Ken Schaphorst’s New Album Deceptively Innovative

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HOW TO SAY GOODBYE / SCHAPHORST: How to Say Goodbye. Blues for Herb. Mbira 1+. Green City. Amnesia. Take Back the Country. Float. Mbira 2. Global Sweat*. Descent / Ken Schaphorst Big Band: Schaphorst, *tpt/+Fender gtr; Tony Kadleck, Dave Ballou, John Carlson, Ralph Alessi, tpt/fl-hn; Luis Bonilla, Jason Jackson, Curtis Hasselbring, tbn; Jennifer Wharton, bs-tbn; Michael Thomas, a-sax/s-sax/cl; Jeremy Udden, a-sax; Donny McCaslin, Chris Cheek, t-sax; Brian Landrus, bar-sax/bs-cl; Uri Caine, pn; Brad Shepik, gtr; Jay Anderson, bs; Matt Wilson, dm; Jerry Leake, perc / JCA Recordings 1602

Jazz composer-bandleader Ken Schaphorst is chairman of the Jazz Studies Department at the New England Conservatory. That made me a bit suspicious, because throughout my lifetime—except for the phenomenal George Russell—most chairmen or women of jazz departments tend to get those positions through academic connections rather than outstanding talent. When was the last time you saw someone of the caliber of Jack Walrath or Ornette Coleman appointed to the chair of a university jazz department?

Happily, Schaphorst has real talent in terms of writing for big band. His approach is not unique or original, as were the scores of Rod Levitt, Clare Fischer, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Willem Breuker or Daniel Schnyder (for that matter, when is a jazz orchestrator going to start employing timbral blends borrowed from Ligeti, Ginastera or Lutoslawski, all of whom are dead and gone? Isn’t it about time jazz graduated into using updated classical music techniques?). Rather, Schaphorst borrows the kind of instrumental blends—soft brass mixing with saxes and winds—pioneered by the Claude Thornhill band of the late 1940s under Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan and further developed in the late 1950s-early ‘60s by Marty Paich, Allyn Ferguson and Mulligan himself. That being said, there is tremendous joy and elan in Schaphorst’s scores. The album’s title is a reference to the deaths of musicians Bob Brookmeyer and Herb Pomeroy.

How to Say Goodbye may be best described as a tune built around swirling eighth-note figures. That is pretty much the gist of this score, but the interest lies in the way the underlying rhythm becomes diffuse and develops into two (or, to my pears, three at one point) rhythms playing against one another. Moreover, the ensemble develops much more interestingly than the somewhat rambling trumpet solo; in fact, it sounds to me as if the orchestra is leading the improvisation and the soloist following along. An interesting concept I haven’t really heard much since Jelly Roll Morton used it in Red Hot Pepper – Stomp. I was particularly intrigued by the sudden shift towards a heavy march-like beat for the coda.

Blues for Herb uses a modification of the old Sy Oliver trick of pitting a baritone sax playing in its lower range against reeds and brass playing the top line. There is also a nice polyphonic passage for the saxes before Donny McCaslin emerges with a very nice tenor solo, inventive and a bit intense, using serrated figures and sixteenth-note swirls. Once again the music reaches a point of a complex beat, in this case almost suspending forward progression with long-held chords while McCaslin continues to improvise above them while pianist Uri Caine roils underneath. Schaphorst is very lucky to have the services of drummer Matt Wilson, whose recent CD I gave high marks to, in his rhythm section. Mbira I features an unusual solo by Schaphorst himself on Fender Rhodes guitar. Here he uses a much different type of orchestration, having the brass and reeds play a split-second behind one another in their first ensemble chorus to produce an almost “electronic” type of sound. Jerry Leake is heard on a variety of percussion instruments on this one, particularly behind Curtis Hasselbring’s superb trombone solo, and once again McCaslin contributes some nice playing as does Dave Ballou. The volume and intensity level of the band continues to rise throughout this piece before receding back into quieter space.

Green City has a distinctly Gil Evans kind of feel, much like the late arranger’s scores for the Miles Ahead album. Here Chris Cheek is the tenor soloist, and although he is not quite as original in expression as McCaslin, he has his own say. The middle section is scored for low clarinets, making an effective contrast in sound. Amnesia, with its odd feeling of being in 3 rather than 4 (or perhaps a mixture of the two beats), floats along in its own space, here somewhat reminiscent of a Johnny Richards score in timbre. Once again it is the orchestral score itself, and the way Schaphorst develops it, that commands attention, even over the ornate alto sax solo of Michael Thomas who also sounds as if he is embellishing what the ensemble is playing. At around 4:45 the piece comes to a dead stop before resuming in short, interrupted phrases at a much slower pace. Compositionally, this is surely one of the most interesting works on the album.

Although this was recorded in 2014, the title of Take Back the Country seems oddly prescient of our recent Presidential election, though the accompanying publicity blurb says it was written as a tribute to the late trombonist Bob Brookmeyer. Schaphorst employs a nice opening chorus mixing trombones with saxes in a way that puts a little bit of space between the notes even at a medium-fast clip. Trombonist Luis Bonilla takes a pleasant solo, followed by Landrus and Carlson. The latter’s solo, on flugelhorn, is really nice, underscored by some fancy cymbal work from Wilson,which then leads into a really cool uptempo chorus for the brasses—one of my favorite moments on the entire CD! Float is a pleasant enough piece, but here I felt the soloists, particularly pianist Caine, were the dominant forces behind it. In the second ensemble, I couldn’t help hearing echoes of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Imagination or reality? And no, I don’t really like the Battle Hymn, so it wasn’t wishful thinking on my part (the allusion resurfaces just before the five-minute mark).

With Mbira 2 we return to the feel of the first Mbira piece but with different timbral blends. This score sounds much more like conventional American jazz than African mbira music, however, and Brad Shepik’s bluesy guitar solo is quite fine. On Global Sweat, described by Schaphorst as “a vivid sonic depiction of a swelling storm” (not the now-debunked myth of man-made Climate Change), the music begins in an uneasy calm as the gathering of warm air is about to clash with the cold to produce a storm. Schaphorst uses some ingenious scoring here, developing his themes gradually as the music moves from a crawl to a slow waltz beat before eventually exploding in an eruption of gale-force brass and winds. Along the way there is a terrific polyphonic passage of overlaid themes and rhythms that is a real attention-getter. The piece suddenly ends, quietly, in the middle of nowhere.

The album closes with Descent, which despite its title is not a tune built around descending melodic structures or harmonies but rather an old-fashioned, uptempo swinger. Caine has a particularly happy piano solo in this one, and there is a quirky middle section with almost broken-carousel-type rhythm and harmonies beneath Ralph Alessi’s unusual and exploratory trumpet solo.

How to Say Goodbye is, then, a fine album mixing straightahead big band writing with some bold and innovative passages of wonderful imagination. Definitely worth a listen!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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