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CD Review

National Jazz Ensemble


  • Works by Basie, Armstrong, Morton, Berger, Monk, Parker, Ellington, Silver, Evans, Israels, and others.
The National Jazz Ensemble/Chuck Israels
Chiaroscuro CR(D) 140 151 77:02
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Mostly wonderful program; good performances.

One distinction between commercial music and art music (that is, those parts of both which are distinct) may be that the audience for the former always wants something new, while the audience for the latter usually prefers to master the past. Both audiences have their limitations. The commercial crowd is generally too easy to satisfy. The word "genius" gets thrown around rather loosely, simply because commercial memory is so short. The culture mavens, on the other hand, risk stunting the growth of art music – if not killing it off – because they can't relax their grip on the tried and true. Although I can't prove this (that is, I hold it as an article of faith), I find it reasonable to assume that those implacably opposed to Schoenberg and Webern would have also done the same to Beethoven and Brahms 'way back when. Most of us – including me – have denied Christ, or several Christs, at one time or another.

The idea of a repertory of orchestral jazz is thirty to forty years old. Before that, we had the "books" of various commercial bands, some with "hits" (Strayhorn's "Take the A Train" for Ellington's band, for instance), but it would not have occurred to Ellington, I suspect, to play a Jelly Roll Morton original. I also doubt that someone like Basie would have played something, no matter how good, from his own book that had lost its chance to catch on with the public. Better to try something new. We also had the idea of the Third Stream – that is, jazz and classical combining in a kind of hybrid. Gershwin, although he did no such thing, nevertheless remains the cultural icon for this sort of enterprise. The work of Gunther Schuller, Ellington, Charles Mingus, Cecil Taylor, George Russell, Dave Brubeck, Jimmy Giuffre, and recently Wynton Marsalis have all consciously tried their hand, some with greater success than others.

However, the most powerful notion of jazz repertory remains the one that grew up "naturally." The jazz musician learns like any other musician, through an apprenticeship and through study. In a place like New Orleans, one finds a living oral tradition, typically passed down through musical families, of whom the Marsalises are merely the best known. In other places, very often the "texts" consist of classic recordings. Charlie Parker has undoubtedly influenced more musicians than ever heard him play live. Every jazz musician I've ever talked to knows Coleman Hawkins's "Body and Soul" and Louis Armstrong's "Dinah."

As Martin Williams' liner notes indicate, the approach of a jazz repertory band is mined with controversy. Does it simply reproduce the old records and the original arrangements, if available? Does it work with a new arrangement in the style? Does it try to update older styles with present knowledge? Does it look for or originate new material, not yet or even ever a part of the canon? To some extent, classical music has carried on some of this controversy with the HIP movement. Israels's long-gone National Jazz Ensemble actually took almost all, if not all, of these approaches. So if there's something to please everyone, there's also something to annoy everyone. For me, an artistically viable enterprise has to willingly take chances and court disaster, so I admire the NJE, even when not everything clicks for me.

The program begins with a jumping "Every Tub" by Basie. Basie's group really is the locus classicus of the Big Band sound, so one would expect the band to have it down. The NJE does not disappoint, and there's a wonderful Sal Nistico sax solo, besides. Ben Aronov provides incisive support as primarily commentator on the band riffs. If this isn't an original Basie chart, it sure as hell sounds like it. Dave Berger's "Understanding Depression," on the other hand, is an original from one of the NJE's trumpets. The liner notes describe it as a "twelve-tone blues." I get the "twelve-tone" part, but don't really hear a blues, which for me is rooted in a specific harmonic rhythm. Nevertheless, the piece fascinates. It sounds a bit like the "Cool" fugue from Bernstein's West Side Story. Jason Stock's arrangement of "Black Bottom Stomp" by Jelly Roll Morton sounds like a note-for-note transcription of the recording. You might think that this would constrain the band, but the cut is a joy. One hears the strong link to the brass band marches of early New Orleans. Ben Aronov opens Ellington's "Transblucency" with a cascade of notes and a touch identical to Ellington himself. The man's a chameleon. "Transblucency" brims full of Ellington idiosyncrasies. For one thing, the part writing is spare, even odd. I doubt it would occur to a formally-trained composer. Nevertheless, it is incredibly effective. For another, it calls for a soprano soloist. Margot Hanson does the honors, "objectifying" her sound into that of another instrument of the orchestra, and a heartbreakingly beautiful one at that.

Other high points of the album include Israels's "Solar Complexes." Every note tells, and it gives a lot of room for a great soloist (in this case, guest sax player Lee Konitz) to explore an build on the chord changes. Even in the tutti sections, the instruments say only as much as they need to. The performance is a marvel – everyone riding this electric current of a pulse. After the death of Scott LaFaro, Israel played bass with pianist Bill Evans for five years. Evans shows up for a guest spot, an arrangement of his "Very Early" by Israels. There's a chamber feel to it, despite the occasional pokings of the larger band. Evans's solos are, of course, wonderful but even more impressive is his virtuosic handling of tempo changes. As a classical musician, it takes every ounce of attention I can muster to move from measures of two beats to those of "three beats in the time of two." Israels plays bass for this. He and drummer Bill Goodwin catch Evans's tempo changes instantly and without a fudge. A combo arrangement of Morton's "King Porter Stomp" by Israels and Gil Evans performs a neat trick of time-travel. It's basically a post-bop arrangement, with sections more in Morton's own style. If anything, it shows the continuity of jazz and its capacity for self-renewal.

Israels's "Skipping Tune" belongs to what I call the Giant Steps genre – a tune emphasizing large or unusual leaps in the line. There's a stunning, uncredited sax solo and a quirky contrapuntal bit for the trombones. The Goodman band's "Stomping at the Savoy" was never a favorite of mine, but Ben Aronov's brief opening piano solo makes it all worthwhile. The NJE, furthermore, just plays the bejabbers out of the piece, without a hint of nostalgia. I hadn't heard Ellington's "Lady of the Lavender Mist" before, and the title made me grit my teeth. But it turned out to be a melancholy gem, with rich sounds and solos and hardly anything predictable about it. Israels's "Blues for O. P." takes ideas from bassist Oscar Pettiford and develops them in what I now take as Israel's characteristic terseness and economy. Several independent things go on at any one time, but all remains clear. We get a lovely solo from guitarist Steve Brown and an extended passage from Ben Aronov. I love the way he plays. A stompin' arrangement by Israels of Thelonius Monk's solo "I Mean You" follows. The band solos are professional, but not outstanding. It really is the tutti that carries the listener through. Israel captures both the drive and the hovering on the brink of rhythmic tentativeness in Monk's playing.

The sound is fine.

Copyright © 2002, Steve Schwartz