Jon Armstrong Jazz Orchestra: Farewell

Lying on my back, I raise my left arm parallel to the edge of the bed. The square of sunlight which comes in the late afternoon…

In October it is golden with an almost greenish tinge to it. Always, it is quickly retreating after only offering a stage for my shadow puppets for a mere twenty minutes before the elongated square then sinks back into the rest of the wall.

Dawn too may have offered a brief theater but I was rarely awake to observe if it was so.

I look best in bar-light and so tried to bathe myself in it as often as possible. This trick of light also encompassed the perception of time. Regardless of how long I held myself absent, none of the stool vultures noticed. Conversations and arguments could easily be picked up again as if they had just been started the previous night.

I spend a lot of time in my head giving my life currency via obeying Socrates’s old adage. Sandra noticed my lack of presence as I became wrapped up in a project. She insisted I go out with her, adding the prerequisite that it be some place free of other distractions or crowds in which I could camouflage myself.

A home cooked meal, the preparation for which painted my shirt that I changed right before her arrival. Offered up, a heavy pasta meal whose execution and richness induced a near sensual stupor. We talked, the music played and as I remained an active participant it all remained dreamily peaceful.

However, as good as the evening was she knew that there was every reason to believe that tomorrow would find me once again solitarily soaring through the air on notepad wings at the expense of all else not birthed from the barrel of my Waterman. She wanted to squeeze as much of my attention out of the night as possible.

We went for a walk. I choose an area which I did not usually find myself in as to avoid the transmutation of this evening into just another night. There was a diner, whether mere ritual or the heaviness of the meal, I desired a coffee even though most likely it would not be any good. Sandra was fine, so I go it to go.

A small park. We sit in the empty bandstand. I drink smoldering coffee from a cardboard cup while Sandra smoked one of her endless, last cigarettes.

The bandstand sits in meditation on the ghosts of Duke, Basie, Kenton and a then young modern America. As for myself, I think of Nathan. He had driven a taxi for thirty years, big band music providing the soundtrack. Not necessarily wisdom but the desire for a minor immortality is the catalyst of one generation telling the next their stories. A lot of Nathan’s anecdotes centered on the time of his youth. Whether this was because he thought I would relate better or because it was the more interesting time in his life, I never knew.

There was his pal who had lost an arm in the war but afterwards continued to drive his taxi that was affectionately known as “The one arm bandit”, countless get rich quick schemes involving silver mines and commercial tuna boats that had nearly paid off and a general excitement which kept his taxi circling the city well after hope of obtaining fares was gone as he was afraid that he would miss something where he to merely go home and go to bed.

The stories I never tired off. The music he tried to share did not do much for me; I was pure into the then new to me, bop and would not appreciate it for many years and by then he would be long gone.

I initially when I finally got into Duke, it was his later recordings on Columbia which were closer for my ears to the modern jazz I had been cutting my teeth on. From this I traveled backwards in his catalog and then outwards, exploring and embracing his peers.

I grew big ears, listening to music from every era and genre, the who and what depending upon my mood. I gained an affection and knowledge of big band.

From the early 1950’s on, while no longer the soundtrack for youth, the big band genre continued past its cultural reign. It was not merely nostalgia, a mere few remaining bands playing the favorites at festivals, the genre continued to evolve well past the inception of bop, albeit it outside of mainstream attention.

Overall, modern jazz, while supplanting big band from its previously held cultural position did make the incorporation of largely previously unutilized components such as Western classical and world music easier to incorporate.

People like Mel Lewis/Thad Jones Orchestra, Gil Evans, Charles Mingus (not big band per see but amazing large ensemble writing with some Duke in his DNA) and Bob Brookmeyer continued evolving the genre well past what had been its era utilizing palettes which were no longer limited in the way their artistic predecessors had been due to commercial or other consideration.

For big band and large ensemble music it would seem that now would be a golden age to be a musician/composer as there are not limitations to where one can draw influence from nor what can be incorporated into a work. However there is neither the widespread innovation nor evolution as one would expect from such freedom.

Once in a while there are little flashes of something, the power of it being real as it comes neither from gimmick or novelty.

Jon Armstrong’s new jazz orchestra album Farewell offers something new but clearly built off of what had come before him.

The ensemble is made up of woodwinds, trumpets low brass and percussionists. The first track “Ardnave”, begins with a foundation of percussion and trumpets playing in unison a theme which has an Iberian peninsula feel to it without it ever lapsing into ethno caricature.

After a solo trumpet statement there comes a percussion break. This section really puts forth the warmth of the album’s sonics. The album’s sound is very good with an ambient warmth which I will take any day over a cold digital, pristine perfection. Recorded in a school in North Hollywood (California) the artist and engineer clearly understood how to utilize the room. After the percussion break comes a section with clarinet. It has a mild klezmer feel to it. The contrast between clarinet and the swell of brass is enjoyable. The clarinet’s voice, a rich woody shade as found in the forest, the trees’ canopy broken here and there by the shafts of sunlight brass.

With a lot of larger contemporary ensembles, regardless of how good the players are and how forward thinking the charts, there is always that effect of garnering a suspicion that the band sounds better live. The overall warmth of this recording keeps that feeling at bay throughout the length of the entire album.

“Fool of Me” starts with a legato, split reed murmuring and is a perfect example of the intimacy of Farewell’s cadence. The lone horn is joined by other voices in a plaintive lament. The low brass roils in contrast to the bass and saxophone which remain delicately buoyant in a duet. Slowly a near vocalese trumpet speaks its piece as the rest of the ensemble add an underlying richness. I enjoy the density of this composition which is kept from feeling overly heavy by achieving its mass through the emerging and reduction of various instruments in smaller groups within the group.

“Dream Has No Friend” begins with horns in unison laying out slowly descending lines. After a low end march is introduced there are some subtle tempo shifts accompanied by varied orchestral colorations. Rising out of the aural miasma, the trombone lays out long lines upon which the piano and clarinet intermittently appear all voices unified by a slight waltz like rhythm.

The clarinet has chime like echoes accompanying it upon its initial introduction which makes for a unique and compelling sonic contrast. Towards the end of the piece the rest of the ensemble comes in, an impasto effect. The work ends with the deep brass reduced down and once again in a descending pattern.

Jon’s work does not strictly adhere to genre formula(s) and the entire album is all the more better for it. It stands up to repeated listenings. It has substance but is never so forward thinking as to turn off the more casual listener. The CD comes in gatefold packing with a liner note booklet.

For more information on Jon

http://www.jonarmstrongmusic.com/menu/

 

Not for use without express permission

Maxwellachandler@aol.com

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