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Sizeable Outfits, Enviable Outcomes: Large Ensembles In Pursuit Of Excellence

Dan Bilawsky By

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Perhaps nothing better symbolizes dogged persistence than the proliferation of large ensembles in every corner of the jazz world. To take on this kind of work can and should be considered injudicious for the rationally-minded, as the investments—time-wise, organizationally, financially, mentally—are beyond compare. But just because the dollars and sense don't add up doesn't mean it's not worth pursuing. Logic simply can't compete with the pure motivations behind these outsized endeavors—attempts to utilize broader strokes, draw from a larger palette and develop a community within the broader ecosystem. Whether existing only on record or operating in the wider world, the creative ambitions brewed within these vessels continue to inspire. These encapsulated thoughts about a small sampling of (fairly) recent projects set their sights on different cultures, continents, directions and recording strategies, providing just an inkling of how so many artists continue to think and dream big in their own backyards.

Karén Devroop with the Johannesburg Festival Orchestra
The South African Jazz Songbook
UNISA
2018

This beautifully majestic affair, organized and fronted by saxophonist Karén Devroop , highlighting the work of a number of his notable jazz colleagues and featuring the polished backing of the Johannesburg Festival Orchestra, offers swells in both sound and pride for a music too often overlooked beyond its home borders. Nodding to a host of South African greats, and wrapped in lush orchestrations and dazzling colors, this music is brimming with passion.

Opening with a sweetly soulful trip through Merton Barrow's "Cape Town," offering vibrant light with Errol Dyers' "Koukouwa," providing a serious jolt of electricity with Bheki Mseleku's "Angola," and injecting his own compositional voice into the mix with the mournful "Gone Too Soon," Devroop crafts a program rich in sound and rewarding in reach. The rhythms of Brazil merge with the spirit of Mzansi's music in McCoy Mrubata's "Cape Samba," the stately and soulful tie the knot in Abdullah Ibrahim's "The Wedding," and everybody from Themba Mkhize to Miriam Makeba and Hilton Schilder to Davashe Mackay receives their due over the course of the program. Featured players like trumpeter James Ford, trombonist Chris Anderson and the core piano trio of pianist Michael Orenstein, bassist Emma Adomeit and drummer Kevin Gibson play their parts to perfection. And conductor Gerben Grooten capably steers the massive ship while Devroop's glossed-up horn shines light into every corner.

Receiving little to no coverage internationally since its 2018 release, The South African Jazz Songbook most certainly deserves a belated look. It's far too meaningful, hopeful and flat-out pretty to ignore.

Mehmet Ali Sanlikol & Whatsnext?
The Rise Up
DÜNYA
2020

Back in 2017, NEA Jazz Master Dave Liebman reached out to musical polymath Mehmet Ali Sanlikol with a request. He wanted this noted composer to write an extended work for jazz orchestra that would feature his soprano saxophone and draw on Turkish and Sephardic Jewish music and history. Sanlikol, eager to honor that call, spent two years fleshing out the idea, conceptualizing and developing this set of programmatic suites and transferring thought to page.

The Rise Up, the spellbinding project that grew from Liebman's idea and Sanlikol's pen, is comprised of three narratives. The first connects to Rumi, the renowned 13th-century poet-mystic; the second deals with the Sephardim—the Jews expelled from Spain and taken in by the Ottomans; and the last centers on Mimar Sinan, who underwent a shift from Christianity to the Islamic faith and went on, as an architect, to design some of the most impressive mosques built in the 16th century. Nodding to its cultural inspirations, as well as Liebman's fondness for Miles Davis and Gil Evans' Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960), this triptych features a big band enhanced with orchestral colors (French horn, tuba, various reed doubles) and a variety of Middle Eastern instruments—a ney (end-blown flute), zurna (double-reed pipe), ud (short-necked lute), and a broad array of ethnic percussion. It's a mélange that, while defying norms, works incredibly well and plays true to time and space..

A weaver of themes, an artful composer and a smart arranger with eyes and ears on both the macro and micro, Sanlikol frontloads every movement in each of these three-part works with period-appropriate ideals and uses specific motifs or concepts as markers in each story. While doing so, he deftly marries a complex web of styles, languages and cultures—Turkish music, Flamenco findings, modern classical musings, jazz—and comes out on the other side with something far greater than the sum of its parts. Sanlikol's writing, Liebman's monumentally expressive soprano and the musicians who join them all seem to operate on the same wavelength. "What's Next?" may be the question posed at the end of this project, but it would be a mistake to not savor what's here. It's absolutely stunning.

