New World Jazz Composers Octet: Breaking News (2011)
Established in 2000, in the spirit of the Mingus Jazz Workshop, the New World Jazz Composer's Octet sounds more like an orchestra than a group of eight musicians. On its third release, Breaking News, the octet showcases six contemporary composers affiliated with the ensemble.
The music is intricate and well-constructed, with hints of Latin on a few of the tracks, including Matthew Nicholl's "Poco Picasso," which features a complex piano solo from Tim Ray that nevertheless stays within a safe distance of the melody, and a similarly constructed one by trumpeter Walter Platt. The tune's joyous spirit is best reflected in Mark Walker's propulsive drums and Felipe Salles' blistering and bluesy tenor sax.
Salles' own dark-hued and rich-layered "Children's Waltz" features both a big band style, with reed and trumpets trading musical barbs, and the most advanced improvisations on the record by Salles and Ray.
Ray's unique pianism is also heard on the ballad "Wishful Thinking," where his softly flowing notes are backed by the wind instruments, as the individual musicians fade in and out of the spotlight without disturbing the thematic integrity.
Platt's bluesy title track is an homage to the The Jazz Messengers and other hard bop legends; indeed, his rollicking duet with leader Daniel Ian Smith, on baritone saxophone, is reminiscent of a Donald Byrd/ Pepper Adams recording.
Musical conversations between two soloists are a big part of Richard Lowell's "Warp 7, Now!," where Walker exchanges percussive beats with conguero Ernesto Diaz-Infante and Salles battles Smith on tenors.
Smith's young daughter's recitation of the surreal poem "Song Sung Long" is framed by the four horns' ebb and flow, creating a melancholic mood that is enhanced by the alto saxophone's heart-wrenching delivery.
The three-part "Trilogy" suite is dedicated to legendary jazz composers Thad Jones, Billy Strayhorn and Bill Holman, and channels their spirit in their respective movements: "Thad's Pad" is bop-ish with hints of blues, closing with a short flugelhorn coda; "Strays" is a languid, nocturne-like ballad highlighted by Ray's classically inflected keys; and "Willis" is a modal, Afro-Cuban piece, with Diaz's energetic percussion complementing Smith's hard-driving baritone.
This intriguing albeit not groundbreaking recording by a small ensemble with a big sound is heavier on compositions and arrangements than on improvisation; nevertheless it makes for a delightful and satisfying listen.
Track Listing: Poco Picasso; Wishful Thinking; Breaking News; Children's Waltz; Warp 7, Now!; Song Sung Long; Trilogy: Thad's Pad, Strays, Willis.
Personnel: Daniel Ian Smith: saxophones, flute; Ken Cervenka: trumpet, flugelhorn; Walter Platt: trumpet, flugelhorn; Tim Ray: piano; Keala Kaumeheiwa: acoustic bass; Ernesto Diaz: percussion; Felipe Salles: saxophones, flute; Mark Walker: drums; Catherine Hazel Smith: spoken word.
Record Label: Big and Phat Jazz Productions