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Despite the inherent problems of managing large numbers of musicians, funding their activities, and finding venues large enough to host ensembles of 15-plus players, the jazz big band is undergoing something of a revival. Jazz Bigband Graz, from Austria, is yet another fine ensemble from Europe, and Urban Folktales shows that imaginative new directions in big band jazz are still ripe for exploration.
Jazz Bigband Graz was founded in 2000. Its previous albums include Plays the Music of Bob Brookmeyer (Mons Records, 2002) and Joys and Desires, which featured John Hollenbeck
(Intuition, 2005): this is not a big band which relies on the old staples. On Urban Folktales the band is led by directors Heinrich von Kalnein and Horst-Michael Schaffer, who also compose its original tunes. Their compositions give the Jazz Bigband Graz a unique sound, incorporating traditional big band instrumentation and section playing, but mixing this up with electronic processing, sampled voices and the impact of African and European musical influences.
With the welcome addition of the electric zither, electric hurdy gurdy and theremin, there's a quirky inventiveness to the JBBG's instrumental lineup too. All three have a spooky, spectral quality that complements the more usual big band brass and reeds. These more traditional front line instruments are not to be outdone. The ensemble sound is beautifully balanced, each section demonstrating a command of dynamics and a range that extends from calm beauty to full-on power. The entry of the brass and reed sections in the opening seconds of "Rêve Africain (Part Two: The Revelation)" is terrifically dramatic and creates an irresistible groove that stays in place beneath Johannes Enders' lyrical tenor saxophone solo.
The electric hurdy gurdy, played by Matthias Loibner, takes the spotlight on "Urban Tribes," an up-tempo, urgent tune lent a certain air of Eastern European folk music not only by the hurdy gurdy's lonely wail, but also by the pulse set up by the band's rhythm section. "Seelenbaumein" features Christof Dienz's electric zither and Barbara Buchholz's theremin. Together with guest singer Theo Bleckmann
, the players add a new dynamic to the usual big band line up and successfully build the song's other-worldly atmosphere. Finnish trumpeter Verneri Pohjola's solo flows beautifully.
"Space TripThe Day We Landed" opens and closes with the sampled voices of the Apollo 8 crew before Bleckmann joins in with his pure, plaintive vocal. As the song develops a more familiar big band sound, guest guitarist Nguyen Le
's soaring, dynamic solounderpinned by Gregor Hilbe's fierce percussive attackbuilds the tune to a dramatic climax.
The JBBG opens up some wonderfully creative pathways for the contemporary big band. The mix of horn section power and instrumental eccentricitywith the theremin and electric zithercreates an innovative and engaging sound, while Bleckmann's distinctive vocal is used to superb effect. Urban Folktales is a genuinely contemporary big band album.
Track Listing: Urban Tribes; Seelenbaumein; Space Trip--The Day We Landed; High Voltage; Reve Africain (Part One: The Dream; Part Two: The Revelation); Coming Home.
Personnel: Horst-Michael Schaffer: co-director, trumpet, flugelhorn; Heinrich von Kalnein: co-director, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, flute; Christoph "Pepe" Auer: alto saxophone, clarinet; Herbert Berger: tenor saxophone, alto flute; Martin Harms: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet, flute; Bernhard Nolf: trumpet, flugelhorn; Andi Pesendorfer: trumpet, flugelhorn; Axel Mayer: trumpet, flugelhorn; David Jarh: trumpet, flugelhorn; Reinhard Summerer: trombone; Daniel Riegler: trombone; Wolfgang Tischhart: bass trombone; Uli Rennert: keyboards, synthesizers; Barbara Buchholz: theremin; Mattias Loibner: electric hurdy gurdy; Christof Dienz: electric zither; Henning Sieverts: acoustic bass, cello; Gregor Hilbe: drums, electronics, programming; Theo Bleckmann: vocals (2, 3); Hadja Kouyate: vocals: (5); Gianluca Petrella: trombone (4); Nguyên Lê: electric guitar (1, 3, 6); Verneri Pohjola: trumpet (2); Robert Friedl: alto saxophone (4); Johannes Enders: tenor saxophone (5); Klaus Gessing: tenor saxophone (4); Robert Bachner: trombone (4); Philip Yaeger: bass trombone (4).