Michael Moore with the NDR Big Band
Sanctuary
Ramboy Recordings
2020

Marcio Doctor was the link and go-between who helped to make this collaboration happen. The Argentinean percussionist—a member of Hamburg's NDR Bigband —approached Michael Moore back in 2018, expressing his appreciation for the multi-reedist's small-group settings and offering an invitation. Not wanting to miss the opportunity to shift his music to a larger platform by rehearsing, performing and recording with one of Germany's top radio big bands, Moore jumped at the opportunity.

Mining his back catalog, Moore chose a set of compositions covering forty years of artistic discovery and development. But this is no mere retrospective. The arrangements—six from the composer, two from Henk Meutgeert, one apiece from Frank Carlberg and Christian Elsässer—establish a fresh middle ground where freewheeling improviser and fastidious big band can meet and meander as one. Sanctuary demonstrates that soaring signals, chamber-esque graces, full-out fun and cloistered conversation need not be mutually exclusive.

Frolicsome fancies for clarinet and piano trio set things in motion and lay out dancing designs that develop in kaleidoscopic fashion on the "Sweet-Briar/Southwesterly" opener. Things get dicey during "Igor," leaving doors wide open and calling gravity into question. And the magnetic draw of the music, not surprisingly, plays on (per)mutations within other specialized settings—ethereal highs on "Anomolous Soul," varicolored beauty and power in the Hermeto Pascoal-inspired "Brunheiras," woolgathering wonders stretched across "Shotgun Wedding," and the strong swing of anxiety and acceptance powering "Providence." Even the penultimate "Trouble House"—a folk-ish wink to Bob Dylan—constantly finds ways to redirect its energies within a relatively simple frame. A triumphantly broad-minded set built around the protean personality in front of and behind this music, Sanctuary is truly remarkable.

Vanessa Perica Orchestra
Love is a Temporary Madness
Self-Released
2020

Love is a Temporary Madness signals the arrival of a major new voice in the world of large ensemble jazz. Writing for her namesake orchestra—a big band stacked with some of Australia's top musicians—Vanessa Perica makes some serious waves. If jazz bias and press didn't so clearly favor North America, it's likely that this lauded debut would've drawn even more plaudits.

The Vanessa Perica Orchestra gets going with "Spaccanapoli," a composition that toggles between rhythmic feels that help to compress and expand the music. "Dance of the Zinfandels" proves bold, with explosive dark flavors mirroring the wine(s). The ensemble operates like a well-oiled machine on that cooker, pivoting, climbing and punching with extreme precision. "Woody's Lament" sidesteps nominal expectations, firmly driving or flying through various locales instead of sobbing with grief. And centerpiece "Saint Lazare," opening with hypnotic allure, plays to longing, hope, reflection and full-bodied joy in various stages.

The title track, keen on reflection and emotional catharsis, points right to its name while demonstrating Perica's strong grasp on textural development. Then things come to a close with the prowling and potent swing of "Scar for Charlie" and the prismatic bounding and boxing of "Rebrahmanization." Finding her own voice right out of the gate, and utilizing individualists like saxophonist Jamie Oehlers, trumpeter Mat Jodrell, pianist Andrea Keller, guitarist Theo Carbo and drummer Ben Vanderwal to shape her work, Vanessa Perica makes a major mark with Love is a Temporary Madness.

Chad LB Virtual Big Band
Quarantine Standards
Self-Produced
2020

The big band leader debut from high-profile saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown is both the most and least typical outing of the six under observation in this multi-review. It plays to common practice with the use of standards, arranged by rising star pianist-writer Steven Feifke, but it speaks to the moment through its method of creation: Recorded during COVID-19 lockdown, with 18 musicians capturing their parts alone in isolation, the album is a feat not only in musical terms, but also in construction.

The band swings right off the starting blocks with an "Easy to Love" that sells itself with high-spirited charm and an exuberant "Giant Steps" dressed up with some natty new design features. Then it shifts to funky footings for Stevie Wonder's "Superstition," which features a friendly two-drummer tussle between the project's primary stick-wielder Charles Goold and guest Bryan Carter, and moves on to ballad territory with "My One and Only Love." Through it all, Lefkowitz-Brown is soulful, suave and stylistically on point. His horn is like putty in his hands, as technical means and expressive streams become one.

The leader's saxophone work captivates across the entire program, but a fair number of other band members also have an opportunity to step out here and there. In the second half of the program alone that list includes trombonist Jeffrey Miller on an animated "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," Feifke and trumpeter Chloe Rowlands on a jaunty "Autumn Leaves," guitarist Alex Goodman during the appropriately swaying "Corcovado" and alto saxophonist Andrew Gould on the smoking "Cherokee" closer. Not to be left out, Goold gives as good as anybody with his superb drum work on that exit pairing. Simply hearing this music is a treat, but knowing how it was put together brings added respect to the equation. As a bonus, you can see and hear it all at once in the tiled videos created to spread the message even further and show us how it's done.

