Contagious Words

Acoustical Concepts

by Piotr Siatkowski                May 11, 2011

The big band big time is over. Let's face it. Of course, the reasons for that situation are numerous and complex, but the main one seems quite obvious. Big band equals big cost. In this day and age even giants like Maria Schneider have to confront serious logistic problems. Fortunately, some people can never be discouraged and one of the brave ones is John Vanore.

Founding his 12 piece ensemble 30 years ago he was definitely not a newcomer. He gained experience touring with the Woody Herman Orchestra and accompanying great singers like Tony Bennett, Nancy Wilson or Mel Torme. Studying with Oliver Nelson was a formative  influence, too. This fascination even led him to name his own band Abstract Truth. And it should be said that, to some extent, Vanore inherits the legacies of Thad Jones, Don Ellis and Bill Chase (the latter was a Herman alumnus as well).

On Contagious Words, the band's third album, there are 13 regular members, occasionally supported by 3 additional musicians. Vanore's little big band is defined by a relatively large brass section which includes 5 trumpets/flugelhorns, a French horn and 2 trombones. There are only two reedmen, doubling on flutes. What is striking is the absence of a pianist in the basic line-up. The more so as the leader likes to use the piano. This is clear right from the first solo by Ron Thomas on the opening track "Envy". By the way, the composition is the first installment of Vanore's ambitious plan to musically interpret the seven deadly sins.

The new release abounds in cool soloing. Check a fine reading of the classic tune "You Go To My Head" with Michael Mee's lyrical alto shining bright. Listen to Craig Thomas' unacompanied acoustic bass outing on "Substructure". Then to Bob Howell's mild tenor madness on "Restless" and both Howell's and Mee's straight horn solos, to Greg Kettinger's guitar. And, of course, to John Vanore himself on half the material.

The bandleader assembled a group of seasoned improvisers, delivered exquisite compositions, produced the recordings and even mixed them personally. Obviously, all of this had to result in a great album. But for Vanore this is not enough. Although deeply rooted in tradition, he seems to always crave the search for the new land. He wants his music to be narrative. To tell stories without words. And he plays his big band like an instrument. In this regard closely resembling Gil Evans.

It is especially evident on "Dreams", the album's longest track and a perfect example of his storytelling skills. This soundtrack to a dream conjures up a blurred, dark vision of a night landscape. Low and grim bass clarinet and double bass together with fragile soprano and guitar evoke feelings of sadness, loneliness and unrest. Along the way the rhythm section and the rest of the band continue to mount the tension. Suddenly, in the darkness, something new happens. A long guitar solo is fanning a spark of hope. And then trumpet, like a slo mo flare, climbs up the black sky and sheds light over the previously cold, chaotic and scary landscape. A powerful life-affirming statement. Finally, the same gentle soprano reappears, but this time, because the context has changed, it already means something else. Peace and consolation after the victorious combat.

It's not all roses, though. One minor drawback lies in the fact that the album splits into two chapters which are a tad dissimilar. The last three tracks may have been recorded during a separate session as they have a different feel. They use electric piano and electric bass, include fusion/funk elements and are esthetically located in the 1970's (especially "Neopolis") as opposed to the first five tracks which sound much more timeless. I mean, they are good, only from another book.

Beyond question, Contagious Words is an excellent album, an important voice of contemporary orchestral jazz. It is a confirmation of John Vanore's great compositional talent and imaginative approach to arranging. He succeeded in creating an ensemble that can be as powerful as a big band and as intimate and subtle as a combo. Abstract Truth appears to be a highly original and dictinctively sounding band. This superb music only whets my appetite for more. Sin, sin, sin (with a swing)!






By Piotr Siatkowski                March 09, 2011

Was ist chamber jazz? I don't think anybody really knows. This term was introduced a long time ago and generally has been used to denote numerous different phenomena. So, you could think Laurindo Almeida on the one hand and MJQ on the other. Oscar Peterson Trio, Jimmy Giuffre or Chico Hamilton. In fact, a lot of performers between Benny G. and Bennie M. And speaking of Bennie Maupin, if you asked him for a definition, he might tell you just what he told me a couple of years ago: "limited number of musicians, no conductor, it can be acoustic or electric".

Anyway, it is good to know this when you listen to a new project by Joerg Schippa, called UnbedingT. Schippa is an experienced Berlin-based jazz guitarist. He's been in many bands before but is also a leader in his own right. Developed interest in guitar at the tender age of 12 and later studied with Walter Norris, John Abercrombie and Dave Liebman among others. Recorded with the amazing Kenny Wheeler. And now he's got his new band. And a Band of Gypsies it is, indeed. Their backgrounds, starting points and destinations are so different and varied. So familiar and yet exotic.

I guess the key word for both the project and the recording might be "unique". Have a look at the line-up. It's a pianoless quartet. Well, this has been no news for about sixty years now. But it's also a bassless quartet! Along with the acoustic guitar, there is a clarinet (Jurgen Kupke), a bass clarinet (Florian Bergmann) and drums (Christian Marien). The result sounds very convincing and fresh as they do not follow any single well-trodden path. Joerg Schippa, who composed all the material, draws upon as diverse sources as jazz and blues, European classical tradition, contemporary, rock, ethnic or film music.

The tunes on the album are ingenious, intricate and, what is their true asset, are never predictable. And within the precise and rigid compositional frame Schippa leaves a lot of space for soloing and improvising. All four players are adventurous musicians, with Schippa and Kupke particularly standing out. Their virtuosic skills allow them to move easily from genre to genre, be it Gypsy swing, free improv, rock, modern classical, dance or klezmer jazz. Some of the stuff here employs the "eastern sounds" and the odd time signatures.

Pairing a clarinet and a bass clarinet is a brave idea and results in great sound textures and exquisite interplay between the two and the guitar as well. The instruments often interchange, questioning their assumed roles in the group. On occasion, Bergmann's bass clarinet serves as a double bass and the musicians counterpoint one another, making the music livelier and more exciting. And again, you would never expect a chamber jazz drummer to sound like the one in a garage band. And yet, he does. Joerg Schippa's guitar is the busiest, since it is both a solo and harmonic instrument, but also substitutes for the absent bass at times.

However, these are all details. What is the most important thing is the music itself. If I understand the message correctly, UnbedingT takes us on a trip around Berlin at night. And hence the multicultural, multidimensional landscape. It's a fascinating journey. Gewiss!







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