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Bob Brookmeyer Celebration at New England Conservatory

Bob Brookmeyer Celebration at New England Conservatory
Steve Provizer By

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The young composers Brookmeyer mentored have thoroughly assimilated the techniques that he pioneered. As the evening showed, they are keeping the bar high; continuing to move big band music ahead.
NEC Jazz Orchestra
Jordan Hall
Bob Brookmeyer Celebration
Boston, MA
March 1, 2018

All of the composer-arrangers featured at the Bob Brookmeyer Celebration concert had been mentored, to some degree or other, by Bob Brookmeyer. Listening to what each of his former students said during the program and to the music itself, his great contribution was to make it seem as though anything is possible-and permissible-in the big band context.

Brookmeyer's career began in the late 1940's, when he played piano in the big bands of Tex Beneke and Ray McKinley. In the early 1950's, he went to the Claude Thornhill big band and began to focus solely on valve trombone. The Thornhill and McKinley bands were important in that they hired arrangers interested in forging a big band sound that was more modern than that of Goodman, the Dorseys and Glenn Miller. These include Eddie Sauter, Bill Finnegan, Thornhill, Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan, the latter two instrumental in crafting the smaller ensemble sound of Miles Davis' "Birth of the Cool."

During the next couple of decades, Brookmeyer continued to write for big bands, although most of his recording was done as a trombone player in quartets or quintets. In 1965, he began a long association with the adventurous Thad Jones Mel Lewis Big Band, which performed weekly at the Village Vanguard. Then, in the early 1980's, he moved to Europe and became a frequent contributor to big band activity there, both as arranger-composer and as trombone soloist.

In terms of the duration of their careers, their influence and quality of their writing, Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer are at the top of the heap. And while Evans was only a competent pianist, Brookmeyer was also a soloist of the highest caliber. I believe he is the preeminent valve trombonist in jazz history.

This is the pedigree that Brookmeyer brought when he came to the New England Conservatory (NEC) in 1997. The quality of his work was reflected in that of his mentees, who in this concert utilized a vast arsenal of techniques to paint personal, unique portraits in the big band format. The work was well-rendered by the student jazz ensemble. There may be areas in which these musicians are not quite at the highest professional level, but they could fill the chairs of almost any big band in the country.

The first piece, "Take Back the Country" was written and conducted by the accomplished Ken Schaphorst, Chair of the NEC's Jazz Studies Department, who leads the student ensemble. Schaphorst said he wrote the piece for Brookmeyer, with Brookmeyer's outspoken attitude toward American politics in mind. There was nothing programmatic about the piece, as far as I could hear-no apposite lyrics or musical allusions to anything specifically political. The piece was largely up-tempo, using a lot of lush voicings for the 15 piece ensemble. There was some meter shifting, but the harmony was not particularly challenging, serving well for student solos on trombone and baritone sax. The presence of so many baritone sax-trombone soloist pairings during the course of the evening was an homage to the long association that Brookmeyer had with Gerry Mulligan.

I have to mention an ongoing problem here with the sound, one that was bothersome throughout the concert; namely, a lack of amplification for the soloists. Soloists stepped up to a mic, so the opportunity was there to make certain they were audible, but most of the time, that was not so. There was much background writing for the large ensemble and unless that happened to be at a low volume level, the soloists were often buried. I hope the NEC takes note and takes steps to correct this. Apart from this, the sound of the full ensemble in the hall was terrific.

The next composition was "Finality," which was written and conducted by Nick Urie. Laila Smith performed well as vocalist from a text written by poet Charles Bukowsky (Smith was seated at a mic and was properly amplified) Urie managed the relationship between the ensemble and voice well. He rendered the spirit of the text-about "Mad Ezra"-in an appropriate, minor mode-dominated musical environment. In fact, there was a relationship between the composition and the words that led to an almost soundtrack-like feeling. The ending section provoked in me the feeling that I was being taken for a ride in a really odd caravan. The last chord was dissonant enough that I felt as though the caravan had fallen through a crack in the desert floor. Jesse Beckett-Herbert should be noted for his excellent tenor sax work here and in other compositions.

The Ayn Inserto Jazz Orchestra, the sole female composer of the evening, wrote and conducted "Down a Rabbit Hole." Ms. Inserto has recorded several albums of her music, has a full schedule of commissions and serves as a professor at Berklee College of Music. She says: "the Brookmeyer techniques I used for this piece were a combination of pitch modules and white note exercise." Not having studied with Brookmeyer, I'm not sure how this played out in the music. What I heard was a variety of vamps and meters, a great deal of complicated line writing-she moved lines in relation to each other so intricately that they came just this short of chaos. As in the previous piece, minor dominated the tonality. The ensemble writing was excellent, with a wide harmonic palette and great variety of line movement.

