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Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Big Bands going berserk, ballistic or ... bland

By Stef

We rarely review big bands, or mini big bands, and we wish we could get more of those. They are rare because it requires money to set them up and to maintain them. Often they can only last within subsidised structures, yet once in a while those bands escape the monetary logic and survive. We will review some of them here, even we do not do them justice by the succinct nature of the reviews, but better short reviews than no review at all. I hope that the links will give you a better idea of the bands' sounds.

Free Art Ensemble - Cap De Toro (Discordian, 2015) ****½

Wild, rhythmic, free, highly enjoyable from this fantastic Spanish tentet. What they play is composed, with a clear structure, lots of variation, dark menace, powerful uptempo moments and ominous slow moments. It's everything you want to hear from a big band : great themes, powerful soloing and incredible rhythms. It's intelligent music and very compelling. The wonderful Goya painting of "Cronos Eating His Children" fits the music well. Unfortunately I could not find a video to demonstrate their approach, but check the link below to hear the music.

Highly recommended!

The band :
Iván González: Trumpet, Gong, Bells, Percussion, Bird Call, Horn 
Julián Sánchez: Trumpet, Percussion, Bird Call, Horn 
Pol Padrós: Trumpet, Sea Shells, Percussion, Bird Call, Horn 
Oriol Fontclara: Alto & Baritone Saxophones, Bird Call 
Tom Chant: Soprano & Tenor Saxophones, Bird Call 
Albert Cirera: Soprano & Tenor Saxophones, Flute, Bird Call 
Àlex Reviriego: Doublebass & Electric Bass, Percussion, Bird Call 
Marc Cuevas: Doublebass, Percussion, Bird Call 
Ramon Prats & Arnau Obiols: Drums, Percussion, Bird Call 

Listen and order from Bandcamp.

Filthy Habits Ensemble - Gruesome Routines (Discordian, 2014) ****

From the same label, now a nonet. This album was released last year, and is equally worth looking for. It's a little more maverick but sometimes surprisingly gentle.

Pablo Selnik: Flute, Euphoric Pig Noises 
El Pricto: Clarinet 
Agustí Martínez: Alto Sax and Clarinet 
Don Malfon: Alto Sax 
Tom Chant: Tenor Sax 
Jo Miramontes: Synthesizer 
Director Wlkins: Electric Guitar 
Sebi Suarez: Electric Bass 
Vasco Trilla (Thriller): Drums 

Listen and order from Bandcamp.

Orchestre National De Jazz - Europa Berlin (OnJazz, 2015) ****

The "Orchestre National De Jazz" is something of an icon in France, with lots of upcoming young musicians joining forces under the leadership and in the company of established musicians.

In this band, under the leadership of Olivier Benoît on guitar, we have Bruno Chevillon on bass, Jean Dousteyssier on clarinet and bass clarinet, Alexandra Grimal on tenor sax, Hugues Mayot alto, Fidel Fourneyron on trombone, Fabrice Martinez on trumpet, Théo Ceccaldi on violin, Sophie Agnel on piano, Paul Brousseau on keyboards, Sylvain Daniel on electric bass, and Eric Echampard on drums.

The music is not free, but composed modern jazz with some strong improvisational moments. The first album by the band "Europa Paris" was inspired by the French capital, now the attention shifts to Berlin, the German capital. As the liner notes say : "A strange Berlin, still clutching to its breast the scars of a 20th century that symbolizes all its errors, but which grasps the remains of this heavy, omnipresent past with ever-increasing strength in order to underline its reunification, its desire for freedom, and its openness to the world". The compositions are quite fresh and memorable, and the playing is tightly arranged at times, with a band that really enjoys playing this music. As you can expect from a young band, but maybe also because of the inspiration of Berlin itself, the music is quite open to other subgenres such as free jazz, rock and electronic music, albeit within limits. It evokes the city in all its aspects, and that can lead to exuberant music, but also to more intimistic, minimal or even mysterious moments. The great thing about the arrangements are the fact that the whole band is not playing the whole time, and the shifting line-ups also lead to completely different sounds, which gives lots of variation.

Orchestra Of The Upper Atmosphere - Θ2 (Discus, 2014) ****

One of multi-instrumentalist Martin Archer's many projects, and presented as a rock band instead of jazz. The references they give themselves are 'psychedelic, rock, orchestral, dark, spacious, krautrock, new music, Terry Riley', which will give a good idea of what to expect. Or not? Clearly, the overall compositions are indeed created with rock elements and ingredients. It is one of those exuberant, expansive, hypnotic and maddening pieces of music, that you keep listening to. The big difference with jazz is that there are hardly any individual voices to be heard, but a mesmerising and repetitive behemoth of collective sound.

