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Bobby Zankel’s Warriors of the Wonderful Sound with Rudresh Mahanthappa at Philadelphia Clef Club 2015

Victor L. Schermer By

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Bobby Zankel's Warriors of the Wonderful Sound with Rudresh Mahanthappa
Jazz Appreciation Month
Ars Nova Workshop
Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz
Philadelphia, PA
April 7, 2015

Bobby Zankel's Warriors of the Wonderful Sound have been delivering exciting shows featuring Zankel's and others' innovative compositions and arrangements for over fifteen years, and this was one of their most glowing and electrifying performances to date. This big band of some of the best and most ground-breaking musicians in the Philadelphia area was inspired by the likes of the Sun Ra Arkestra, Cecil Taylor, and Ornette Coleman, advancing the thrust into the avant-garde while developing a signature sound and inventiveness all their own. Zankel often brings in guest artists to work with them, including Steve Coleman and Muhal Richard Abrams. On this particular evening, the incomparable alto saxophonist, Rudresh Mahanthappa made a return engagement with them. Zankel wrote all the arrangements and all but one of the tunes, and Mahanthappa in effect "sat in" with the saxophone section rather than playing from his own prodigious repertoire. In some respects, it was an "East Meets West" encounter, with Mahanthappa often superimposing Indian Carnatic scales onto Zankel's tonal structures, which made the music even more exciting and challenging.

The first of five extended pieces was Zankel's unique large ensemble arrangement of John Coltrane's "Acknowledgement" (from A Love Supreme). Instead of Trane's tenor saxophone, three alto saxophonists (Mahanthappa, Zankel, and Julian Pressley engaged in a very friendly "duel" of solos, all with incredible speed and brilliant phrases. As if that weren't enough, the ensemble playing raised the roof, and an effusive solo by trumpeter Josh Lawrence, a bass and piano duet by Lee Smith and Tom Lawton, and an unaccompanied solo by Smith based on the mantra that Trane sang in his original recording, added fuel to the fire. Throughout the evening, pianist Lawton and Mahanthappa established a special rapport, listening and learning from one another, perhaps reminiscent of Mahanthappa's collaborations with pianist Vijay Iyer.

It was evident from the outset that the band resonated more than they typically do with some of the "swinging" modern sounds like those of the Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton and Charles Mingus ensembles. This lively dynamic was at least partly due to the presence of the great percussionist, Francois Zayas, whose exceptional hand drumming energized the rhythm section and added a Latin feel that the aforementioned bands often incorporated.

"Spirits Break to Freedom" was originally composed by Zankel for a multi-media theatrical presentation of dancer/choreographer Germaine Ingram and photographer John Dowell. The music was impassioned, and additional lyricism was provided by trumpeter Stan Slotter doubling on flute and Mark Allen exploiting all the registers of the baritone saxophone. Every musician in this band is top-of-the-line and at the top of their game. Manhanthappa concluded the piece with a phenomenal solo embodying his otherworldly technique, firm yet irrepressible sound, and brilliant lines.

It was thus fitting that Zankel dedicated the next composition, "Lotus Flower Blooming in the Swamp" to Mahanthappa, who indeed in some ways fits that description, since he makes brilliant use of a veritable "swamp" of jazz and world music influences, including, in his latest CD, Bird Calls (ACT Music, 2015) that of the immortal Charlie Parker . Mahanthappa's introspective but declarative solo here was surprisingly reminiscent of the classical composer Maurice Ravel. Added to the mix were stunning solos by Zayas and by the great John Swana on valve trombone. Informed by his tight hold on the sound and harmony, Swana, who switched from trumpet to valve trombone due to embouchure problems, is proving himself in his own way a worthy successor to Bob Brookmeyer. One eagerly awaits his first recordings on his new instrument.

Zankel's "You Have a Mission Only You Can Fulfill" is an energetic composition involving recurring riffs and motifs bearing an especially strong kinship to Cecil Taylor's seminal album, Conquistador (Blue Note, 1966). Zankel works with the Warriors the same way that Mahatma Gandhi worked with his followers: "There go my people -I must follow them, for I am their leader." He gave ample solo opportunities to trombonist Larry Toft, violinist Diane Monroe, trumpeter Josh Lawrence, and drummer Craig McIver and interspersed their solos with an all-ensemble interlude that organized the piece into a coherent whole. To hear any one of these extraordinary musicians play is itself worth the price of the ticket.

The concert concluded with "The Next Time I See You," a time-honored piece that Zankel dedicated to the memory of Wayne Shorter's wife Ana Maria, who died on TWA Flight 800. Lawton and Mahanthappa took solos that graced the piece and the entire evening. They seemed to be grooving with one another throughout the concert, providing an additional co-creative dose of musical sensitivity and awareness to the Warriors' own "wonderful sound."

The Warriors of the Wonderful Sound make musical miracles. This concert was a pinnacle in their evolution, an expression of confidence and power. Keep an eye out for two more Warriors concerts in this series coming up at the Painted Bride and the Clef Club. Don't miss them the next time they appear in your neck of the woods.
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