LIVE: Empire Jazz Orchestra @ SCCC Taylor Auditorium, 4/12/16
Review by Jeff Nania
The Empire Jazz Orchestra always brings its A game to an expansive repertoire of music, and last week’s concert at the Schenectady County Community College’s Taylor Auditorium was no different. The group played an opening set of hard swinging big band tunes like Gil Evans’ take on Charlie Parker’s classic “Yardbird Suite” and resident arranger Jim Corigliano’s arrangements of Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead” from “The Wizard of Oz,” both of which featured vocalist Colleen Pratt.
But it was the original music that guest composer and bassist Rufus Reid brought to the table which made the evening truly something special. The performance of the five-movement suite, “Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project,” was preceded by a short video presentation that gave context to the work at hand. Reid was inspired by the sculptures of visual artist Elizabeth Catlett after first being exposed to the pieces as photographs in a coffee table book which moved him. He spoke about how many artists of various mediums often fall into a pigeonhole – musicians only check out music; visual artists check out paintings and sculpture; and poets only check out poetry. And Reid suggested that all these various artistic disciplines deserve to actually be in dialogue with one another.
Each of the five movements of the suite was inspired by a particular sculpture, and a photograph of each one was projected on the screen that hung above the ensemble as they played.
The first and perhaps most noticeable thing about the ensemble for Reid’s pieces was the instrumentation. There were two French horn players seated on the left of the stage next to the piano, and then the “sax section” which also featured vocalist Mia Scirocco, who would use her voice as a melodic instrument singing only syllabic notes and passages for the evening. At the beginning of “Singing Head,” based on a sculpture of the same name, Scirocco leaned into the open grand piano, and sang toward one of the interior microphones in such a way that her voice coaxed sympathetic vibrations out of the strings in the piano creating an ethereal otherworldliness.
The compositions were each like epic stories, not just movements in the classical sense. Rather than the drummer simply counting off a tempo and launching into a swinging thing, these were pieces that evolved and had multiple spaces and moods within each movement. One device Reid used on each piece was a long poetic passage, where all of the horns and voice would be in unison, either harmonically or rhythmically, without any drums or piano providing a motor. Sometimes these passages would lead to drums sneaking in to transition into a more “traditional” section where horns would play as sections, and the rhythm section would provide that engine to move everything along.
“Tapestry in the Sky” had perhaps the most groovy sections of the evening which were propelled by a funky bass riff that would disappear beneath individual solos, and then return as a kind of punctuation. The beginning and end of this piece started with a staccato interplay between instrument sections that gave the feeling of stars popping up as the listener or “Stargazer” (which is the name of the sculpture which inspired this piece) notices new things as they look toward the sky. In addition to the groovy sections with the solos interspersed and the poetic passages, there was also a portion of this piece that featured a duet between pianist David Gleason and Chris Pasin on flugelhorn. This section was almost like the whole rest of the piece had been building and going higher and higher until it finally broke through into heaven. The piano laid out sheets of sound, and the mellow sound of the flugelhorn flew above it, and laid down on it, before the texture got more staccato on both their parts, and they eventually linked up for a melody which then made way to a nice quiet segment with bass and bass clarinet linked up on a part while the voice and guitar hooked up on another melody.
These kind of unique textures and instrumental combinations produced very enticing sounds that were able to render pieces of Reid’s unconscious world as he was inspired by Catlett’s artistic medium ultimately creating that interdisciplinary dialogue that he spoke of at the beginning of the evening.