Martin Archer – organ, electric piano, electronics, Eb saxophones, clarinets, voice, VST trumpet 
Chris Bywater – organ, synthesizers & electronics, samples, percussion, voice, electric violin 
Steve Dinsdale – drums, floor percussion, synthesizer 
frostlake – voice, electronics, glockenspiel 
Yvonna Magda – electric violin, loops & electronics 
Walt Shaw – percussion, voice, electronics 
Terry Todd – bass guitar, effects, voice 
Mick Somerset – concert, alto and bamboo flutes, Bb saxophones 

Paul Schatzberger – violin
Heather Cordwell – violin
Aby Vulliamy – viola
Angela Rosenfeld – cello

Juxtavoices - choir

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Francesco Chiapperini Extemporary Vision Ensemble - Our Redemption (Rudi, 2015) ****

An eclectic effort of jazz, rock and classical music in a tribute to the late Italian saxophonist Massimo Urbani. They do not shy away from complexities or dissonance. This is a strong avant-garde band playing solid and highly varied compositions. The only downside is that it may be too overly ambitious and/or self-centered.

The band :
Francesco Chiapperini: alto sax, flute
Andrea Jimmy Catagnoli: alto sax
Gianluca Elia: soprano and tenor sax
Eloisa Manera: violin
Simone Quatrana: piano
Luca Pissavini: cello
Marco Rottoli: double bass
Filippo Sala: drums
Filippo Monico: drums and percussions

Sin Anestesia - The Transdimensional Seduction Handbook (Discordian, 2014) ****

We're back in Spain, and again on Discordian, now with Sin Anestesia, which means as much as "without anesthetics", a nice name that will make listeners expect the worst, but if the music is adventurous and special, you can indeed listen to it without being sedated upfront. This is possibly the most open-ended and most free jazz album in the entire list, and then one where the weight of the size of the band is not actually felt. All musicians participate in the great developments of themes and activities, but respecting the floor to others by stepping back once in a while. A wonderful balance between the power of tightly arranged big band, and the minimalist timbral explorations by the various sax-players, offer an equally good balance between subtlety and power. Too bad I could not take the time last year to give the album some more space.

Teresa Gómez Ramírez: Soprano sax 
Xavier Díaz Herrera: Soprano and baritone sax 
Don Malfon: Alto and baritone sax 
Agustí Martínez: Alto sax 
El Pricto: Alto sax 
Luiz Rocha: Tenor sax 
Pep Pascual: Tenor sax 
Luís Vallès: Baritone sax 
Ferran Besalduch: Bass sax 
Núria Andorrà: Marimba and percussion 
Ildefons Alonso: Vibraphone and percussion 

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Daniele Cavallanti & Milano Contemporary Arts Ensemble - Sounds Of Hope (Rudi, 2015) ***½

Relatively mainstream big band, with some wilder excursions, well performed, high quality throughout. Next to some own compositions, the band brings two arrangements of pieces by Wayne Shorter ("Sonia"), and Mongezi Feza ("You Ain’t Gonna Know Me ‘Cos You Think You Know Me”), and dedications to Joe Henderson, Anthony Braxton, Sam Rivers and Roscoe Mitchell, just to give you an idea of the musical span covered here. Regardless of the style, the playing is pretty intense. 

The band :
Daniele Cavallanti, tenor sax
Riccardo Luppi, alto & soprano sax, flute
Gianluca Elia, tenor sax (bass sax on Braxtown)
Massimo Falascone baritone & sopranino sax, (contrabass sax on Braxtown)
Francesco Chiapperini bass clarinet, alto sax, flute
Luca Calabrese, trumpet
Beppe Caruso, trombone
Paolo Botti viola, cornet
Gianluca Alberti, bass (right channel)
Valerio Della Fonte, bass (left channel)
Toni Boselli, drums (right channel)
Tiziano Tononi, drums, percussion, gongs (left channel)

Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos - Jazz Composers Forum (Tone Of A Pitch, 2014) ***

Nice, but nothing more, by this Portuguese big band. The compositions by Frank Vaganée, Julian Argüelles, Steven Bernstein, Ohad Talmor, Darcy James Argue, Guillermo Klein.

