The Ron Horton/Tim Horner Little Big Band
Play the Music of Andrew Hill
The Puffin Cultural Forum
Teaneck, New Jersey
August 29, 2009
It was a warm, overcast evening, within a few short miles of the George Washington Bridge, in suburban Teaneck, that offered the rare opportunity to make the trek to the Puffin Cultural Forum to listen to some innovative jazz from a newly-formed group. Trumpter/arranger Ron Horton and drummer Tim Horner's Little Big Band was scheduled to play the music of Andrew Hill. Some may know Horton from his stellar trumpet and flugelhorn work on the fine Ben Allison release from last year Little Things That Run the World. That alone was sufficient to provoke curiosity, when the announcement appeared, about the impact of his ten-piece band in a venue that might be described as small and intimate.
Horton's love of the music of Andrew Hill comes from his firsthand experience with the pianist, primarily as a member of his septet from 1983-2000. During that time Horton was instrumental in co-arranging parts of Hill's acclaimed A Beautiful Day album. Later, as an active member of the Jazz Composers Collective, he continued his creative arrangements of Hill's music, leading to this most recent project. He and fellow Berklee alumnus, drummer Tim Horner, decided to assemble a group of sympathetic and talented musicians to play those arrangements, and the result was The Little Big Band.
On this maiden voyage of the band, the eighty or so patrons of the Puffin were treated to an artistic enterprise taking shape before their eyes. The band is made up of some formidable musicians, who in their own right successfully lead or accompany multiple music endeavors. The rhythm section includes Horner on drums; Frank Kimbrough on piano; Martin Wind on bass and Mark Sherman on vibraphone. The horns are arranged and led by Horton on trumpet and flugelhorn; Nate Eklund on trumpet and flugelhorn; Mike Fahn on trombone and valve trombone; Marc Mommas on tenor and soprano saxophones; Scott Robinson on tenor saxophone and clarinet and Ted Nash on alto saxophone and flute. Together these guys created a blend of challenging yet entertaining music.
After a brief spoken introduction, Horton led the group into the first song, a Hill composition titled "Divine Revelation," which was originally recorded by the pianist in 1975 but re-recorded in 2002 when Horton was in the group. This quick-paced song featured a blistering tenor solo by Marc Mommas. The horns were tight, the music pouring onto the audience like a breaking wave on the beach. For those initially unable to appreciate Hill's music, hearing it thirty years later had to produce greater understanding but not at the expense of a freshness that is still able to surprise and challenge. The only difference is that the present group has taken Hill's music and made it more accessible.
The second song was titled "Dusk" and featured some tasteful soloing by the thoughtful and penetrating Ted Nash on alto saxophone. It also offered some wonderful counterpoint, with Frank Kimbrough's crisp and minimalist piano contrasting with Mark Sherman's fluid and more sustained vibes. Horner contributed a syncopated drum solo before the horns morphed from a cacophony of sounds with seemingly no direction into the more definitive harmonies and textures of the next selection, titled "ML" (Hill's abbreviation for "My Life").
An inspired Kimbrough on piano contributed brief solo statements, seemingly based on what melody there was, spurring an exchange between himself and tenor saxophonist Scott Robinson. The interplay produced some of the most poignant and surreal passages of the performance. Robinson's smooth, cool tone is from a line of players that date back to saxophone greats Lester Young, Stan Getz and Paul Desmond but with a distinctively modern edge. He moreover demonstrated a command of circular breathing technique, allowing him to sustain a continuous stream of notes or a singular note. He quietly built ideas from the conversation with Kimbrough until suddenly delivering a mesmerizing music monologue with a life all its own. He commanded the audience's attention with his thoughtfully executed explorations, frequently using different timbres and subtle variations in attack and breath support.
Horton followed with a rich and buttery flugelhorn solo, though here the acoustic challenges of the venue along with the intensity of the backing horns unfortunately obscured his solo, simply overpowering it. Nevertheless, there was never a doubt about who was in charge. Throughout the night the trumpeter arose to cue the horns at crucial changes in the musica maestro carefully conducting his arrangements, and for the most part tailoring the sound to the acoustical space.
On "Laverne" the smiling and animated Mark Sherman was featured on vibraphone. Sherman uses four mallets and creates a dreamy, tubular sound, his notes dancing ever so lightly like waterfowl skimming across a glade. Backed by Kimbrough, Wind and Horner, Sherman gave Hill's music a somewhat unaccustomed lyrical feel. The Horton-led horn section burst into the song with accentuated and forceful walls of sound. Still, there was space for Wind on bass and Kimbrough on piano to engage in a brief exchange of ideas before Horner's muscular drums pushed the song to an abrupt end.
A Medley of tunes titled "Centaros," "Tough Love" and "Belezza" featured an exotic solo on soprano saxophone by Mommas; a beautiful exercise in slightly dissonant but carefully conceived improvisation by Kimbrough; and some nice arco work by Wind. A solo by Fahn on bass trombone was followed by another break into mayhem as discordant horns playfully bellowed to a raucous conclusionalmost to the point of "overplaying" from this listener's viewpoint. The third part of the movement featured Nash playing a sensitive, pastoral-like section on flute. Robinson countered with an understated clarinet solo as Fahm and Eklund played along with muted horns.
The final song was titled "Venture Inward." A quick-paced piece starting with a solo by Horner on drums and some nice vibes work by the effervescent Sherman, it featured some stirring valve trombone work by Fahm. At the conclusion of the number, the crowd was duly appreciative for being witness to the creation of a unique, exhilarating sound. A large group ensemble like this is a labor of love, requiring passion and commitment.
In a quiet moment after the show, Horner confided that he's looking to book this band at some downtown clubs in New York for an extended gig. Of course, it's always difficult to get a group of this size to commit to such an endeavor, especially when each musician has his own individual musical direction. But don't bet against it. Judging from the wonderful unanimity of the players, the marvelous arrangements, the obvious love of the music and the mutual respect they share for each other, this may be the Little Big Band to watch in the coming months.