New York, NY
March 6, 2009
Big band jazz is an out-of-date form, its heyday having come in the boom-and-bust interwar years, and any modern-day revival must grapple with its inherent anachronism. Some current big bands try to ignore their historical awkwardness, employing the form simply as a larger musical canvas. These groups tend to be, at their core, quartets or quintets with reinforcements, post-bop combos with a few added horns. Other big bands, Darcy James Argue's Secret Society most strikingly, self-consciously wrestle with the form's history. Argue describes his group as a "steampunk" big band, making very clear that, for him, anachronism isn't to be avoided, it's the point.
While the Pedro Giraudo Jazz Orchestra—which premiered Giraudo's "Campo" suite at the Jazz Gallery on Friday, March 6th—is not as proudly postmodern as Argue's group (none of Giraudo's songs, after all, are based on David Foster Wallace endnotes), it nonetheless falls into the self-referential camp. Like Argue's group, the Pedro Giraudo Jazz Orchestra approaches big band music from a historical perspective; it's very much aware of its inheritance and eager to celebrate it and bend it to its own ends.
The Orchestra's immersion in the big band tradition manifested itself even before the music began: instead of adhering to the modern jazz dress code of hipster casual, the band members opted for dark suits and sharp ties. Their traditional appearance proved consonant with their sound—lively and lush, a well-choreographed attack of brass blares and sax swoons.
Nostalgia of a different kind animated the compositions of the band's eponymous leader, a New York–based, Argentine–raised bassist. Childhood memories of Giraudo's grandmother's countryside estancia formed the thematic framework of "Campo," which moved from an opening dedicated to two "beautiful and shy" country girls to a remembrance of the smells and tastes of sweetened mate. These memories came across musically in Giraudo's use of Argentine folkloric melodies and (especially) rhythms, which gave the proceedings an irregular, clave-heavy, beat.
"A La Escuela," the first piece of the "Campo" suite, began with a sparse Giraudo solo before breaking into a full orchestral attack—the melody passing between the two trombones, two trumpets, and four saxophones. Tony De Vivo, playing cajón, added polyrhythmic palming that undercut the horns' supper club style, and trombonist Ryan Keberle capped off the boisterous opener with a brash, athletic solo.
The second piece, "El Pueblo," continued the rich sax and brass harmonizations, although this time at the service of a subtler mood. Carl Maraghi's bass clarinet cooed a lullaby-like melody and Todd Bashore's soprano sax sang out with a plaintive cry that evoked an Indian raga.
The band's rhythmic drive once again led to a creative tension with its melodic and harmonic polish, pushing the music in unexpected directions. Drummer Jeff Davis brought the piece out of its initial folkloric mood (specifically the Argentine vidala) with a furious roil—a shift in dynamics and intensity that gave the piece a clear narrative shape. When the music quieted down, however, Davis didn't, continuing his hard attack even as pianist Jess Jurkovic played an introverted solo that called for more restrained and flexible support.
When Jurkovic's solo ended, the band returned to the head, but the melody lacked snap. Having careened through the piece with breathtaking exuberance, the band came up a little winded.
After the gleeful and sometimes excessive energy of the first two tunes, Giraudo changed the tone. "Las Visitas," the third piece, featured a sweet, quasi-minimalist melody and far more restrained improvisations, the derring-do of Keberle's trombone acrobatics a distant memory.
Following "Las Visitas," most of the horns took a break, ceding the stage to singer Sofia Tosello, who belted out two folkloric songs, "A Don Rosa Toledo" and "Huayno del Diablo," with a precise, almost diva-like, delivery. Her worthy performance, however, was undermined by its awkward placement near the end of the evening: right when we were bracing for the climax, we were given a breather.
The final number, "Mate Dulce," was the most explicitly folkloric of the movements, borrowing heavily from the Argentine chacarera. Giraudo's melody echoed a similar Argentine folkloric-inflected composition, Guillermo Klein's "El Duelo" (recorded on Los Guachos III), rushing forward with knotty intensity. A half-hearted bout of Flamenco-style clapping briefly derailed the performance, but the composition's deft fusion of jazz, chacarera, and new music proved too strong for mere hokiness.
When Giraudo channeled the big band and folkloric spirit through careful orchestration, the music sounded vital—the careful deployment of techniques and aesthetics rather than wishy-washy nostalgia. When history served merely as a flourish—the flamenco clapping, Davis' overly excited Swing Era drum solo—the music sounded dated, out-of-touch. In this premiere performance, the Pedro Giraudo Jazz Orchestra probed for its best sound, erring occasionally, but, in the best big band tradition, making up for shortcomings with sustained punch and vigor.
Juan Carlos Hernandez