The band :
Josée Luis Rego, Joao Pedro Brandao, Mario Santos, José Pedro Coelho, Rui Teixeira on woodwinds;
Gileno Santana, Javier Pereiro, Rogério Ribeiro, Susana Santos Silva, Ricardo Formosa on trumpets and flugelhorns;
Daniel Dias, Alvaro Pinto, Andreia Santos, Concalo Dias on trombones;
André Fernandes on guitar;
Carlos Azevedo, Pedro Guedes on keyboards
Damian Cabaud on bass;
Geoclandio Monteiro: percussion;
Marcos Cavaleiro: drums

The name that strikes me here is Susana Santos Silva : again! We keep finding her back these days in totally different musical environments. And that is good!

The Awakening Orchestra - Volume I - This Is Not The Answer (Innova, 2014) **

Hailed by several reviewers as one of the albums of the year in 2014, I have a different opinion. Yes, it's ambitious, yes, it's a mix of genres, from indie rock to classical music with strong jazz ingredients, but it's also very pretentious and self-indulgent. Allaboutjazz compared it to Carla Bley's "Escalator Over The Hill", and being an incredible fan of that monumental and mad and maverick musical, I can assure you that "The Awakening Orchestra" reaches the levels of the ankles of "Escalator Over The Hill", it misses its sense of self-mockery, its freshness, its rebeliousness, its inventiveness, its creativity, its instrumental magnificence, its compositional grandeur.

This is just an ambitious album, that may please some, and the technical quality is good, both of the musicians and the sound. Yet it misses all the qualities that you would expect from 'great' music.

 Kyle Saulnier: composer/conductor; Rob Mosher: soprano saxophone; David Dejesus: alto saxophone; Samuel Ryder: tenor saxophone; Andrew Gutauskas: baritone saxophone; Felipe Salles: tenor, baritone saxophones; Seth Fruiterman: voice; Daniel Urness: trumpet; Seneca Black: trumpet; Nadje Noordhuis: flugelhorn, trumpet; Philip Dizack: trumpet; Michael Boscarino: trombone; Matthew Musselman: trombone; Benjamin Griffin: trombone; Max Seigel: trombone; James Shipp: vibraphone; Michael Macallister: guitar; Aaron Kotler: piano, keyboards; Joshua Paris: bass; Will Clark: drums; Nathan Hetherington: voice.

Michael Mantler - The Jazz Composers Orchestra Update (ECM, 2014) *

There was a time when the Jazz Composer's Orchestra meant a lot to me, their first album, called "Communication" had Michael Mantler on trumpet, Roswell Rudd, Steve Lacy, Jimmy Lyons, Paul Bley, Steve Swallow, Barry Altschul, and many more. Their second album, called "Jazz Composer's Orchestra" was the real thing, featuring Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Pharaoh Sanders, Larry Coryell, Gato Barbieri. The music then was free, fierce, open, wild and utterly fascinating.

On this album we have the Nouvelle Cuisine Big Band Conducted by Christoph Cech, featuring Michael Mantler on trumpet, Harry Sokal on tenor saxophone, Wolfgang Puschnig on alto saxophone, Bjarne Roupé on electric guitar, and David Helbock on piano. Mantler thought the time was ripe for an update, because he thought the music had so much possibilities and still sounded so fresh after all these decades, that he wanted to have another go at it.

Unfortunately, it's not an "update", it's a burial.

It is pretentious, meaningless and unnecessary. Don't waste your money on it.


Anonymous said...

Yesterday I read a review of "Chamber 4". I wanted to read it again this morning, but it has disappeared... Or is life a dream?

Stef said...

That was posted by mistake. It will be published shortly.

Dave said...

Thanks for this - a great round up!
Yet another Discordian big band is Memoria Uno (disc: "Crisis") and with 40 musicians at the session, it's possibly the biggest.
Unusually, they've also done 4 performances here in Barcelona (with reduced line ups between 15 and 25) each with a different theme - strings, no strings, all brass, etc.
Reviews of the disc and performances can be found on my blog,

Anyway, looking forward to checking out the non-Catalan options on your list!


Moe said...

Thanks so much for these reviews. I love this kind of music and i'm always looking for new big bands pushing the envelope.

Owen said...

Hello Stef,

I'm one of the composers of the Sin Anestesia album, and as your piece makes it sound like the whole thing was improvised, please allow me to note that this album is one of the most thoroughly-written records Discordian has released to date; being a three-composer affair, every second was due to design and the musicians respecting others by stepping back once in a while didn't have anything to do with on-the-fly courtesy, although they are sterling folk each and every one of them. Perhaps you could make mention of the composers too?
Thanks so much and I'm delighted you enjoyed the record.

All the best!