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)!


















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