Big Bands: William Parker and the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra; UMO Jazz Orchestra; Nublu Jazz Orchestra; Kahil El'Zabar's Infinity Orchestra


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For a good 15-year period starting in the '30s, jazz in the incarnation of big band swing enjoyed its heyday at the helm of American pop. Out of this period came some of America's greatest composers, including Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson and, being pop music, some of America's schmaltziest, including the band credited with igniting the big band craze within the white audiences in the first place (a condition necessary for commercial stardom), the Casa Loma Orchestra. Jazz has since no doubt come a long way and so has the concept of big band music.

William Parker and the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra
For Percy Heath

William Parker is one of the most formidable bassists in modern jazz, always on the cutting edge of jazz, mostly in the realm of the freely improvised and For Percy Heath with the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra is no exception. Raw and exposed, For Percy Heath could almost be thought of like the Fletcher Henderson big band, a group notorious for its raw, untamed expression of swing, subplanted with the musical ideals of a modern composer and 70 years worth of musical exploration. The album is pieced together as a four-part suite, the first two parts brash and swinging ahead with fierce part writing and improvisations to match. Parker's attention to intricacy of layer, with themes and subthemes and counterlines all mashing together as if the music were flying out of the instruments spontaneously (in fact for much of the album this is the case) is almost reminiscent of Charles Mingus' through-composed works.

UMO Jazz Orchestra
The Sky is Ruby
TUM Records

The UMO Jazz Orchestra began in the '70s as the Finnish Jazz Music Workshop. Following a 1980 performance with Dizzy Gillespie, the band was able to secure funds from the City of Helsinki and by 1984 become a fulltime jazz orchestra. With a collection of 23 records and boasting a repertoire of over 1,200 pieces, the UMO Jazz Orchestra has become a mainstay for stimulating and supporting Finnish musicians and composers. The arrangements on The Sky is Ruby are intricate and the music is tightly executed. The overall ensemble sound is pulled together with an attention to detail and a cleanliness of sound that almost suggests that many of the rhythm section hits are indicated on the staff paper. Pianist Iro Haarla's compositional focus has always been a strong suit and it shows through in her improvisations. Sonically exploratory and yet unafraid to find a motif and lay on it, Haarla almost sounds like a Finnish modern take on Ellington. The band covers a large amount of material in just six tracks, with rhythmically complex grooves and harmonically rich orchestrations. Underneath all of the written material there is always the proximity of a layer of freely ripping horns with the ironic mix of being openly brash and yet never losing an ounce of that fierce precision that allows the band to whip back and forth from section to section and never skip a beat.

Nublu Jazz Orchestra with Butch Morris

Conducted by Butch Morris

Nublu, a progressive music club tucked away deep into Alphabet City, has put together a group of musicians under the direction of conductionist Butch Morris as the Nublu Orchestra. There is as much acoustic instrumentation as there is digital synthesis on Conducted by Butch Morris; Gyrating phatty synth grooves and free saxophone solos all intertwine overtop a funky drum and bass, ethereal samples and the occasional vocal incantation. Averring from the temptation of freely improvised distraction — an ever-looming pitfall of the act of creating free music — Morris pushes the ensemble forward in the music, some of which is very chart-oriented and some of which sounds completely spontaneous, always with an ear for the depth of a composition and a flair for letting things happen.

Kahil El'Zabar and his Infinity Orchestra
Delmark Records

Kahil El'Zabar's Infinity Orchestra features 39 musicians, especially boasting five trumpets and a full 18 members in the rhythm section. The only jazz orchestra that comes to mind of such girth would be Mingus' Epitaph Orchestra, originally intended to be a full 60-piece double orchestra only to be later cut in half for the sake of practicality. The Infinity Orchestra also relates to the Epitaph Orchestra with respect to a similar rhythmic conception, both Mingus and El'Zabar having a taste for Afrocentric rhythmic interplay. And yet, as Mingus was a composer of music that has been termed "Third Stream , El'Zabar cites Bordeaux as the hometown of the band, important according to El'Zabar because the musicians who happened to migrate there "come from Basque backgrounds and from West Africa and North Africa and the West Indies. All of these various French communities have a relationship to their folk cultures and the musicians identify with jazz from those perspectives.

