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Bobby Zankel's Warriors Play Muhal Richard Abrams at October Revolution

Victor L. Schermer By

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Bobby Zankel's Warriors Of The Wonderful Sound
Marty Ehrlich, Conductor
The Music Of Muhal Richard Abrams: Soundpath
October Revolution Festival
Christ Church Neighborhood House (Great Hall)
Philadelphia, PA
October 7, 2018

The late great pianist Muhal Richard Abrams was for many years a major force in modern jazz, accompanying a host of legendary and emerging new musicians, making ground-breaking recordings, and developing new musical forms through composition, theoretical applications, and education, inspiring many just by his presence. He rose from extreme poverty in Chicago, was mainly self-taught, and soon immersed himself in the jazz scene there, eventually becoming an international presence. In 2012, Bobby Zankel's Warriors Of The Wonderful Sound premiered Muhal's composition Soundpath, a challenging and multi-faceted work for big band, covering diverse styles and sounds, providing a reference point for years to come. In this concert, the same band, with somewhat different personnel, performed the same hour-long work with enthusiasm, virtuosity, and improvisational brilliance at the high end of big band jazz moments. The day after the concert, the band was scheduled to record it for posterity.

For the show, Zankel took his seat in the saxophone section and brought in Marty Ehrlich as conductor. Ehrlich has immersed himself in the jazz scene since the 1970s and has played a major role in the development of the avant-garde. He completely assimilated this composition, brought out the best in the musicians, and had a perfect sense of timing, and he organized the band and the varied sections of the piece into a unified whole. Chad Taylor's precise and powerful drumming pulled the whole thing together, and the overall dramatic effect was comparable to the electrifying Count Basie, Maynard Ferguson, Duke Ellington, and other ensembles that brought the house down during the golden era of big bands. Held in a relatively small auditorium, it nevertheless felt like being at a memorable event at Newport or Monterey. The feeling of generativity was palpable.

Soundpath has many orchestrated sections, openings for solos, and free form opportunities, creating clear structures as well as the freedom for the band to go its own way, an ideal combination for any jazz ensemble. It incorporated much of the avant garde, but there were also sections that sounded like Basie, Ellington, or Ferguson, and at times had echoes of the early bands like King Oliver and Fletcher Henderson. Some parallels could also be drawn to the Charles Mingus Big Band with its grinding pulsations, and at the "far out" end, you could hear the influence of Ornette Coleman and of John Coltrane's Meditations.

Much of the credit for these echoes of the masters could be given to the musicians. Everyone in the band was given the opportunity to solo, and every solo had its own special flair. For example, Julian Pressley took the Coltrane feeling to new levels of speed and agility. Duane Eubanks delivered a trumpet improv with a Dizzy Gillespie bebop flavor. Steve Swell knocked off rapid-fire staccato riffs like his mentor Roswell Rudd. Tom Lawton did a couple of uplifting piano solos with a touch of the way Stan Kenton's piano would sometimes stand out. I was particularly struck by Mark Dessen's trombone playing, which had the legato feeling of Tommy Dorsey and Urbie Green but with chord changes that neither of them could have anticipated. Michael Formanek was highly articulate and made every note count on bass, influenced by Paul Chambers in that respect. And Chad Taylor did a stunning solo to top off the piece, although you can't pin him down to specific influences. He just adapts perfectly to whatever is called for.

The audience caught the fervor and gave the group a roaring standing ovation. The many-times honored Philadelphia Inquirer, Village Voice and Atlantic Monthly jazz critic and writer Francis Davis was present and congratulated the musicians on their efforts. Everyone knew the power of what they had experienced. That Soundpath has only been performed twice, and only by the Warriors, tells us either that it is too challenging for most bands to take on, or that it is too long for a standard concert, or that they are ignorant of some important charts in the repertoire.

This concert was part of the "October Revolution" series of contemporary music sponsored by Mark Christman's Ars Nova Workshop, which deserves much praise for consistently presenting and supporting music and performers on the cutting edge who often face funding cuts and other obstacles to artistic expression and freedom and so need special series to display their wares.

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