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Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra: Cambridge, April 29, 2011

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Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra
YMCA Theater
Cambridge, MA
April 29, 2011
A local community center turned into a forward-thinking artistic venue when the Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra ascended the small stage at the Cambridge YMCA.
The JCAO plays original works by a membership drawn from Boston's (naturally) progressive jazz community, with several performers doubling as faculty at Berklee College of Music and other renowned local institutions. This diverse talent pool draws from an even wider range of influences from inside and well outside of jazz: straight-ahead, free, world music via twenty-first century Western art music, folk elements and a healthy shot of circus tent whimsy volleyed across the eighteen-piece ensemble on Friday night.
Surprise is synonymous with excitement for the JCAO, with unexpected, even unconnected shifts of music and mood taking precedence over stylistic cohesion. Trombonist David Harris's "Trek from Ethiopia: Part I" incorporated the Eastern reflections of Warren Senders's vocal microtones and Phil Scarff's chanting tenor sax, as well as New Orleans parade beats courtesy of Bill Lowe's pumping tuba underneath it all. On Darrell Katz's five part "Wheelworks," the JCAO's founder and musical director gleefully shifted between deconstructed swing, modal vamping and atonal anguish, with satirical harmonic crushes a reminder that humor and intellect go hand-in-hand.

"Wheelworks" also set Albert Einstein's comments on bicycles, physics and the apocalypse to a haunting beatnik recitative. Rebecca Shrimpton's engaging vocals eschewed histrionics, keeping this unlikely musical text from dissolving into self-parody. Her cool, sweet voice also enriched Hiro Honshuku's "Sakura Sakura," the flautist's arrangement of a Japanese folk song and tribute to his devastated homeland. A tight blend of two alto saxophones and soprano saxophone recalled the calm beauty of a Japanese wood flute, while a bass clarinet, embracing muted trumpet over mournful tom-tom patterns, underscored an atmosphere of loss mixed with stoic resilience.

The JCAO's identity as a thought-provoking jazz orchestra never foreclosed the spontaneity of a freewheeling, room-shaking big band. The most sophisticated sounds were packaged in plenty of rhythm and jaw-dropping virtuosity, such as Forbes Graham's charging trumpet and David Harris' blistering trombone booting the rhythm section into a frenzy. Alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs' shattering, free jazz excursions showed how solid tone and pinpoint intonation (even into the highest registers) enhance even the wildest journeys.

The pop and thump of Hobbs's "Kekionga" unleashed a slippery sax soli over brawny brass commentary, before Honshuku's whirling dervish of a flute solo conjured howling winds and sandstorms (the absence of Pablo Bencid's steadfast drums on this number illustrated how groove is a matter of people, not instruments). Trombonist Bob Pilkington's cooker "Sounds Like Somethin'" closed the evening with a truculent, repeating riff over intriguing chord changes, recalling the Savoy Sultans via progressive rock jam bands.

While such wide-ranging experiments in form, color and even feeling could have floated away into academic exercise, the JCAO's intelligence and humor challenged the audience without condescending to it. The crowd was clearly appreciative, with claps and hoots that belied its modest size. Music this intelligent and fun is worth further study, but also cheering.

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