The New World Jazz Composers Octet thrives on the old school idea of jazz composition as conduit to great jazz performance, and its third album, Breaking News, puts theory to practice from the outset with Matthew Nicholl's "Poco Picasso." The jutting melodic angles and tightly orchestrated front line arrest on their own merits, while also spurring pianist Tim Ray into a well-constructed, swinging improvisation.
The composers featured on Breaking News also avoid the labyrinthine chord progressions and tortuous formal experiments that become ends in themselves in so much contemporary writing. The swirling textures and intricate layers that introduce Richard Lowell's "Warp 7, Now!" evoke one of Star Trek's Captain Kirk's wrong turns, but the harmonically arresting head inspires a driving sax duet between Felipe Salles and bandleader Daniel Ian Smith. Nicholl's ballad "Wishful Thinking" starts out simply and effectively with an undulating, regretful theme, but it's given room to expand into triumph through a muscular tenor sax solo.
Smith founded the NWJCO in 2000 as a creative outlet for fellow Berklee College of Music faculty members and other local talent around his native Boston. The selection of "Breaking News" for the title track speaks to this ensemble's identity as both composers' workshop and performers' collective. Trumpeter Walter Platt's twelve-bar cooker is straight out of the hard bop aesthetic, with ample room for Smith's baritone. Ted Pease's "Trilogy" of composer tributes generates further heat: "Thad's Pad" honors Thad Jones with an infectious miniature big band chart; "Strays" recalls both Billy Strayhorn (and alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges) with its rhapsodic lines and opaque harmonies; and "Willis" digs in on modal territory for Bill Holman.
Solo and ensemble work is consistently assured throughout this discfor example, Salles' funky tenor sax vamp on "Poco Picasso," Ray voicing à la Bill Evans for sensitive interplay with the muted horns of "Wishful Thinking," and the contrasting trumpets of Platt's shiny upper register on "Poco Picasso" and Ken Cervenka's tarter tone in "Warp 7, Now!" Only on Salles' otherwise hauntingly catchy "Children's Waltz" do soloists merely express technical facility, and the spoken word and bitter horn choirs of Jeff Friedman's "Song Sung Long" sound more like an art-house film background than an emotional main event. The seamless rhythm section of pianist Ray, bassist Keala Kaumeheiwa, drummer Mark Walker and percussionist Ernesto Diaz-Infante navigates these charts with confidence and flow.
Whatever the "new world" looks like, the NWJCO partners with composers who appreciate melody, texture and groove. That either makes it old-fashioned or perennially modern. Either way, Breaking News manages to stay intriguing, without being inundating.
Poco Picasso; Wishful Thinking; Breaking News; Children's Waltz; Warp 7, Now!; Song Sung Long; Trilogy: Thad's Pad, Strays, Willis.
Daniel Ian Smith: saxophones, flute; Ken Cervenka: trumpet, flugelhorn; Walter Platt: trumpet, flugelhorn; Tim Ray: piano; Keala Kaumeheiwa: acoustic bass; Ernesto Diaz: percussion; Felipe Salles: saxophones, flute; Mark Walker: drums; Catherine Hazel Smith: spoken word.
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