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Philadelphia's Cutting Edge Big Band: Bobby Zankel's Warriors of the Wonderful Sound

Victor L. Schermer By

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Anyone familiar with the music business can tell you that it's hard enough to get a big band together for an occasional gig, let alone sustain it over an extended period of time. The time and effort involved in composing and arranging new charts, covering the cost of twelve or more musicians, and meshing their complicated schedules, all militate against the longevity of such enterprises. Thus, a working big band that features the best players performing challenging cutting edge jazz year after year is, in principle, almost an impossibility. Yet, for over a decade and a half, that is just what saxophonist Bobby Zankel and his ensemble of experienced, creative musicians -the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound -have managed to achieve. Through a combination of talent, experience, persistence, dedication, and the magic of group cohesiveness, they have beaten all the odds, working year after year to deliver music that excites and challenges their audiences.

What's their secret? In reality, it's no secret at all, but a matter of a few crucial ingredients that Zankel has mixed together in just the right way. First, there's Zankel's remarkable ability to compose and arrange charts, honed in his work with the likes of Cecil Taylor and Odean Pope, along with rigorous training in composition and improvisation with the great guitarist and educator Dennis Sandole, who also mentored John Coltrane, James Moody, Pat Martino, and a host of other jazz icons. Second , Philadelphia has long been a hub of remarkable jazz musicians who have an independent spirit and proven ability to press the limits of the music. So there's no shortage of talent here. Finally, in the past few years, Zankel's music, vision, and resourcefulness have earned respect and support from the Pew Foundation, the Philadelphia Jazz Project, Ars Nova Workshop, and the Painted Bride Art Center and the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz, which have hosted Warriors concerts at their respective venues. The community is behind this venture, and fans come out in droves for the concerts.

The Warriors are true musical conquistadors. Take, for example, virtuoso violinist Diane Monroe, who, inspired by her friendship with the late John Blake, Jr., has seriously expanded the range of improvised violin playing. Saxophonist Julian Pressley can play anything from bebop to Coltrane-inspired ballads to chromaticism to free "harmolodic" music. Pianist Tom Lawton impresses musicians and audiences alike with a constant creative output, including a recently commissioned composition based on the work of the modern artist Man Ray. Valve trombonist. EVI player, and former trumpeter John Swana has innovated new harmonies and structures for valve instrument players. Francois Zayas is rapidly expanding the envelope of percussion possibilities. The list of accomplishments goes on and on for each of the dozen or so band members. Every one of them fronts their own groups while also having performed with icons like Max Roach, Benny Golson, Illinois Jacquet, Mongo Santamaria, Don Byron, and the Charles Mingus Big Band. Maria Schneider's jazz orchestra may be the only other current large ensemble that rivals the collective achievements of the Warriors' personnel.

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