Undead Jazz Festival: Day 1, June 23, 2011
Andrew D'Angelo is one of the current jazz scene's romantic warriors, an iconoclastic and unabashedly emotional alto player. His sound concept, both in tone quality, soloing and writing, is so raw and unfettered that to try to expand that concept into a big band seems like a dangerous endeavor. This was, indeed, the case at Sullivan Hall and the dangerous element made it worth it; D'Angelo's multiplied himself by about twelve times and the result was a spectacle to behold.
The ensemble had some surprisingly sophisticated big band writing. The arrangement of "Meg Nem Sa" exhibited a strong knowledge of writing for horn sections, something typically reserved for more traditional big bands. Much of the sax writing emphasized its brightness and on "Free Wily" the brass was given angular, asymmetrical lines that paid off. There were several occasions in which writing every horn in unison was the perfect choice for that particular composition. The part-writing, however, was the extent of the band's traditionalism. Some of the band's music could be considered "progressive metal big band music," made possible by Dan Weiss's drumming, Reid Anderson's electric bass and the heavily distorted guitar of Ben Monder. Some of the music was hard rocking with a little less ferocity. One tune had a "spy groove" attached to it, in which Monder's guitar washed the band in a 60's fuzz. Occasionally the music utilized the large number of musicians in unusual ways, matching up horns from different sections to create a mass conversation.
Like any great big band, some of the best and most intriguing musicians on the New York scene were given opportunities to solo. Kirk Knuffke kicked off the set with a crystal clear tone and articulate, relaxed melody. The other two trumpeters got their chances as well, Jacob Wick's solo bursting with elaborate upward-moving lines and John Carlson soloing with woolly sheets of notes that never cracked. Jacob Garchik was tasked with matching heavy metal intensity and did so with a conceptual utility belt of pentatonics, bebop runs and horn blasts. Trombonist Brian Drye soloed with a swinging but appropriately avant-garde solo and Ryan Snow channeled a bit of Fred Wesley with a heavy dose of downtown style on D'Angelo's "Big Butt," an unabashedly funky JB's-on-acid jam. Alto player Jeremy Udden soloed with a strong linear sense, while tenor player Bill McHenry soloed with sweeping melodies. Baritone saxophonist and bass clarinetist Josh Sinton soloed with a sort of reckless abandon that compelled him to jump off the stage and onto the bar in Sullivan Hall. In a more poignant moment, violist Nicole Federici was featured on a somber but resilient "Felicia D'Angelo," a healing song dedicated to a friend with cancer, proving again that even the most iconoclastic musicians can show their heart and support.
The Bad Plus is known for the breadth of their musical knowledge and one large portion of that is rock and pop music. Drummer Dave King's group was his working view of rock 'n' roll music as it relates to jazz. Talented, diverse and like-minded musicians, including saxophonists Brandon Wozniak and Chris Speed, bassist Adam Linz and guitarist (and bassist in Happy Apple) Erik Fratzke, joined him. King identified the band has having a specifically Minnesotan quality, a testament to the down home nature of the ensemble.
Most of the songs approached rock music in one way or the other. Some emphasized a four-on-the-floor style garage rock in which King channeled bits and pieces of The Who's Keith Moon. Some were of a hip indie rock cast, the composition "You Can't Say Poem in Concrete" pulsating with bright electric guitar and non-functional bass lines that moved into dance-rock territory. "Church Clothes With a Wallet Chain," like the title suggests, had an old school R&B groove with a hymn-like melody underscored by Linz's gentle guitar accompaniment, and a soulful solo. One composition sounded distinctly Rush-influenced, marked by a deep synth-bass sound under a spacey melody and occasional meter shifts. In whatever he was approaching, King played each rock tune sincerely and with the same type of precision and sincerity that jazz musicians spend on standards.
Not everything was rock oriented, though. "Dolly Jo and Ben Jay" had an almost Thelonious Monk-like melody, with Speed and Wozniak spilling out bop lines and swirling post-bop ideas. However, Fratzke's solo was a twisted, unexpected take on bebop based music. Thus, even when approaching more traditional jazz, his cadre of musicians put their own spin on it. It's interesting to think of where the Bad Plus has spread their influence over the last few years. Keeping in mind that while pianist and Bad Plus' Ethan Iverson was playing with Ben Riley and Buster Williams at Smalls Jazz Club just the previous day, Dave King followed up in New York with a potent and lyrical integration of rock music in modern jazz.