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Thriving Jazz Orchestras: 2024

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Jazz orchestras may not make much sense financially in 2024. They are most likely unaffordable as touring units. But in one-offs or the occasional studio efforts of established bands, some fine music can be found coming from the artistic minds of bold and adaptive composer/arrangers. Here are a pair of orchestral jazz outings that present modern jazz at its highest level.

Richard Nelson & the Makrokosmos Orchestra
Dissolve
Adhyaropa Records

New York-based guitarist Richard Nelson joins forces with the Makrokosmos Jazz Orchestra for Dissolve. The three-part suite—"Dissolve," "Float, and "Cohere"—can be placed in the company of trombonist/arranger Melba Liston's chart-writing for Randy Weston's African Sunrise (Antilles, 1992). Sweeping panoramas full of dark hues combine with a sense of agitation and aggression while maintaining a kaleidoscopic sweep of orchestral colors, sometimes dense, sometimes translucent.

The disc's title tune opens the set on an anthemic, unsettled note. Ominous percussion percolates. A sense of foreboding pervades. Woodwinds swirl; the brass shouts. Solos are brief and vibrant. The orchestra remains the main instrument. Grooves give way to pensive atmospherics followed by the orchestra laying down more sonic assertiveness.

On "Float," cloud-like sonorities drift in the wind. Then a funk groove emerges after a softly ambient segment, pushing Nelson's gorgeous, soulful guitar solo along, followed by the orchestra's return to the helium lightness of the tune's opening.

Nelson's thoughts on "communities of performers, audiences and listeners, and even larger societal frameworks" results in a more reflective listening experience. It is introspective but as adventurous as the first two compositions, featuring stimulating interludes of bongos and drums backdrops.

Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra with Jill Townsend and Christine Jensen
Tidal Currents: East Meets West
Chronogaph Records

The Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra's seventh album, Tidal Current: East Meets West is a collaboration between the venerable ensemble and two of Canada's most exciting writer/arrangers, Christine Jensen and Jill Townsend. Each artist contributes two tunes to the four-tune set, embracing—as the title suggests—the spirit of water, the wave action on Canada's rugged west coast, where Townsend has settled, and the whirling and insistent currents of Lachine Rapids on the St. Lawrence River south of Montreal, where Jensen has set up shop.

Opening with Townsend's "Inside the Wave," the music exudes a sunny vibe. Inspired by the waves near Sooke, British Columbia, the saxophone theme evokes visions of waves curling in shallower waters and washing up onto shores; leading into an orchestral gear shift in meter and feeling to suggest the unpredictable aspect of the ocean as it meets land.

"Crossing Lachine" is Jensen's Ode to the Lachine Rapids, where she is known to paddleboard into the challenging and, again, unpredictable waters. Flowing slowly or quickly, rivers are relentless. So is this music. The views must be magnificent; the music from Jensen's pen says they are.

The title tune, a Townsend tune, imagines the waves washing over small shore rocks—rounded cobbles perhaps, stones that sing as a submerged choir under the influence of moving water. This is articulated initially by piano, bass, drums and muted horns. Jensen takes an eloquent alto sax solo in front of a tidal ebb and flow of horns.

The closer, "Rock Skipping Under the Half Moon" is Jensen's tune. Inspired by her experience of rock skipping in her birthplace of Sechelt, BC, the tune opens with a shimmer representing small inlet waves. The rocks skip with a jittery tempo. The orchestra creates more waves, building in height, strength and rhythmic intensity. Jensen blows an inspired soprano sax solo.

Tracks and Personnel

Dissolve

Tracks: Dissolve; Float; Cohere.

Personnel: Peter H. Boom Flutes; Adam Kolker: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Tim O'Dell: alto and soprano saxophones; Alan Brady: bass clarinet; Marshall Sealy: French horn; John Carlson: trumpet; Jacob Varmus: trumpet; David Chamberlain: euphonium; Dale Turk: bass trombone; Arco Sandoval: keyboards; rick Basset: keyboards (2); Richard Nelson: guitar, conductor; Ken Filiano: bass; Scott Neumann: drums; Rob Garcia: drums (2); Rex Benincasa: percussion.

Tidal Currents: East Meet West

Tracks: Inside The Wave; Crossing Lachine; Tidal Currents; Rock Skipping Under The Halfmoon.

Personnel: Christine Jensen: alto and soprano saxophones; Neil Watson: alto saxophone; Niall Cade: tenor saxophone; Monica Jones: tenor saxophone; Kyle Wedlake: baritone saxophone; Joel Green: trombone; Jeremy Duggleby: trombone; Francois Godere: trombone; Isabelle Lavoie: trombone; Shane Hicks: trumpet; Jeni Taylor: trumpet; Richard Gillis: trumpet; Matthew Walden: trumpet; Will Boness: piano; Fabio Ragnelli: drums; Larry Roy: guitar.

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