The 8-Bit Big Band
Backwards Compatible
Teamchuck
2021

As big as those other releases may be, almost all of them are dwarfed by this third album from multi-hyphenate Charlie Rosen's 8-Bit Big Band. Tapping more than 70 of the Big Apple's best and brightest to help bring the "Great Video Game Songbook" to life once again, Rosen creates music on an epic scale. It's ever so easy to see why this band—a YouTube sensation —has garnered millions of view. The arrangements are beyond incredible, the ensemble work is tight as can be, the production values and mix make everything clean and clear, and the soloists are second to none.

If you've heard this material in its original state (via a game console and television), be prepared to be wowed by the deluxe transfers into the jazz world. And if you haven't been near a video game in decades, no matter. Familiarity isn't a prerequisite for taking in this fun. Whether we're talking about Grace Kelly's funky and feverish horn escapades on "Hydrocity Zone," Benny Benack III's crooning vocals during "Want You Gone," baritone saxophonist Leo P's call from the Eastern deep on the "Kashmir"-influenced "Super Mario Land Underground" or bassist Adam Neely's friendly finger work in the digital hoedown-meets-dreamtown of "Saria's Song," the pull of this music is undeniable.

While Rosen takes one star turn within his own world, placing his bass atop and within the cool currents of "Dire Dire Docks," he's largely content writing and pulling the strings from the sidelines, a job he's mastered through his work on Broadway and the previous sets he's put together with this band. To say he's found his niche within the big band world would be a massive understatement. Charlie Rosen owns this part of the map, as demonstrated on Backwards Compatible.

Tracks and Personnel

The South African Jazz Songbook

Tracks: Cape Town; Koukouwa; Merton's Place; Inner Peace; Angola; Medley: Lakutshon' Ilanga/Pata Pata/Meadowlands; Gone Too Soon; Cape Samba; Khoisan Symphony #1; Khawuleza; The Wedding; Lullabye; Monwabisi; Ntyilo Ntyilo.

Personnel: Karén Devroop: saxophone; Bobby Ferrazza: guitar; James Ford: trumpet; Chris Anderson: trombone; Michael Orenstein: piano; Emma Adomeit: bass; Kevin Gibson: drums; The Johnnesburg Festival Orchestra; Gerben Grooten: conductor.

The Rise Up

Tracks: I. Rumi (The Sun of Tabriz / A Vicious Murder / Rumi's Solitude); II. Sephardim (Spain, 1492 / Temmuz / A New Land, a New Music); III. Sinan (A Confrontation in Anatolia) / Rise Thru the Barracks / The Owl Song).

Personnel: Mehmet Ali Sanlikol: vocals, ney zurna, ud; Dave Liebman: soprano saxophone; Ken Schaphorst: conductor; Mary Cicconetti: oboe, English horn; Rick Stone: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute; Mark Zaleski: alto saxophone; Rick DiMuzio: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Aaron Henry: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Melanie Howell Brooks: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Rebekah Lorenz: French horn; Mike Peipman: trumpet, flugelhorn; Jeff Claassen: trumpet, flugelhorn; Sam Dechenne: trumpet, flugelhorn; Jerry Sabatini: trumpet, flugelhorn; Bulut Gülen: trombone; Chris Gagne: trombone; Bob Pilkington: trombone; Angel Subero: bass trombone; Bill Lowe: tuba; Utar Artun: piano; Phil Sargent: classical guitar, electric guitar; Fernando Huergo: bass; Bertram Lehmann: drums, tam tam; George Lernis: darbuka, tef, nekkare, kös, tambourine, castanets, triangle, cymbals, tubular bells; Spyridon Antonopoulos: vocals; George Fitopoulos: vocals; Haralambos Hamos: vocals; Ridvn Aydinli: vocals.

Sanctuary

Tracks: Sweet-Briar/Southwesterly; Igor; Anomalous Soul; Brunheiras; Odin; Fogo von Slack; Shotgun Wedding; Providence; Trouble House; Sanctuary.

Personnel: Michael Moore: saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet; Fiete Felsh: clarinet, alto saxophone; Peter Bolte: flute, alto saxophone; Gabriel Coburger: clarinet, tenor saxophone; Konstantin Herleinsberger: clarinet, tenor saxophone; Luigi Grasso: baritone sax; Felix Meyer: trumpet, flugelhorn; Ingolf Burkhardt:trumpet, flugelhorn; Claus Stotter: trumpet, flugelhorn; Sebastian Stein: trumpet, flugelhorn; Dan Gottshall: trombone; Klaus Heidenreich: trombone; Stefan Lotterman: trombone; Sebastian Hoffmann: bass trombone; Florian Weber: piano; Sandra Hempel: guitars; Ingmar Heller: bass; Tom Rainey: drums; Marcio Doctor: percussion; Tim Hagans: conductor.

