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Jon Armstrong Jazz Orchestra: Farewell

Dave Wayne By

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I am beginning to wonder if every jazz musician has, in some dark corner of their psyche, a suppressed ambition to lead a big band. Economically unfeasible, logistically impossible—but artistically gratifying—a big band is perhaps the ultimate way to make manifest one's greatest musical ambitions. You get to conduct, pick your own solos, compose and arrange on a grand scale, and luxuriate in the pure sound power of a couple of dozen other great musicians playing your compositions and arrangements. Saxophonist Jon Armstrong, a co-founder of the wonderfully open-ended, restlessly creative quartet Slumgum doesn't strike me as a "big band guy." In person, he's quiet and self-effacing, but with the finely-wrought wit of someone who's taken more seriously by others than he is by himself. He's, simply put, an endlessly resourceful and fascinating improviser. A graduate of CalArts, Armstrong recently left Los Angeles for Pocatello, ID, where he now serves as the Director of Jazz Studies at Idaho State University. The album's title, Farewell, refers to the continual process of moving on through life; saying goodbye to the person you were yesterday.

The first track, "Ardnave," is a friendly, raffish piece in 7/4 with a twisting, contrapuntal melody that—to my ears—has a Balkan flavor. Armstrong's liners, however, reveal the piece was inspired by a trip to Scotland. Oh well. Percussion is front-and-center here, with Randy Gloss and Chris Payne trading some high speed frame drum licks. Armstrong's opening solo on "Fool of Me," beautifully paced and highly emotive, opens the door for a gentle swell of reeds and brass. Beautiful. Accelerating and intensifying beneath Armstrong's tenor, the orchestra imparts the intimate warmth that typifies smaller ensembles. Especially enjoyable are the pandeiros (Gloss and Payne, again, I would guess) percolating beneath the more typical rhythm instruments. "Dream Has No Friend" is an impressionistic, multi-layered tone poem that benefits from Armstrong's Gil Evans-inspired arrangement and features superb solos by bass clarinetist Brian Walsh and trombonist George McMullen.

The album's final two tracks are also the longest. "Quardboard Flavored Fiber" is an adaptation of the title track of Slumgum's most recent recording (Accretions, 2011). Here, Armstrong's arrangement is surprisingly transparent; anyone who has heard the original will immediately relate to this version. Starting with Stephen Kac's nimble tuba soliloquy, the band eases into the herky-jerky dynamism of the main theme. Altoist Gavin Templeton solos with glee over the surging full-on rhythm section, as does trombonist Ryan Dragon, whose solo cycles through several sections only to culminate over the main theme. The title track features guest vocalist Joon Lee who scats and sings to great effect throughout. Though it has a gospel-blues feel at its core, the piece also visits, and unites with, other musical idioms; much like some of John Hollenbeck's orchestral music. Clinton Patterson's blues-soaked trumpet solo here is especially noteworthy. Most surprising is the vocal-led coda that leads into the final three minutes of the piece. Though it sounds as if the piece has ended, Lee continues scatting, very quietly at first, as the reeds, guitar, piano and low brass softly surround her in what amounts to a musical hug. It's a beautiful and heartfelt way to end an album.

Track Listing: Ardnave; Fool of Me; Dream Has No Friend; Quardboard Flavored Fiber; Farewell.

Personnel: Jon Armstrong: Composer, Conductor, Tenor Saxophone; Gavin Templeton, Phil O’Connor, Brian Walsh, Andrew Conrad, Erin Armstrong: woodwinds; Michael Steever, Daniel Rosenboom, Barbara Laronga, Josh Aguiar, Clinton Patterson: trumpets; George McMullen, Ryan Dragon, Joey Sellers, Paul Rivera, Stefan Kac: low brass; Gary Fukashima: piano; Randy Gloss, Chris Payne: percussion, mallets; David Tranchina: bass; Alexander Noice: guitars; Trevor Anderies, Andrew Lessman: drums; Joon Lee: vocals.

Title: Farewell | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Orenda Records

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