Transmigration is not an album for intricate big band part writing. In fact the band is playing in parallel lines most of the album. But as the band breaks down into smaller ensemble units, falling to the beat of a steady orchestral vamp the improvisers come out in full force. From the very first solo by tenor saxophonist Arnaud Rouanet, it is clear that El'Zabar is presenting a program of jazz being made by a cast of musicians who very well may have grown up soaking in the likes of Cameroonian jazz saxophonist Manu Dibango (known in the US for his 1972 disco hit "Soul Makossa ) well before they had heard Diz and Bird. The addition of a turntablist and a Francophone rapper to the mix make this definitely an interesting album, full of some serious grooves and lyrical melodies, but most importantly a vibrant display of some characteristically un-American jazz.

Tracks and Personnel

For Percy Heath

Tracks: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four.

Personnel: Andrew Baker: drums; Lewis Barnes: trumpet; Roy Campbell: trumpet; Darryl Foster: soprano and tenor sax; Dave Hofstra: tuba; Masahiko Kono: trombone; Matt Lavelle: trumpet; Alex Lodico: trombone; Sabir Mateen: tenor sax and clarinet; Steve Swell: trombone; Charles Waters: alto sax and clarinet.

The Sky is Ruby

Tracks: The Sky is Ruby; Questions; In the Green Light; The Bloody Fields; Lost Love; Fiery Light.

Personnel: Juhani Aaltonen: tenor and alto sax, flute; Raoul Björkenheim: guitar, gongs, bass, and drums; Iro Haarla: piano and harp; Mikko Hassinen: conductor; Jan Kohlin: trumpet; Timo Paasonen: trumpet; Mikko Pettinen: trumpet; Tero Saarti: trumpet; Pentti Lahti: alto, soprano, and sopranino saxophones, flute,, baritone flute, and piccolo flute; Mikko Mäkinen: alto sax, clarinet, bass clarinet; Teemu Salminen: tenor sax, flute, and clarinet; Olli Ojajärvi: tenor sax, flute; Pertti Päivinen: soprano, baritone, and bass saxophones, and bass clarinet; Pekka Laukkanen: trombone; Mikko Mustonen: trombone; Jari Hongisto: trombone; Mikael Långbacka: bass trombone; Ville Huolman: bass; Markus Ketola: drums.

Conducted by Butch Morris

Tracks: Sciubba Diving; L.E.S. Gardens; Here Comes the Man; Sketches of NYC; Downstairs; Ladies; Let's Do It; City Light; We Are the Ones; Steppin' On Toes; Under Siege; Food Good.

Personnel: Jesse Murphy; Ilhan Ersahin, Eddie Henderson, Graham Haynes, Doug Wieselman, Jonathon Haffner, Kirk Knuffke, Kenny Wollesen, Sylvia Gordon, Derek Nievergelt, Chantal Ughi, Michael Kiaer, Sabina Sciubba, Mauro Refosco, Didi Gutman, Aaron Johnston, Zeke Zima, Daniel Jodocy, Butch Morris.


Tracks: Soul to Groove; Speaking in Tongues; Transmigration; Nu Art Claiming Earth; Return of the Lost Tribe.

Personnel: Kahil El'Zabar: percussion, leader; Ernest Dawkins: alto sax, percussion; Joseph Bowie: trombone, percussion; Ilyes Ferfera: alto sax; Grat Martinez: baritone sax; Arnaud Rouanet: tenor sax; Marc Closier: tenor sax; Karlis Vanags: sax; Noris Kolmanis: sax; Benoit Berthe: sax; Fabien Deyts: trumpet; Yann Grillon: trumpet; Piero Pepin: trumpet; Vincent Gaugere: trumpet; Dominque Darrouzet: trumpet; Jean Dousteyssier: clarinet; Christian Patzer: flute; Jeremi Ortal: trombone; Guillaume Ballin: trombone; Clement Billardello: guitar; Xavier Corpice: guitar; Natalie Gaucher: vocal; Bindi Mahamat: vocal rap; Remi Bernis: vocal rap; Stephane Castanet: DJ; Nicolas Perrin: DJ turntablist; Olivier Soubles: piano; Marianne Thiebaut: djembe; Manue Peran: djembe; Jonathan Verbaere: djembe; Yacoura Silla: djembe, balaphon; Yvain Chambard: balafon, percussion; Pascale Martinez: percussion; Estelle Renauld: percussion; Herve Mignon: electric bass; Xavier Hayet: acoustic bass; Phillipe Gaubert: drums; Antonin Mallaret: drums; Yoann Scheidt: drums.

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