush Hour" and "36th Street Midtown" find Baptist in a sunnier and more congenial frame of mind, coaxing sharp and brassy ensemble phrases from her finely-tuned orchestra. Baritone Christoph Beck offers an especially engaging solo on "Midtown," which benefits as well from Johannes von Ballestrem's nimble piano. End to end, this is one of the more gratifying contemporary big-band sessions to emerge in quite some time. One puzzle, however, is why this is a two-disc set, as the total running time is a tick or two over 80 minutes, and all eleven numbers might have been squeezed (albeit tightly) onto a single disc. Perhaps that was tried and it didn't work. Be that as it may, everything else on this splendid album works almost perfectly.
Track Listing: AVUS; Blue Pictures; Ibiza Conversations; On Top of the Mountain; The Blossom; Avenue Walk; Rush Hour; Lingering; 36th Street Midtown; Goodbye; Minotaurus (live).