"Temmuz" by Mehmet Ali Sanlikol was the only composition of the evening to introduce specifically non-Western elements. Sanlikol is Turkish and the meaning of his work in Turkish is "July." He wrote it in response to a coup d'etat in Turkey in July, 2016 which happened while he was in the U.S., but his wife and child were in Turkey. He says the composition is ..."mainly a reflection of the ambiguity and the uncertainty I faced at the time..." Sanlikol played ney, a long flute-like instrument and zurna, a double reed instrument and also sang. I was surprised initially, when the piano started off alone, playing in a Debussy-like impressionist mode, but that was not the kind of free-floating harmony the piece pursued. The harmony was contemporary and the voicings were very unusual. For example, you had the unique sounds of ney and zurma used in combination with muted trumpets. It was interesting to note how the composer dealt with the juxtaposition of East and West in short sections that played with that concept. For example, there was also a Turkish drum used called a nekkare. Its sound is close to what we can a tom-tom drum. So, a rhythm was set up that was Eastern, which then changed as snare drum and nekkare went into a straight military marching beat. Not only an East West allusion, but also to the Turkish coup d'etat. The most affecting part of the piece was the vocal. Sanlikol began the last section of the piece singing, almost what we would call ululating; working in the falsetto register. He slowly began mutating into syllables that we would associate with scat singing. He got more and more energetic and the vocalizing became a beautiful, full-throated improvisation. The ensemble's accompaniment dropped off and Sanlikol ended quietly alone. It was a very moving moment in the concert.

The next composition was "Winged Beasts" composed and conducted by Darcy James Argue. Argue is undoubtedly the most well known of the evening's slate of composers. One reason is that he is active as a blogger and on social media. He's accumulated scores of awards and has fashioned an orchestra called the Secret Society to play his compositions. While Argue's list of accomplishments is long, I noted in the program notes the infrastructure that all these composers have plugged into. There are awards, fellowships, grants, commissions, some tv and film work, without which, the world of new big band music would greatly diminish.

Argue explained that the title of his piece came from an Assyrian sculpture, composed of parts of animals and humans, which he said was "like a big band, with all these parts that don't belong." He was the most accomplished conductor of the evening. He has clearly studied the art and his precise movements evoked the most clearly articulated ensemble playing of the night. Transitions between sections were clean. I heard more gradations in dynamics; quiet sections were quite quiet and fortissimo sections quite loud. Again, this sometimes buried the trombone and baritone soloists, but that's the fault of the sound people, not the conductor, who is working off a stage monitor. In terms of instrumentation, Argue put the "odd pieces" of the big band together in unusual ways-doubling bass and piano or guitar and trombone. He was not afraid of the concept of the "riff"-a repeated phrase in jazz-but he pushed the concept to the limit, in terms of repetition, voicing and alterations. As with all the pieces, this one would bear re-hearing, which would reveal more secrets, like the chromatic twist from Brookmeyer that Argue says inspired him.

After intermission, the ensemble, now 20 musicians strong, came back to perform Brookmeyer's "Celebration Suite." The chief soloist, brought in for the performance, was baritone saxophonist Brian Landrus. Landrus is known as one of the most adept baritone players in jazz. He shows up at the top of polls and indeed, has full command of the instrument. Not to harp on the audio, but despite the fact that he had his own mic in the bell of his horn, he too was sometimes hard to hear in the mix.

The 4 contrasting movements are called Jig, Slow Dance, Remembering and Two And. To some extent, the piece is fashioned as a concerto for baritone sax and, to a lesser degree, for trombone, which part was handled well by Eric Stilwell. I won't go into a detailed blow-by-blow of the composition, written in1997. It represents the fully mature Brookmeyer and utilizes the arranging techniques that he developed over 40 years of writing. Some of the areas he is known for are: creative ways of weaving a soloist into the music as a whole (which soloist Landrus was very capable of using to his advantage), the use of extended unison sections, the use of "classical" music tensions, clusters and polytonality; group improvisation and using extended melodic material to help shape the soloists ideas. That is, by presenting large amounts of material before giving soloists room to improvise, Brookmeyer establishes the mood, form and attitude of his compositions. The soloist then has no choice but to let the music that was already produced influence his improvisation.

Brookmeyer's own words are useful: "I'm more interested in finding unity and making structure that is strong and will stand up, than I am in making crazy colors. I'm less interested in color now than I am in organic unity. That's a word [unity] that can be talked about a lot, but for me has turned out to be an interesting and valuable concept." I don't know about "crazy' colors. Colors that were once considered crazy have simply become part of the language of the new big band music. The young composers Brookmeyer mentored have thoroughly assimilated those crazy colors and the other techniques that he pioneered. As the evening showed, they are keeping the bar high; continuing to move big band music ahead.

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