Good support players can add color and depth to the vision of almost any artist; the right supporting cast can help a leader move in innumerable creative directionswitness the many phases of Dave Douglas. But what if a support player has a vision to share with the world? That was trumpeter David Weiss' motivation for founding the New Jazz Composer's Octet in 1999. The Turning Gate should make liner note readersand, hopefully, everybody elsesit up and take notice.
Although NJCO members have recorded under their own names, primary fame for the current lineup comes from a lengthy list of acclaimed backup gigs. Ironically, the Octet has also loaned itself out as a unit, backstopping trumpet icon Freddie Hubbard's On the Real Side (Time Square, 2008). But The Turning Gate is strictly an NJCO affair, both in sound and vision. Not only is there an extended taste of the creative juices that fuel the Octet, but the material is displayed on a wide-open canvas, showcasing the group's vast range of shades and textures.
Drummer Nasheet Waits literally plays like clockwork as the front line introduces the title track's complex melody. The charts are as tight as a drum as reedmen Myron Walden, Jimmy Greene and Norbert Stachel build percussive harmonies over Weiss' trumpet and Steve Davis' trombone. Pianist Xavier Davis' comping morphs into a burning counter as Walden flies ever upward, a tortured voice demanding someone listen to his sad story. Drawn into this maelstrom of light and heat, the front line suddenly drops out and Xavier's piano is left seriously swinging, bolstered by Waits and bassist Dwayne Burno. The NJCO are masters of the lightning-fast scene change, and the effect is always energizing, never diffusing.
Of the many intriguing ideas brought to the table, the biggest oneboth literally and figurativelyis Davis' "The Faith Suite," a six-part meditation on the many aspects and influences of belief. Despite the beautiful chorale that introduces "Twilight," the work is overwhelmingly secular, owing more to Duke Ellington's suites than Dave Brubeck's "Mass." Even so, the inspiration for each comes through loud and clear, from the calm at the center of the storm in "Panic" to the arrogant swagger of the youths in "New (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego)."
"Bad Alchemy," a schizophrenic work from '70s Rock in Opposition group Henry Cow, really soars whenin Weiss' words"Myron goes to Myronland." NJCO offers many earthly delights, but Walden's reed work is truly a taste treat. Even so, his greatest contribution comes from his pen with "Onward," a musical metaphor for the Octet. Its spirit is positive and upright, moving effortlessly forward as the dialogue shows this group has much more to say. Weiss didn't just do his buddies a solid when he founded NJCO, he gave jazz fans a place to hear new ideas that might otherwise have done nothing but sit in the background. And like the New Jazz Composer's Octet, The Turning Gate deserves to be out front.
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.