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Live Reviews

The Jim Knapp Orchestra at the L.A.B. Performance Space in Seattle

By Published: February 24, 2006
Jim Knapp Orchestra
L.A.B. Performance Space
Seattle, WA
January 9th, 2006

The Jim Knapp Orchestra inaugurated a first Monday of the month series at the Seattle Drum School's intimate and acoustically friendly L.A.B. Performance Space with a superb concert of Knapp originals and arrangements on January 9th, 2006. The sound reinforcement was crystalline in its clarity, the music performed adventurous yet accessible, the solo work by the Orchestra's members consistently creative and often inspired. A relatively small audience of approximately 30 to 40 people was treated to a succession of examples why The Jim Knapp Orchestra has received widespread critical acclaim and become one of the Seattle area's most vibrant large jazz ensembles.

In addition to being the first performance at L.A.B., this concert marked hornist Tom Varner's public debut with the Orchestra. You can count the number of jazz French horn players on the fingers of one hand with a digit or two left over. It is a fiendishly difficult instrument to play. Most hornists have enough trouble keeping the beast in tune and obtaining a pleasing tone while following a score without attempting to improvise. Varner is the premiere hornist in creative improvised music. He has led his own adventurous ensembles for a number of years as well as performing with a lengthy list of jazz greats, and has recorded seven ingenious CDs beginning in 1981. Varner recently relocated from the New York City metro area to Seattle, and that's good news indeed for Emerald City jazz fans.

Knapp's "The Old World is a reflective composition that indeed has an old world feeling. John Hansen's crisp piano solo in the portion of the piece that moves into a faster "three feel was supported brilliantly by baritone saxophonist Jim Dejoie's rich tone in a series of deftly timed interpolations that had the effect of organ chords.

Knapp's writing revels in the cross-section ensemble work that is a hallmark of the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn lineage perpetuated through Gil Evans, Maria Schneider and a select few others. For example: the lush low-range textures of a baritone saxophone and two trombones heard in "The Old World, and a very Ellingtonian combination of clarinet and two trombones. Within the sections there was a practically constant shifting of textures as well: two trumpets-flugelhorn; two flugelhorns-muted trumpet; clarinet-alto sax-tenor sax-baritone sax; clarinet-bass clarinet-alto sax-tenor sax; three tenor saxophones-baritone sax; flute-two clarinets; and clarinet-two flutes. Toward the beginning of "The Old World, the brass timbres were richly expressive, with muted trumpet and two flugelhorns a highlight, then later a combination of two trumpets and flugelhorn and, as the excitement built in the brisker portion in "four, three open trumpets kicking the dynamics up a notch or two as the sections were gradually layered behind Mark Taylor's stirring soprano saxophone solo.

Knapp's delightful arrangement of "Nanna's Lied by Kurt Weill was recorded on the Secular Breathing CD. His spoken introduction made note of the somewhat paradoxical juxtaposition of dark lyrics and bright melody in the original version, a song that is the reminiscences of a prostitute. The opening ensemble featuring clarinet and two trombones was creamy and luxuriant, and lead clarinetist Jim Dejoie was justly credited in Knapp's outro for his magnificent playing. There were also excellent solos from bassist Phil Sparks and pianist John Hansen.

Knapp's "Kumasi (the spelling here is only a guess) has a South African township feeling, strongly reminiscent of Abdullah Ibrahim's larger ensembles or Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath. There was a batch of exuberant solos on this piece. Mark Taylor on alto saxophone, Jay Thomas on trumpet, Jeff Hay on trombone and Adam Kessler on drums all had chances to shine, and shine they did, with Thomas and Hay sounding particularly well attuned to the ambiance of the composition. The latter's solo had a floating feel to it, as if he was hovering above the tempo, playing legato while the rest of the band locked into the groove. He also offered a wry Wizard of Oz quote: a snippet of "If I Only Had A Brain gliding by at one point.

"Palindrome for Rue, another Knapp original, had an impressionistic piano intro and a lengthy solo by Varner. His range and spot-on control of the instrument are breathtaking. But there's way more than faultless technique involved in Varner's mastery of the horn and the music. The breadth of stylistic references in his playing is remarkable, ranging from the quicksilver lines of bop through the full spectrum of contemporaneous jazz styles with an artistic vision that nudges the future while mining the past. Particularly cogent nods to the brass innovations of Don Cherry, credited by the hornist as a major influence on a number of occasions, often surface

After intermission the infectious title track from the Secular Breathing CD got things off to a perky and perspicacious start. Mark Taylor took a real gem of a tenor saxophone solo and the section scoring utilizing three tenors and a baritone had a deeply resonant yet lightly swinging feel that suggested a latter-day version of Woody Herman's classic "Four Brothers band. Bassist Phil Sparks also soloed impressively on this piece.

"Things for Later is a contemplative, introspective Knapp composition. The scoring for clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone and alto saxophone had an especially velvet-like texture, with three flugelhorns and French horn gently brushing the nap. Saul Cline took a thoughtful and expressive tenor saxophone solo and Jay Thomas a buttery smooth (in the real sense of the word "smooth ) flugelhorn solo. There was a lovely solo piano interlude and a marvelously sotto voce note at the very end by Varner with mute in place that hung in the air like a Calder mobile.

Former Seattle resident Aaron Alexander, a drummer who now lives in New York City, wrote "Wild West, an exuberant and multi-faceted composition. Varner's splendid solo began abstractly indeed, plumbing the depths of the horn's range, sounding much like a baritone horn or a tuba. He gradually progressed into the midrange, then above: a bison morphing into an antelope. Then the saxophonists took their turns in the solo saddle. Jim Dejoie's baritone was at first accompanied only by bass, then rolling mallets on toms, and things began to get pretty "free. Dejoie dovetailed with Mark Taylor on alto then dropped out as Taylor soloed in muscular fashion. Toward the end of Taylor's spot it was Steve Treseler on tenor saxophone who joined in making it a duo for a bit. The feeling here was deeply spiritual, as it was when Treseler soloed with only Phil Sparks' bass and a few well-placed percussive interjections in support, reminding me of Joe McPhee's trio work. The pattern of solo to duo to solo continued with Saul Cline taking a great turn in the spotlight before the whole reed section kicked in. There was an Ayler-esque feeling to the final part of this performance, as ghosts of early spirituals, archaic hymn tunes and brass bands seemed to hover in the background, certainly pertinent to the piece's title.

Knapp's "5-4-3 sported delicious scoring, with the use of two clarinets and flute providing outstandingly bright moments. Saul Cline took a nice flute solo, Mark Taylor another striking alto solo and John Hansen sounded very fine indeed at the piano.

Another Kurt Weill melody, "Here I'll Stay, was a feature for the mobile and meaningful trombone of Jeff Hay. Knapp's imaginative arranging again provided a potpourri of timbres, with the paired flutes of Saul Cline and Mark Taylor and the combination of the two flutes with clarinet a focal point. Knapp exhibits a noteworthy affinity for Weill.

The untitled up-tempo piece that closed the concert had wonderful solos from Tom Varner on French horn and Jay Thomas on muted trumpet, as well as some spectacular lead trumpet playing from Brad Allison.

Let's hope that The Jim Knapp Orchestra's first Monday of the month series at L.A.B. becomes as much of a longstanding tradition in Seattle as the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Mondays at the Village Vanguard became in New York City back in the day.



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