Home     Content     Articles      La Scena Musicale     Search   

La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 8 May 2008

Jazz Orchestras Now

by Marc Chénard / May 11, 2008

Version française...

Since its inception, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) has been reckoning with the past in the present tense. Exemplary in its field, it stands atop the jazz band ladder, with countless college and university stage bands below them, as well as a number of “ghost bands” paying tribute to bands of a bygone era and their celebrated leaders.

Yet, in spite of all their past glories, can jazz orchestras of our time offer other options than mere re-readings of standard musical repertoire? Can a genuinely creative path be established in a musical medium so rooted in tradition?

The twin issues of change and innovation loom largely over jazz, both for small combos and large ensembles. The following article presents three orchestras informed by the past, though fully engaged in the present, if not looking towards the future.

Sun Ra Arkestra: Open Spaces

During his long career, the brilliant Duke Ellington disdained the word “jazz” so much that he was granted the status of “musician beyond category”. But this case could be made for others, too. Take Sun Ra: if there was one musician who seemed to escape all stylistic conventions, it was him. In spite of his passing in 1993, his legacy continues in his “Myth Solar Science Arkestra”. This 15 piece outfit, led by the spry 85-year old Marshall Allen (one of the late leader’s acolytes from the early days), is a mottled crew of old and new players that could easily fit the bill of a “ghost band” were it not for its “co(s)mic” stage presence: sequined outfits, eccentric hats, psychedic lighting effects… an unparal!eled feast for eyes and ears.

This band’s repertoire is anything but staid, and the uninitiated should know that it can twist and turn so many ways as to wind up in outer space. At times, the members can engage in long percussion and African drum interludes, take a cue and dive right into an unbridled outburst of collective free jazz energy (sparked by the searing solos from the current leader), or flashback to the 1930s by way of a vintage Fletcher Henderson number.

Founded in the 1950s by pianist/composer Hermann Blount (Ra’s name at birth), this group took on a cultish way of life from the git go, its leader insisting on unreserved loyalty and a communal, monastic ethos. Few musicians have succeeded in cultivating such a devoted fan base, the most ardent ones keeping tabs on all of his activities, including the buying and trading of his mostly self-produced recordings. In fact, some of these could fetch several hundred dollars among collectors.

Despite the passing of its guru, the group carries on to this day with the support of a devoted younger audience caught up in its exhilarating grooves and the scintillating visual component of its performances. Inevitably, without their old leaders, ensembles tend to gradually transform into nostalgia machines; the Sun Ra Arkestra isn’t necessarily an exception to this rule, but it effectively combines its roots with a healthy dose of vigour.

› Montreal, June 15 (A co-presentation of the Suoni per il Popolo and Off Festivals)

Barry Guy New Orchestra: Tomorrow’s Tradition Today

If Sun Ra’s tribe stays loyal to its leader and its Afro-American tradition, British bassist Barry Guy subscribes to another lineage – that of European and contemporary improvised music. Formed in 1999, the Barry Guy New Orchestra (BGNO) is not quite a big band in size, even less in style; furthermore, its aesthetic relies upon a daring proposal, which is to take well-known musicians associated with “free music” and have them work through highly notated scores. Notable sidemen include the stentorian tenor and soprano saxophonist Evan Parker, a colleague of Guy’s for over 20 years who has displayed brilliance in the bassist’s many projects. Also in the ensemble is Swedish reed player Mats Gustaffson (without doubt, the most notable player to emerge from this musical niche in the last 15 years), trombonist Johannes Bauer, clarinetist Hans Koch, trumpeter Herb Robertson (the only American in the group), tuba player Per-Åke Homlander, pianist Augusti Fernandez and two drummers: Paul Lytton and Raymond Strid. Though not particularly well-known to mainstream North American audiences, these musicians belong to the European elite.

A remarkable improviser and unchallenged virtuoso of his instrument, Barry Guy is a visionary composer with a lot of organizational savvy. Without rejecting jazz, he claims influences in the fields of mathematics and architecture, with nods to the Late Greek composer Iannis Xenakis.

Active on the scene for roughly 40 years, the bassist got into orchestral activities in 1971 by forming the London Jazz Composers Orchestra (LJCO), a group of 17 musicians that he directed until the mid-1990s when he turned his attention to his smaller ensemble. Yet, the LJCO will rise from the ashes in a performance on the 21st of this month for a festival in Switzerland with a special guest, pianist Irène Schweizer.

A month later, it’s back to the BGNO for Barry Guy, as the group will make a long-awaited appearance at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival after a seven-year absence. For this show, the group will play compositions by its own members rather than its director, who has composed two extended suites for the ensemble, recorded and issued on the Swiss label Intakt (see the jazz disc review section for more info). By means of its unique mix of notated music and improvisation as well as its ability to cover a wide dynamic and timbral spectrum, the BGNO is one outfit that has more to offer than just paying tribute to tradition: it goes beyond that by creating its own.

› Vancouver, June 24 and 25

The Corkestra: A Dutch Treat

Despite its small landmass, The Netherlands is a particularly fertile ground for orchestral ensembles. On the one hand, there is the enormous Metropole Orchestra (whose dimensions are practically symphonic); not unlike the Lincoln Center band, it performs existing repertoire or commissioned works from invited composers. By contrast, there are also numerous ensembles tailored to the artistic visions of their respective directors, Willem Breuker’s Kollektief and Misha Mengelberg’s ICP Orchestra being the most well-known examples in this field. There are two younger pianists also of note in this category, Michiel Braam with his Bik Bent Braam ensemble, and of course Cor Fuhler, director of… Corkestra! Behind this whimsical name is a group that clearly distinguishes itself from traditional jazz orchestras – with nine musicians, this band isn’t exactly “big”. Also, its instrumentation is rather unconventional, comprising of piano, bass, guitar, tenor sax (straightforward enough so far), together with flutes, clarinet, cimbalom and two drummers. The music of this highly original ensemble is in line with its director’s tastes: slightly askew, rich in new sonorities, and all peppered with a good sense of humor.

In his early 40s, Cor Fuhler explores many musical frontiers simultaneously, be they acoustic or electric, composed or improvised. An instrument handyman, he has invented the “keyolin”, a hybrid made up of a section of a keyboard and a violin (see www.euronet.nl/users/fuhler/keyolin.htm for an image). Having made its North American debut last year at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville, Corkestra will take part in many Canadian festivals with a decidedly unique repertoire. Based on the ensemble’s sole recording to date, this band will certainly capture the attention of fans looking for something a bit… out there. n

Version française...

(c) La Scena Musicale