I was introduced to Jamie Begian and to Begian’s New York-based big band last month during the 30th annual conference of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) in Toronto. Jamie also handed me a copy of his first album, Trance,
which I must say is more impressive than I found the band to be in person. Perhaps I’m growing more comfortable with Begian’s uncommon approach to big-band music or perhaps my mind is more focused when listening at home rather than in a concert hall with people milling about, talking and otherwise derailing one’s train of thought.
Begian’s elaborate musical concepts do command the listener’s undivided attention, make no mistake about that. Tempos are irregular and ever-shifting, and his kaleidoscopic charts can veer from a whisper to a shout in less than a heartbeat. As fellow composer Jim McNeely shrewdly observes in the liner notes, “Each piece is a story, with plot and characters.” While some of the stories may be more engaging than others, each one embodies moments of potency and pleasure. And what’s most welcome to these ears is that they swing harder and more often than we remember in Toronto.
Begian’s singular design is apparent from the opening measures of “Oops!,” which metamorphoses from a standard blues into what McNeely correctly describes as a “group blowout” (following vibrant solos by baritone Dan Goble and trombonist Deborah Weisz) before the players exit one-by-one leaving pianist Roberta Piket and drummer Jason Wildman to tie up the loose ends. “Trance” is another provocative tone poem (with more impassioned drumming by Wildman) but as one who doesn’t warm easily to “processed guitar” (I’m more attuned to Johnny Smith / Jimmy Raney, that sort of thing) I had to clench my teeth during Bruce Arnold’s primordial solo. Soprano John O’Gallagher, trombonist Rick Faulkner and Piket, on Wurlitzer electric piano, are more easygoing and agreeable. “Fuzzy Math,” Begian’s winning entry in the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop / Charlie Parker competition for 2001, was among the selections performed in Toronto (as were “Oops!,” “Trance” and “Kablooie”) but sounds much better here as do the others with its clamorous ensemble passages bookmarking parallel unaccompanied solos by O’Gallagher (on alto) and trumpeter Matt Shulman.
After opening like a tune-up exercise, “MarcySong” becomes a melodic springboard for Piket and alto Marc McDonald, while “La Tortuga” (The Turtle) starts slowly, like its namesake, then layers color and depth, shape and texture around its spare nucleus to showcase the ensemble’s expertise. Piket’s placid solo piano introduces “Passion Shuffle,” which accelerates to a double-time groove for energetic commentary by the pianist and tenor Dan Pratt before Arnold and Wildman lead everyone back to the drumless shuffle. A sustained flute passage opens “All Beans,” a roomy platform for Wildman, Arnold and trumpeter Laurie Frink, and “Kablooie” closes the show in robust fashion with assertive solos by Arnold and trumpeter Marty Bound underlining its powerful ensemble sections.
Like any composer, Begian has his own way of looking at things, and his point of view is as valid as anyone else’s. What matters most to the listener is whether he is able to keep things interesting, and he does so much of the time on Trance, which may be out of the ordinary but is consistently impressive, as is Begian’s well-equipped eighteen-piece band.