Love is a Temporary Madness

Tracks: Spaccanapoli; Dance of the Zinfandels; Woody's Lament; Saint Lazare; Love is a Temporary Madness; Scar for Charlie; Rebrahmanization.

Personnel: Carl Mackey: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone; Bernard Alexander: alto saxophone; Jamie Oehlers: tenor saxophone; Julien Wilson: tenor saxophone; Phil Noy: baritone saxophone; Mat Jodrell: trumpet; Daniel Beasy: trumpet, flugelhorn; Ross Irwin: trumpet, flugelhorn; Paul Williamson: trumpet, flugelhorn; Jordan Murray: trombone; Nick Mulder: trombone; Will Pethick: trombone; Joe O'Callaghan: bass trombone; Andrea Keller: piano; Theo Carbo: guitar; Sam Anning: bass; Ben Vanderwal: drums.

Quarantine Standards

Tracks: Easy to Love: Giant Steps; Superstition; My One and Only Love; Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise; Autumn Leaves; Corcovado; Cherokee.

Personnel: Andrew Gould: alto saxophone; Josh Plotner: alto saxophone; Steve Kortyka: tenor saxophone; Chase Baird: tenor saxophone; Sly5thAve: baritone saxophone; Bryan Davis: trumpet; John Lake: trumpet; Chloe Rowlands: trumpet; Gabe Medd: trumpet; Jimmy O'Connell: trombone; Jeffery Miller: trombone; Melissa Gardiner: trombone; Jennifer Wharton: bass trombone; Becca Patterson: bass trombone (1); Alex Goodman: guitar; Alex Brown: piano; Dan Chmielinski: bass, synthesizer (3); Adam Neely: bass (3); Charles Goold: drums; Steven Feifke: piano (6); Bryan Carter: drums (3).

Backwards Compatible

Tracks: Intro to Album 3; Chrono Trigger Main Theme; Gourmet Race; Hydrocity Zone; Want You Gone; Metaknights Revenge; Super Mario Land Underground; Dire Dire Docks; Birdman; Lost In Thoughts All Alone; Saria's Song; Snake Eater; Jump Up Super Star; Super Mario World End Theme.

Personnel: Charlie Rosen: bandleader, arranger, musical director, vocals, guitar, banjo, bass; Andrew Gould: alto saxophone, flute; Josh Plotner: alto saxophone, flute; Steve Kortyka: alto saxophone; Sam Dillon: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Zac Zinger: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Jordan Pettay: tenor saxophone; Carlos Eiene: tenor saxophone; Adison Evans: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Andrew Gutauskas: baritone saxophone; Bryan Davis: trumpet; Jay Webb: trumpet; John Lake: trumpet; Chloe Rowlands: trumpet; Max Boiko: trumpet; Danny Jonokuchi: trumpet; Allison Philips: trumpet; Jimmy O'Connell: trombone; Javier Nero: trombone; Rebecca Patterson: trombone; Ron Wilkens: trombone; Mariel Bildsten: trombone; Alex Jeun: trombone; Judy Lee: French horn; Elizabeth Martignetti: French horn; Jordan James: French horn; Kyra Sims: French horn; Lavinia Pavlish: violin; Meitar Forkosh: violin; Tomoko Akaboshi: violin; Daniel Constant: violin; Kevin Kuh: violin; Matthew Beauge: violin; Yumi Oshima: violin; Camellia Hartman: violin; Audrey Hayes: violin; Ally Jenkins: violin; Josh Henderson: violin; Maria Im: violin; Mary-Jo Stilp: violin; Erica Swindell: violin; Ellie Goodman: violin; Emily Gelineau: violin; Eli Bishop: violin; Danielle Breitstein; Laura Sacks: viola; Kenny Wang: viola; Jarvis Benson: viola; Tia Allen: viola; Brian Thompson: viola; Sarah Green: viola; Susan Mandel: cello; Alon Bisk: cello; Jessica Wang: cello; Kristine Kruta: cello; Marta Bagratuni: cello; Dave Cinquegrana: guitar, banjo; Natalie Tenenbaum: keyboards; Steven Feifke: keyboards; Jake Silverman: keyboards; Adam Neely: bass; Dan Chmielinski: bass; Julia Adamy: bass; Bobby Wooten: bass; Jared Schonig: drums; Bryan Carter: drums; Kevin Garcia: percussion; Liann Cline: harp; Danielle Gimbal: vocals; Camellia Hartman: vocals.

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