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The Jazz Composers Collective Festival

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Jazz Standard
New York City

Six nights, ten bands. Following up on last year’s three-night stint at the Jazz Standard, the Jazz Composers Collective took up residence at the East Side club for an entire Tuesday-Sunday run in early February. The bands were both familiar and new: on Tuesday the Herbie Nichols Project and Ted Nash’s "Odeon"; on Wednesday the HNP again and Nash’s Double Quartet; on Thursday the Frank Kimbrough Trio and Ron Horton’s Genius Envy; on Friday three sets of Ben Allison & Medicine Wheel; on Saturday Michael Blake’s Free Association and Frank Kimbrough’s Noumena; and on Sunday, Palmetto’s "Duke’s Motivation" all-star band and Ron Horton’s new sextet. Read back over the list and you’ll appreciate the rarity of the event, for it includes — to the best of this writer’s knowledge — every Collective project to date. And with Horton’s new group (Tom Varner, Marcus Rojas, John O’Gallagher, Ben Allison, Tim Horner), the festival also featured works in progress, emphasizing the Collective’s dynamic, ever-changing nature. It was too much for one critic to cover, but Tuesday and Thursday nights were a bountiful feast unto themselves.
The Herbie Nichols Project, which kicked off Tuesday’s lineup, has been going through some changes. Moving from Soul Note to Palmetto Records, the band expects to have a third album out around October 2001. Live and in the studio, the HNP is showing off a new member: trombonist Wycliffe Gordon of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Gordon’s LCJO credentials may suggest that he’s part of the neotraditionalist camp, but here he was, contributing fresh ideas and helping to resuscitate the corpus of one of jazz’s most enigmatic figures — a traditionalist task of sorts, but also a means of innovative self-expression on the part of the Collective. Having Gordon on the same bandstand as the avant-leaning drummer Matt Wilson was a heartening instance of boundary-crossing in the interest of music.
As the fourth horn in addition to the usual suspects Blake, Nash, and Horton, Gordon added a lushness to the arrangements, and a forceful solo voice as well. The band played a set consisting entirely of new material, opening with the polytonal "In Honor of Garner" (not James Garner, Allison helpfully noted), and going on to include "Delights," "Some Wandering Bushmen," "Enrapture Now," "Moments Magical," and "Ina." As was explained from the bandstand, no recordings of these pieces exist, so no one in the band knows how they originally sounded or were intended to sound — a fact that makes the HNP one of the most unique, philosophically engaging bands in jazz.
The Wycliffe Gordon-Matt Wilson combination then turned into a rhythm section, with Gordon donning a sousaphone (and doubling on trombone) for a set with Ted Nash’s Odeon, a band that also includes Miri Ben-Ari on violin, Bill Schimmel on accordion, and Nash on woodwinds. For all its unusual instrumentation, Odeon is a groove band, in a way — vamping hypnotically on "Jumpline" and Duke Ellington’s "Amad," with burning solos on both tunes by Ben-Ari, who is getting really good. But there’s enormous variety in Nash’s concept, even within a single piece, as his arrangement of Debussy’s "Premier Rhapsody" makes clear. Nash has an array of instrumental combinations on hand, such as plunger trombone and violin ("Tango Sierra"), or plunger and bass clarinet ("Street Meeting, part I"), or clarinet and accordion ("Reverie"). There’s an invigorating sense of passion and playfulness in this eclectic band. Odeon will release Street Meeting, its Arabesque debut, in May of this year.

One of the nicest surprises was the Thursday performance by the Frank Kimbrough Trio, featuring Ben Allison on bass and Jeff Hirshfield on drums. Kimbrough doesn’t perform in a trio setting very often, and with his 1998 trio CD Chant now out of print, his trio outings are all the more difficult to come by. The pianist brings a subtle, understated approach even to adventurous, free-leaning material such as "Quickening," "Ancestor," and Ornette Coleman’s "Feet Music," all tracks that appear on Chant. He creates a dark, spellbinding mood with "Svengali," with Allison and Hirshfield climbing dynamically in perfect rapport with the piano solo. The set peaks with a trio arrangement of "Air," a tune from Kimbrough’s Noumena album, which segues into an edgy, slow bossa reading of the traditional song "I’m Just a Poor, Wayfaring Stranger." Not one to provide instant gratification, Kimbrough makes you wait, keeping you on your toes as you listen to the trio develop its interplay throughout the course of a tune. And each selection has its own secret, rewarding a close, attentive listen every time.

Finishing off Thursday night was Ron Horton’s Genius Envy ensemble, featuring all the players from Horton’s Omnitone CD of the same name. The band only played one track from the CD, however, closing the set with Horton’s tongue-in-cheek "Claude’s Petite Bicyclette." The rest of the show was given over mostly to non-original compositions, beginning with a grooving adaptation of Warne Marsh’s "Dixie’s Dilemma," a tune worked up by members of the Collective at last year’s Lennie Tristano tribute. Next was Tim Berne’s "Blue Alpha," with its unfathomably difficult melody line, shifting tempos, and masterful solos by Frank Kimbrough, Jane Ira Bloom, and drummer Rich Rosenzweig. Then, spotlighting the woefully overlooked Jimmy Giuffre, Horton and company interpreted the dark, laid-back "Phoenix," with tenor saxophonist John McKenna (doubling on bass clarinet) responding beautifully during his solo to rhythmic suggestions from Kimbrough. The penultimate selection, and the second of only two originals, was Horton’s wildly free "Groveling," dedicated to all the musicians who’ve had to grovel for gigs and exposure of any kind. ("Fu** that sh**!" exclaimed Allison, a couple of times.)

With this festival, the Jazz Composers Collective demonstrated, perhaps more successfully than ever before, its ability to facilitate jazz happenings: not just CD releases, not just isolated gigs, but rather a gestalt that affords audiences an extended look at the work of the organization and its members. Thanks to the artist-focused integrity of the Jazz Standard, the Collective transformed the ordinary jazz club experience into a sustained, community-wide event that showcased some of the very best in creative music.

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