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Symphonic Jazz: Kenny Werner and The Brussels Jazz Orchestra at The Blue Note

Nick Catalano By

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Continuing in the tradition of Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, pianist/composer Kenny Werner has recently employed a leading European orchestra to perform his compositions. The resulting serendipitous marriage between Werner and The Brussels Jazz Orchestra (featured on the Academy Award-winning soundtrack to the 2011 movie, The Artist) produced an evening of intriguing music on April 1, 2012, at the Blue Note.

The emergence of excellent jazz orchestras on the continent made international news in 1978 when Thad Jones incorporated some of his Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra charts into the repertoire of the Danish Radio Big band in Copenhagen. The pioneering success of that band (later led by Bobby Brookmeyer and Jim McNeely) spawned other jazz orchestras in Europe (The Metropole Orchestra in Holland and The Stockholm Jazz Orchestra) that utilized American composer/conductors. The Brussels Jazz orchestra/Kenny Werner association goes back about 10 years and the fruits of their latest recording efforts, Institute of Higher Learning (Half Note, 2011), highlighted the Blue Note lineup.

Such musical associations have resulted in exciting extended jazz compositions and performances that are more closely related to the nineteenth century symphonic tradition than they are to thirty-two bar Tin Pan Alley standards. Initially, the American conductors created elaborate arrangements of pop tunes, but increasingly moved toward original compositions echoing the form and length of concerti, sonatas, suites, tone poems and even symphonies. But throughout, the harmonies, colors, flavors and rhythms of American jazz were the meat and potatoes of the music.

In the late night set I attended, the first selection, "Compensation," aptly set the European tone by quoting Gershwin's memorable vamp from "An American In Paris" to initiate matters. The studied balance, even flow and subtle texturing of the Belgian sidemen immediately enveloped the room. Saxophonist Kurt Van Herck's tenor solo in mid-composition, although nicely improvised, echoed the band's studied flow because it arose from the arrangement so naturally. When Werner announced that his composition owed much to the influence of Thad Jones, the entire legacy of the legendary composer/arranger ushered forth. This tune was followed by a Werner arrangement of the standard "A Portrait of Jenny," featuring a stunning alto solo from the orchestra's artistic director, saxophonist Frank Vaganee. What was particularly important in these selections was their length. Each exceeded ten minutes and exhibited the symphonic personality of Werner's music. The length provided opportunities for unique contrapuntal melodic motifs, dramatic rhythmic shifts, and whole new formal references à la Shubert scherzos and Chopin interludes. But throughout, the band never stopped swinging.

At this point, redoubtable tenor master Chris Potter stepped onto the stage. Unbelievably, I have not written about Potter since he made his debut Gotham performance with Red Rodney decades ago at the Village Vanguard; it was a memorable night. I was sitting with Dizzy Gillespie and James Moody who were playfully telling the young saxophonist that Rodney wouldn't treat him well and that he should leave and join their aggregation quickly. They were as impressed as I.

Potter has exceeded all expectations. His now-famous post-bop stylings have engineered a solid career. Werner corralled Potter for this Blue Note stint correctly sensing that the dramatic motivic shifts in his solos would neatly mirror those same qualities in his writing and the result was a slam-dunk. In "The House of the Rising Sun," and the third movement of Werner's "Cantabile," Potter showered the stage with thoughtful lines and superb technique. And in his own penning, "The Narrow Road Into the Interior," he concluded matters with a cadenza that fittingly recalled those of the nineteenth century violinists.

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