One has to hand it to the Vienna Art Orchestra; this is one adventurous band of Austrians. On Centenary Journey,
recorded live in March ’01 at the Sofiensäle, Vienna, the VAO makes an heroic (and broadly successful) effort to compress a century of ever–shifting Jazz styles into one expansive snapshot. Unlike Ken Burns’ recent (and controversial) television series, Jazz,
which was weighted heavily in favor of the music’s early pioneers with the last forty years or so telescoped into one hour–long (or ninety–minute) episode, The VAO’s enterprise leans rather conspicuously in the opposite direction, being evenly divided between Jazz as it developed from 1900 through the ’50s (the first seven selections) and in the years from 1960 to the present (the last seven). Even though, like many others, we strongly disagreed with Burns’ argument, this is one instance in which we’d have welcomed more Burns traditionalism (1900–59) and less VAO innovation (1960–present), as the album begins to slide downhill after track seven before coming to rest in the largely barren abyss of fusion, crossover, world music, techno–Jazz, hip–hop and “the ghost of Jazz yet to come” (tracks eleven–fourteen). Trumpeter Thomas Gansch wrote and arranged the evocative “early” numbers (“Roll on Jelly,” 1900; “Steam Stomp,” 1910), leader Mathias Rüegg the last dozen, beginning with a sultry eight–bar blues, “Shadows Over the Jazz Age,” sung by Anna Lauvergnac with trombone solo by Robert Bachner. Alto Florian Bramböck is showcased on the Basie–style “Golden Moments,” baritone Herwig Gradischnig on Rüegg’s zestful homage to bebop, “Arriba.” Cool Jazz is represented by “The Aura of Coolness” (Andy Scherrer, tenor sax), modal Jazz by “Back to the Blue Notes” (Matthieu Michel, flugel). If we could’ve gotten off the bus at that stop the trip would have been far more agreeable, even though there are a handful of pleasurable moments from there to the end of the line. “Caged Freedom,” in which trombonist Christian Muthspiel struggles “to find his way out of an imaginary labyrinth of playful sounds,” is an incessantly dreary listening experience (which the audience adores, as it does everything on the program). Soprano saxophonist Harry Sokal fares only marginally better on the modal “Woodstock’s Dilemma,” while guitarist Martin Koller and bassist Georg Breinschmid offer a smooth and charming change of pace on “The (dis)Advantage of Silence.” Fusion then rears its ugly head with “Play It Louder” (a suggestion the VAO takes to heart), patterned on bassist Jaco Pastorius’ big band. Clarinetist Klaus Dickbauer is the guide on an uneven tour through the various styles of world music, Koller returns as chauffeur on the techno / hip–hop “Off Beat Berlin on the Beat,” and Gansch / Sokal are front and center on the schizophrenic finale, “Tomorrow’s Forms — Today’s Emotions.” While not everything here is to our liking, the VAO is never less than impressive, and those whose minds are more open than ours should warmly embrace this remarkable tour de force.