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Chris Oatts’ Pretty Big Band at Chris’ Jazz Café

Chris Oatts’ Pretty Big Band at Chris’ Jazz Café

Courtesy Victor L. Schermer

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Chris Oatts' Pretty Big Band
Chris' Jazz Café
Philadelphia, PA
May 28, 2024

The nonet, a nine-member ensemble which enables features of both small group and big band arranging and playing, has probably deserved greater use than it has seen in jazz over the years. Among the most notable applications was Bob Brookmeyer's use of it in the 1950s to bring together music and musicians from the big band era and the small group "cool" and "West Coast" jazz of which Brookmeyer was one of the progenitors (cf. Bob Brookmeyer: Mosaic Select 9, Mosaic Records, 2004). More than a few decades later, Philly-based saxophonist Chris Oatts, having established himself as one of the finest players of his generation, has been following Brookmeyer's path by adding serious composing and arranging to his craftsman-like approach to his instrument.

In this set at Chris' Jazz Café, Oatts brought together some of his outstanding cohorts to perform his own nonet arrangements of some popular standards. a couple of iconic jazz pieces, and one composition of his own. His arrangements make the maximum use of the nine-member ensemble. They swing, shout, and excite like the big bands. They have nuances and resilience only possible in a somewhat downsized ensemble, and the solos fit in much better than in a big band, arising out of the band rather than standing out in the crowd. Oatts has achieved all these objectives, and on this occasion in the hands of some great musicians, the result was a delight to hear.

The action began with Joe Zawinul's "Scotch and Water" where the rhythm section started out with a blues theme and rhythm, and then the trumpets, saxophones, and finally St Clair Simmons' trombone, and the theme restated by the whole ensemble. This extended prelude provided a solid basis for a series of solos then taken by tenor saxophonist Dylan Band, trumpeter Joe Anderson, and Donovan Pope on drums. Oatts' fine arranging capabilities showed up in this straight-ahead start to what were to prove more complex and nuanced arrangements to follow.

Gigi Gryce and Jon Hendricks' classic "Social Call" originated as a vocal number (Betty Carter put it on the charts) and is a real challenge to write for a larger band ensemble. In this case Oatts started with a through-composed "improvisation" played in unison by the group. Then and only then were there spontaneous improvised solos by Anderson, Oatts, and Joe Plowman on bass. Oatts' arrangement of this tune has a similar tempo and feeling of swing to Carter's singing of it, but the melody is less present than the harmonization, making for a richer sound giving far more opportunity for improvising.

Oatts indicated that he wrote "Building Blocks" for Philly-based trumpeter Elliot Bild. (Was the connection between Bild and build-ing intended?) It began with a march tempo with a Latin flavor. The building blocks started with the emphasis on the rhythm. There was a lively piano solo by Silas Irvine, and solos by Oatts and band. The piece concludes with the brass and saxophones riffing behind the band's solo and then accentuated by Pope's sophisticated drumming.

In Cole Porter's timeless "All of You," the whole band stated the theme in a way that was very reminiscent of the WWII swing bands, with the swing feeling further enhanced by Irvine's piano work. Incidentally, Irvine and bassist Plowman worked with the late great saxophonist Larry McKenna on his much-heralded final album World on a String (BCM+D Records, 2022).

Stephen Sondheim's Sweeny Todd ballad "Not While I'm Around" featured a reflective and haunting flugelhorn solo by Anderson. His entire solo was done a cappella (with no backing instruments), another credit to Oatts for configuring it that way.

For an appropriately exciting ending of the set, Joe Henderson's "Shade of Jade" was done with a rock 'em sock 'em r&b feel, including another solo by Anderson on trumpet, a delightful sequence where brass and reeds just clapped the rhythm, and an audience-wowing baritone sax solo by Josh Lee.

The show was sheer listening pleasure, and Oatts proved himself to be a very fine band arranger and leader. In his hands, the nonet proved itself to be an excellent configuration to work with and listen to. Oatts is "one to watch" as someone who is fiercely loyal to the tradition, while adding his strong creative powers to it.

Set list

(Composers as listed; all arrangements by Chris Oatts) Scotch and Water (Joe Zawinul); Social Call (Gigi Gryce/John Hendricks); Building Blocks (Chris Oatts); "All of You" (Cole Porter); Not While I'm Around (Stephen Sondheim); Shade of Jade (Joe Henderson).

Personnel

Chris Oatts, leader, alto and soprano sax, flute; Dylan Band, tenor sax and clarinet; Josh Lee, baritone sax; Jon Shaw, lead trumpet; Joe Anderson, trumpet; St Clair Simmons, trombone; Silas Irvine, piano; Joe Plowman, bass; Donovan Pope, drums. (Note: Lee, Simmons, and Plowman were not listed on the Chris' Jazz Café calendar for this gig.)

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