Rocco John Iacovone
has been an under-sung presence in the New York avant-garde scene for some time. Despite several recordings to his name, he's yet to get much big-time recognition. But with this live recording by his octet, the Improvisational Composers Ensemble, that could change. The December 2014 performance at John Zorn
's club, the Stone had been arranged as part of a week-long residency curated by Will Connell
, another under-acknowledged performer who in the 1960s was involved with Horace Tapscott
's Los Angeles- based Black Arts Movement before coming to New York in the 1970s. Connell, a multi-instrumentalist known especially for his work on alto saxophone and bass clarinet, had recently been playing the latter in Iacovone's octet. Sadly, however, Connell died soon before the Stone performance, which turned the occasion into a somber affair. Even so, the resulting music is ultimately celebratory and joyous, and it's a more-than-fitting homage to Connell's life and legacy.
Iacovone wrote all three of the pieces on the record, and they're perfect in providing just enough structure to allow the musicians to dig in and explore their possibilities, both as soloists and in conversation with other members of the group. Case in point is the record's opener, "Aurora Borealis," built around a repeated descending scale that eventually settles into a relaxed groove, anchored skillfully by bassist Philip Sirois
and drummer Dalius Naujo
, that allows room for Ras Moshe Burnett
to develop a torrid tenor solo before handing the baton to other members of the group. Although at over 23 minutes the piece is of substantial length, Iacovone makes good use of different combinations of the band members to keep the music interesting. Violinist Sana Nagano
's dynamic exchange with Iacovone (on alto) midway through the piece is a particular highlight. Their fiery interplay is exciting and infectious, and when Burnett then joins in to provide a two-horn onslaught, they take the music to another level altogether.
The other pieces, "Evolutions" and "What If the Moon Were Made Out of Jazz" are similarly potent in combining Iacovone's compositional vision with the individual talents of the group's members. Naujo possesses a huge sound on drums, with the rhythmic fluidity needed to keep the music moving and to navigate between backing the soloists and guiding the group through the ensemble passages. A melancholy minor-key melody serves as the core of "Evolutions," although with feisty solo statements by Nagano and bass clarinetist Michael Lytle
, and another incendiary pairing of Iacovone and Burnett (this time on flute), the piece retains a defiant intensity throughout. Finally, "What If the Moon..." closes the record with another would-be mournful melodic theme that soon comes to life dramatically as the band surges over the top of Naujo's propulsive drumwork. Iacovone seems especially inspired here, bringing every ounce of strength he has, both on alto and piano, and the group's impassioned tumult as the piece nears its conclusion leaves no doubt that the music will avoid sentimentality as it pays a powerful tribute to their friend and colleague.
With a terrific group of musicians worthy of wider acclaim in their own right, Iacovone has admirably made the best of a regrettable set of circumstances. And at the same time, this music will assuredly help to secure Connell's legacy in a memorable fashion.
Rocco John Iacovone: alto and soprano saxophones, piano; Ras Moshe Burnett:
bells, tenor saxophone, flute; Sana Nagano: violin; Michael Lytle: bass clarinet;
Rich Rosenthal: guitar; Phil Sirois: double-bass; John Pietaro: percussion; Dalius