David Weiss: Writin', Arrangin' and Playin'

R.J. DeLuke By

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You can't get to a higher place than you've been without trying all the time. You can't really change the world if you're happy and content ... You have to go for it.
David Weiss has been on the New York scene for a while now, writing and arranging, producing albums, organizing an outstanding octet. He's known for all that.

He also plays the trumpet. Quite well, in fact. Although he's played with the likes of Jaki Byard, Frank Foster, Craig Handy, Christian McBride, Jimmy Heath and a great many others, people may come to know this more via a new group the ever-busy Weiss has put together. For Weiss, its time to play more horn. He's not disregarding other activities, because his name first got around because of his composing and arranging talents. But it's time to play.

One of his main groups, the New Jazz Composers Octet, has two new recordings out in 2008, actually. The Turning Gate (Motema Records) is another outstanding disk by the band of compatriots he put together in 1996. The group was set up to bring fine writing to the fore and it has done so superbly throughout its existence. Along the way, the group occasionally backs trumpet legend Freddie Hubbard, back on the scene after health problems lessened his gargantuan trumpet chops, but not his spirit.

Backing Hubbard, the band recorded On the Real Side (Times Square Records), which was also released this year. It features arrangements by the Octet members of some of Hubbard's best compositions, over which Hubbard plays flugelhorn. The band gets plenty of solo space as well.

Both recordings are produced by Weiss.

And in the hopper, so to speak, is a live recording from a new band assembled by Weiss, called Point of Departure. The group has already recorded music from sets at the New York's Jazz Standard nightclub and will be surfacing at some point. That music is looser, more free, more about taking chances.

The Octet

"The octet has been my flesh and blood for 12 years now," says Weiss. "It always will be important, as long as the guys keep writing and as long as still do some gigs with Freddie Hubbard. It'll still be there... I look at it more as—I'm schizophrenic and I have many personalities I have to keep happy. But a couple years ago, I said enough of this, I need to be a trumpet player. Whatever band-leading skills I have are still in there somewhere. But (the new band) is a lot more about my trumpet playing than anything else I've done."

In addition, recent years have seen him in Charles Tolliver's big band and with a group of strong veteran jazzers called The Cookers, that includes Billy Harper on sax, Eddie Henderson on trumpet, George Cables on piano, Billy Hart on drums and Cecil McBee on bass. So it's a busy time for Weiss.

The Turning Gate is the third album for the Octet, (not counting two discs with Hubbard) which doesn't do a lot of touring. It has done gigs over the years with Hubbard, and has appeared elsewhere on its own when the opportunity arises, but Weiss finds it difficult to book the eight pieces around New York City. That has not tempered his enthusiasm for holding the group together. The band consists of Steve Davis on trombone, Xavier Davis on Piano, Dwayne Burno on bass; E.J. Strickland and Nasheet Waits have played drums; Jimmy Greene, Myron Walden and at times Craig Handy are on alto and tenor sax; Norbert Stachel is on baritone sax and bass clarinet.

"The Octet is a unique thing. It's not something I want to let go," says Weiss.

He feels that writing is what has changed jazz over the years, and he is justly proud of the writing that goes into the New Composers Octet. Even though the paths of jazz history are marked by major soloists like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and so many other greats, "it's composition that has changed it. It sets up the context for these guys to do whatever they're going to do to change the earth. Charlie Parker changed the planet, but he also wrote all that music that put it in the context of what he needed to do to be that amazing soloist. Ornette (Coleman), the same thing."

The band members write straight though the American jazz tradition and continually come up with fresh, interesting choices that make compelling compositions. Weiss says coming from that vantage point is important. "There's this malaise around the music now and people are looking elsewhere. Everything has to come from Israel or Cuba or Africa or anywhere else. It seems like the press, the powers that be, are looking everywhere else because the model that worked seems to be gone. Or you can't write about it. I don't know. A variety of reasons for where we got to where we are today. But writing is key. Writing is what changes it. As long as these guys feel like writing and the group's developing this thing, I want to keep it going. A: To keep the guys going and keep the group together. And B: Somebody's should be doing this. And that was the idea all along."

As usual, the writing on The Turning Gate is strong throughout. The rhythm section maintains a looseness, but arrangements carries the day. When the players step up to solo, they are fiery when the piece calls for it, or haunting and moody if that's the bent of the composition. It all comes together. Xavier Davis's compositions sparkle on the disk, as he contributes "New," a vehicle for Steve Davis' rich tone on trombone; the swinging "David and Goliath," and the extended "The Faith Suite," made up of four parts.

"Xavier's suite, that was a grant suite from Chamber Music America. That music got him another grant. So he's got another suite of that length that we haven't recorded yet," says Weiss.

"Part of getting a band recorded right is the ninth member, the recording engineer and the recording studio," in the case of the last two CDs it was Systems Two in Brooklyn, engineered by Joe Marciano. "The guy knows what we sound like. He knows what I'm going for. He works with me because I do a lot of the mixing myself. I know what the arrangements sound like and I know how I need to hear the five horns balanced and stuff like that. That part is still a lot of work. It's a lot of mixing work to get it to sound like that. It's not easy with that many horns... with five horns you have to be very precise about the balance of everything. It takes a while if you really care."

With Freddie Hubbard
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