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From the first track on The Turning Gate, it's obvious that the New Jazz Composers Octet has spent considerable quality time together since their founding in 1996. The sheer number of hours spent writing, arranging, and playing material has strengthened this fresh ensemble into a superior example of jazz excellence. With each member working at the top of their game, the NJCO balances cohesion and freedom to create a listening experience that is always satisfying and often transcendent.
The Turning Point deals with several long-form compositions and a multi-section suite; all of them are classy, swinging, and edgy. The performances are full of nuance and shifting counterpoint, and each player sounds engaging in their own ways. Reference points include the warmth of the Duke Ellington Orchestra's elegant swagger, or the wild commotion of Charles Mingus' groups. But the NJCO takes those influences and operates under the maxim of "do as they do, not what they do."
Drummer Nasheet Waits is stellar, overflowing with boldly inventive ideas and a crisp attack that drives the ensemble while underlining all the details. Tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene is searing and soulfully intense, soloing on "David and Goliath" to build up a fierce dialogue among the other brass players. Myron Walden's alto sax is full of superb surprises as well, twisting and turning his way through the knotty playfulness of "Bad Alchemy."
Pianist Xavier Davis, an exemplary player who deserves more props, is pristine throughout. And trumpeter David Weiss, in addition to his leadership and compositional skills, just kills it with poignant solos. A case in point is the moody ballad "Once," wherein Weiss makes a compelling statement before passing the baton to the pianist, who picks right up on the romantic vibe with a characteristically creamy cascade of notes.
The band really shines on Xavier Davis' "The Faith Suite," which unfolds over six sections in the album's second half.The movements are alternately peaceful, turbulent, and ambiguousjust like the nature of the subject matter. "In the Beginning" takes the listener on an intriguing and winding pathway, as a meditative feeling takes hold. "Twilight" picks up the pace, offering moments of carefully orchestrated abandon and developing into a bright, clean melody. During "The Doubtful," Steve Davis' trombone spouts inquisitive poetry, prodded by the horn section and underscored by a march rhythm that advances towards an unresolved ending.
The bustling traffic of "Panic" evokes a frantic chase scene that threatens to spiral out of control. The cats in the band are all on fire here, burning through the chart and mimicking all the qualities that the title suggests. Finally, "Onward" points to new directions with a stunning arrangement of harmonic voices, majestic, and mysterious. Walden's turn on flute is astonishing here, while the whole band develops a breath-like momentum throughout the piece.
The Turning Gate marks a high point in 21st century acoustic jazz. The NJCO's soulful artistry and memorable compositions reveal subtle yet significant shifts in the ongoing evolution of the tradition.
Track Listing: The Turning Gate; New (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego); David and Goliath; Once; Bad Alchemy; The Faith Suite (In the Beginning; Twilight; The Doubtful; Panic); Onward.
Personnel: David Weiss: trumpet and flugelhorn; Myron Walden: alto sax, flute (10); Jimmy Greene: tenor sax, soprano sax, flute (8); Steve Davis: trombone; Norbert Stachel: baritone sax, bass clarinet; Xavier Davis: piano; Dwayne Burno: bass; Nasheet Waits: drums.