Portugal is not exactly famous for its jazz, no doubt due in part to fifty years of a repressive dictatorial regime (roughly coinciding with the birth of modern jazz) that stifled freedom of expression and, perhaps in part, owing to a vibrant tradition of folk music at a grass roots level which in no way felt bereft. One band however, which is putting Portuguese jazz on the map, and in some style, is the Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos.
Founded in 1999, this near twenty-piece band has the distinction of being conducted by the likes of pianist/composer Carla Bley and Spain's premier saxophonist Perico Sambeat, as well as having featured guest soloists of the caliber of saxophonists Bob Berg, Mark Turner, the indefatigable Lee Konitz and here, on its second recording, saxophonist Chris Cheek.
What immediately sets the Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos apart from so many other big bands is the originality of its repertoire; not for this orchestra Ellington or Basie covers. Instead, under the guidance of musical directors Pedro Guedes and Carlos Azevedo, the band eases its way through eight stylish originals. Whilst evincing the influence of Gil Evans, they nevertheless largely fall outside jazz-orchestra traditions in a number of ways. There is very little in the way of call-and-response, no dramatic exclamations or thundering sections shouting to be heard, and soloing is restricted entirely to guest soloist Cheek.
Cheek seems to have been around as a sideman for years and, although his playing is clearly informed by saxophonist Wayne Shorter, he has modeled his own less-is-more approach to his instrument. On "Does it Matter? the notes unfurl from his sax as surely and as elegantly as a blooming flower. To the accompaniment of the rhythm section, with Jorge Rossi on brushes, Cheek's solo on "Why Not depicts a gentle stroll in the park, starting and ending without any great fanfare, though pleasurable all the same.
On the gently melancholic "FJP#2 Cheek's sax stirs, slowly at first, gradually building and carrying the ensemble in his wake, until he is joined and absorbed by the glowing brass. On the sweet and serene "Pipiwipi, Cheek plays sympathetically, his measured, cultured solo never reaching great heights, but as elsewhere on the album, it is totally in keeping with the theme and development of the piece.
This impressive recording from Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos is a slow burner; subtle melody, warm harmonics and unison is the order of the day. Rather than lots of individual voices rising in turn from the body, the Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos' strength of personality lies in the fact that its individual components sound as one voice.
Personnel: Pedro Guedes: composition, musical direction, piano and Fender Rhodes; Carlos Azevedo: composition, musical direction, piano and Fender Rhodes; Chris Cheek: tenor and soprano saxophone; Frank Vaganee: alto and soprano saxophone; Jose Luis Rego: alto saxophone (1-2); Joao Guimaraes: alto saxophone (3-4); Mario Santos: tenor saxophone; Ze Pedro Coelho: tenor saxophone; Rui Teixeira: baritone saxophone; Michael Joussein: trombone; Rui Pedro Alves: trombone; Daniel Dias: trombone; Goncalo Bias: bass trombone; Nico Schepers: trumpet and flugelhorn; Rogerio Ribeiro: trumpet and flugelhorn; Susana Silva: trumpet and flugelhorn; Jose Silva: trumpet and flugelhorn; Demian Cabaud: double-bass; Jorge Rossi: drums.