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Extended Analysis

Jabbo Ware: Vignettes in the Spirit of Ellington

By Published: February 2, 2006
Jabbo Ware
Vignettes in the Spirit of Ellington
Y'All of New York, Inc.

I've not encountered (James) Jabbo Ware's Me, We and Them Orchestra before. He was, I read, born in Georgia and studied in St. Louis. There, when he was eighteen, a music teacher took him to a Duke Ellington concert. Thus in 1960 Ellington became his hero and compositional model.

Jabbo Ware played alto saxophone in R&B groups, and wrote and played with the Black Artists Group of St. Louis with Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, Hamiett Bluiett and the clarinetist on the present set, J.D. Parran. He studied with George Coleman in New York, worked with Frank Foster and Sam Rivers, and after Cal Massey premiered some of his early compositions at the University of Massachusetts he assembled the Me, We and Them Orchestra in 1973.

The band has two CDs on the same label, and now this first live recording, with the addition of "strings and (French) horns." There are lots of reasons why musicians of Ware's class don't get heard of widely over long periods, far less recorded. He might not have such a range of gifts as Gil Evans and George Russell, but their later work offers fair comparisons, the Saturday Night Orchestra, the Living Time Orchestra. Instead of synthesizer and electronics there are non-standard strings, a pair each of violins, violas and cellos, and maybe including one of the two basses (although the less wild Clayton-Hamilton orchestra has two bassists). The strange atmospheric background at the start of the CD does suggest electronics, but the two double basses are part of the otherwise not immediately obvious explanation.

In comes possibly the baritone saxophone of Patience Higgins, or maybe—sign of an interesting arranger, it's not clear how he's doing I!—tenor saxophone and bass trombone in closely tuned unison. The trombone comes out on its own, and then (having seemed to be in a closet) the piano. The environing tension of droning basses persists through Thurman Barker's outing on marimba, and sawing strings which seem to have been rescued from muzak dangers by one fiddle being electric. This first title, "The Beginning," is George Russellish, oomph-full rather than refined, Richard Harper coming in late for a trombone solo, and Salim Washington on tenor, with something like a 1960 Ellington big band sound in support.

After a sudden stop—not compulsively eccentric, Ware likes surprises—we're in "A Strange Land" with brass and fiddles and noodling bass clarinet. The cloudy fiddle sound is a decent achievement, giving body when combined with the more standard forces (and the "horns"), and available to add a tailpiece to the passage of marching bass trombone in this (characteristically) episodic composition.

"And here We Are Again" seems to mean in the continent of Ellington's Far East Suite with J.D. Parran's brilliant clarinet. Rising from orchestral representations of avalanche or collapse, Eddie Allen's trumpet flings in a quote from the old man's "Caravan."

"Interlude" has bursts of plungered or plunging, elephant-voiced trombone. After a minute and a half of expecting a Brock Peters voice to intone Africa!, and add some epithets which can be heard on a Randy Weston hymn to that continent, we're abroard "St. Louis Train," echoing both "Dooji Wooji" and a noted train tune which (under several different names) was credited to so many composers Ellington remarked that it "must be good if so many people want to have written it." Jabbo Ware combines it with other material and invention and swings with craziness. He does things similar to what Russell, Evans, Carla Bley have done, but other than the passage of stately trombone over a distant quiet rhythmically complex background (cf. Russell's "Cubano-be Cubano-bop") Ware sounds like none of them.

"Give Me a Moment" has the braying, down-home tenor of Paavo Carey over conventional brass but strange percussion. After audience applause the strings come in like cod Irish muzak with tinkling piano. If this is serious it must be awful, and they play the parody again. Then the rescue: "In the Spirit of" has walking bass and Hilton Ruiz playing Ellingtonian piano, the fiddles lope in and a barking trombone over the band provides more echoes of postwar Duke.

"Intro #2 (Free at Last)" begins with one bass, becomes a two-bass duet, with the second bass imitating first cello then pizzicato violin. This draws in one fiddle after another, and they swarm, get more agitated, summon the ghosts of African drummers, and call down a massive late Ellington orchestral to cap things with a coda and conclusion: bang! This is the most far out track, but Ware always brings thing back from way out with a powerful jazz rescue squad. Nobody gets lost!

"The Ultimate Force" starts like a 1950s Ellington blaster, Paavo Carey solos out of the Coltrane bag, but after a pause we're back forty years with Bill Lowe's bass trombone echoing a knocked-out Buster Cooper feature with an Ellington band on the verge of blowing itself apart.

There's only 25 minutes left, everybody beginning righteous and combining the gospel calls of witness into one of those vast Ellington tuttis in which everybody had his own note and didn't play it very quietly. The technical term is overscoring, but after the brazen climax there's just Hilton Ruiz playing solo church piano. Back comes the band, with a fake climax, then an entry with bass trombone and tenor saxophone playing a pedal note. Parran's clarinet comes in, hell of a tone, the wild strings harmonising for a second chorus. It's pretty well a holy roller "Creole Love Call," supported by Bill Lowe. He takes a solo on plungered bass-trombone, in an awful mood, which is intensified when the drummer echoes and mocks his bark-bark phrasing, The piano is pure Halleluia.

An overscored ensemble, overdone Ellington, tries to wash away Lowe's grumbling before Cecil Bridgewater emerges on plunger trumpet, and after another flooding ensemble Chris Albert's open trumpet preaches a sermon. It's a sequence of solos with rhythm, each connected to the other by great washes of big band. Salim Washington wails on light-toned but R&B-rough tenor, followed without orchestra by some electric fiddle from the impressive Gwendolyn Laster, with some ad lib-sounding support from French horn. Mark Taylor tries to make himself heard, above not orchestra but very noisy piano and percussion. Marshall Sealy pitches in and there is a serious French horn battle of hosannas. The orchestral crescendo has to be gradual, given the limited penetration power even of such hard-blown French horns.

After a lengthy big band resume and preliminary conclusion, a false ending—Ware surely likes his pauses and false endings—then the fiddles play the theme, and we're back with the clarinet-led clarinet nchoir effect. There's some mighty and rough writing (yes, Lord, I'm saved!) then a stretch of ad-libbing saxophone section material, each reedman according to his individual witness or phrasing: Mingus style, where it's hard to tell the arranged from the improvised. It could all go haywire on a live gig. Which apparently it didn't. No doubt mighty exciting on the night, it's a fairly stirring culmination of a domestic listening experience.

Tracks: Intro (In the Beginning); Strange Land:; And Here We Are Again; Interlude; Saint Louis Train; Give Me a Moment; In the Spirit Of; Intro #2 (Free at Last); The Ultimate Force; Don't Forget Who I Am.

Personnel: James Jabbo Ware: composer, conductor; J.D. Parran: alto saxophone, clarinet; Paavo Carey: tenor saxophone, flute; Salim Washington: tenor saxophone; Patience Higgins: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Eddie Allen, Cecil Bridgewater, Chris Albert: trumpets; Clifton Anderson, Richard Harper: trombones; Bill Lowe: bass trombone, tuba; Marshall Sealy, Mark Taylor: French horns; Gwendolyn Laster, Carlos Baptiste: violins; Crystal Garner, Melanie Dyer: violas; Clarissa Howell, Nioka Workman: cellos; Leon Dorsey, David Moore: double bass; Hilton Ruiz: piano; Warren Smith: drums; Thurman Barker: percussion.

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