Versatile Big Bands: American Agonistes and Worth the Wait

Elliott Simon By

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The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra
American Agonistes: Music in Time of War
Leo Records

Peter Erskine Tim Hagans & The Norrbotten Big Band
Worth The Wait
Fuzzy music

If your idea of a big band begins and ends with the dance music of the Swing Era, either of these two discs will blow holes in that misperception. American Agonistes has the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra brilliantly tackling the difficult task of translating a musical director's political and sociological views into art. Worth the Wait has the Norrbotten Big Band, featuring drummer Peter Erskine and trumpeter Tim Hagans, navigating intricate arrangements in a celebration of the arranger/big band relationship.

A musical drama, American Agonistes begins with "Blood on the Sun," a striking depiction of the events of 9/11, and a touchingly positive glimpse, "New Moon Rising," of the healing process that began soon after. This early sense of a springboard to positive change, so exquisitely represented by Jerry Edwards' electric bass and a beautiful wind section, does not last long and becomes the road not taken. "Fallen Truth" is composer/pianist Mark Harvey's penetrating look at the road taken in the wake of the cataclysmic opening events.

"One Thing and Another" creatively turns the syllables from a speech making allusions to weapons of mass destruction into a main theme that Harvey states on piano that then leads into a musical representation of the Iraq Invasion. This is followed by the spy vs. spy sounds of "Big Oil Tango" and the self-explanatory "Prevaricator," whose falsehoods spark the indignation of Phil Scarff's tenor saxophone and Taylor Ho Bynum's cornet. While the drama ends with the hopeful "Sounding Peace," it is preceded by the decidedly bland "Theocracy in America," a suggestion of the eventuality of staying the course.

Cutting their teeth with the legendary Stan Kenton Orchestra, Erskine and Hagans ring true to the title of Worth the Wait as they are reunited in the context of The Norrbotten Big Band. As abstruse as the music of American Agonistes can be, Worth the Wait's complexity lies in an entirely different realm. Its combination of brilliant arrangements, new music and exceedingly hot solo work highlights the power that a big band can wield. The title track comes up to speed quickly as sectional voicings play off each other as if they were soloists flexing their muscles but somehow still allow room for pianist Daniel Tilling and trumpeter Dan Johnson to swing.

The best moments are those where the band is in full voice and then stops on a dime to highlight individuals. In addition to Erskine and Hagans, neither of whom has lost a step, Mats Garberg's tenor can beautifully turn things decidedly blue and Håkan Brostrom and Johan Horlen's altos and Ola Bengtsson's guitar can vigorously burn through elaborate bop lines.

Taken together, these releases showcase the limitless range that a big band allows in compositional freedom, breadth of sonic palette and electricity in a live environment.

Tracks and Personnel

American Agonistes: Music in Time of War

Tracks: Blood on the Sun; New Moon Rising; One Thing and Another; Big Oil Tango; The Prevaricator; Theocracy in America; Sounding Peace.

Personnel: Mark Harvey: conductor, piano, trumpet; Peter Bloom: alto sax, flute, bass flute, piccolo; Arni Cheatham: alto sax, flute; Mark Messier: baritone sax, flute; Phil Scarff: tenor sax, soprano sax, clarinet; Chris Rakowski: tenor sax; Daniel Ian Smith: tenor sax, flute; Dan Zupan: baritone sax; KC Dunbar: trumpet; Taylor Ho Bynum: trumpet; Jeanne Snodgrass: trumpet; Dan Shaud: French horn; Jay Keyser: trombone; Bill Lowe: baritone sax, trombone, tuba; Jeff Marsanskis: tromgbone, bass trombone; Bob Pilkington: trombone; Tom Pisek: trombone; Larry Carsman: guitar; Richard Nelson: guitar; John Funkhouser: bass; Jesse Williams: bass; Jerry Edwards: electric bass; Harry Wellott: drums; Craig Ellis: percussion; Donna Hewitt Didham: vocals.

Worth The Wait

Tracks: Worth the Wait; You Should See My Office; Plan 9; First Jazz; Scotland, Africa; Reason to Believe; Drum Row.

Personnel: Tim Hagans: conductor, trumpet; Peter Erskine: drums; Hakan Brostrom: saxophone; John Horlen: saxophone; Mats Garberg: saxophone; Bengt Ek: saxophone; Per Moberg: saxophone; P-O Svanstrom: trombone; Magnus Puls: trombone; Peter Dahlgren: trombone; Bjorn Hangsel: bass trombone; Bo Stranberg: trumpet; Dan Johansson: trumpet; Magnus Ekholm: trumpet; Tapio Maunuvaara: trumpet; Daniel Tilling: piano; Ola Bengtsson: guitar; Martin Sjostedt: bass.

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