The trombone is one of jazz's secret weapons. Not as ubiquitous as the saxophone or as iconic as the trumpet in the popular imagination, it nonetheless holds a powerful position as one of jazz's defining instruments. It's also the case that the trombone appears to be currently experiencing a renaissanceone which trombonist, composer, and bandleader John Yao's sophomore effort Flip-Flop is clearly a part.
Comprised of ten compositions for his 17-piece big band, Yao demonstrates how when properly handled the instrument's flexible range can simultaneously stretch the walls of sonic texture, penetrate the deeper emotive realms, and provide the explosive force necessary to ground a large ensemble. Boldly diverse, Yao's compositions cut across the swath of contemporary jazz's field, utilizing the big-band format to amalgamate a surprising range of styles and periodssometimes within a single composition. The title track opens at pace with a flurry of hard bop solos, only to twist inward on itself as the ensemble stacks layers of interlocking themes in a dance that skirts cacophony, and then, just before plunging fully into dense chaos, the piece fractures again, smoothing suddenly into a minimally adorned, cool-toned groove, only to pounce forward once more to end with a percussive bang.
And that's just one composition.
Yao deftly replicates this range throughout the album, dipping and darting across tempos fluidly, pitting different textures and colors against one another, and deploying intricate orchestrations that take full advantage of his band's estimable skills, all while remaining grounded in the jazz big-band tradition. Tunes like "New Guy" soar over a heavy swing, while "Slow...Children at Play" glides mischievously down multiple, sonorous paths. "Soundscape No. 1" calves like an iceberg into third stream abstraction. The hilariously titled "Ode to the Last Twinkie" lopes along with an appropriately fat beat as the band members trade clever jabs.
With Flip-Flop, Yao proves himself a strong compositional voice and effective band-leader able to use his 17-piece band to paint across a wide spectrum and infuse his complex writing with a thoughtful balance of audacity, structure, humor, and sonic might. And perhaps most appealingly of all, it's anyone's guess where he will take us next.
Flip-Flop; New Guy; Slow…Children at Play; Soundscape No.1; Hellgate; Reflection; Ode to the Last Twinkie; Soundscape No.2; Illumination
John Yao: Compositions, Conductor, Trombone; John O’Gallagher: Alto, Soprano Saxophones, Flute; Alejandro Aviles: Alto Sax, Flute; Rich Perry: Tenor Sax; Jon Irabagon: Tenor Sax, Clarinet; Frank Basile: Baritone Sax, Bass Clarinet; John Walsh: Trumpet & Flugel; Jason Wiseman: Trumpet; David Smith: Trumpet; Andy Gravish: trumpet; Luis Bonilla: Trombone; Matt McDonald: Trombone; Kajiwara Tokunori: trombone; Jennifer Wharton: trombone; Jesse Stacken: piano; Robert Sabin: bass; Vince Cherico: drums