The Empire Jazz Orchestra are this region’s premier repertory Jazz Big Band. Their conductor Bill Meckley always puts together larger-than-life playlists for the group to perform, and this night was no different.
Before the heroic guest artist even took the stage, the EJO blew through such classics as Joe Henderson’s harmonically thick and technically challenging big band version of “A Shade of Jade,” two new vocal arrangements by resident arranger Jim Corigliano, featuring vocalist Colleen Pratt, that swung right in the pocket, and a slew of other noteworthy pieces. During the set break the group downsized from four trumpets to three, four trombones to three, five saxes to four, and the rhythm section lost piano and guitar in favor of the vibraphone.
“He’s played with everybody, and everybody wants to play with him,” Meckley said as he introduced legendary bassist Dave Holland. Holland took the stage and explained how he came to this music. “Big band music was something I’ve always toyed with, but I came to it late in life.” He explained how a stint at the 2000 Montreal Jazz Fest just happened to be the time that he was first able to present it. While some of the pieces were composed exclusively with a big band in mind, many of the tunes, like the evening’s opener, “Razor’s Edge,” had their genesis as small group pieces. While he generally plays tenor sax with this group, Kevin Barcomb blew the walls down with an extended bari solo.
Only one tune into the first set (Gordon Goodwin’s arrangement of Miles Davis’ “Seven Steps To Heaven”) made use of the vibraphone, but Holland’s set featured it as the exclusive chordal instrument, played by Cliff Brucker. The vibraphone engages the sonic space in a much different way than the piano, and, although it can certainly ring out and sustain in a similar fashion, it is generally only played with two or four mallets as opposed to 10 fingers, so the chords tend to leave more room harmonically, which has become a kind of signature of Holland’s big band and smaller combos featuring the great Steve Nelson.
Holland’s tune “Ario” exhibited the distinctive qualities of the vibraphone as well as anything that night. Holland explained how the piece originated: “Right after my first trip to Rio De Janeiro. I got back and was messing around at the piano. It started out as a ballad but ended up where it is now.” It began with solo Holland demonstrating his concept on bass, and eventually some cymbals and shakers added color, before an extended vibraphone solo.
Local sax heroes Keith Pray and Brian Patneaude got plenty of airplay this evening, and even had some time to “do battle” at the end of Holland’s “Shadow Dance”—another tune that saw its inception in the small group idiom. This tune was further proof of the arc of Holland’s compositions as it opened with just drums and percussion—Brucker even using his vibraphone mallets to click out a fast clave.
One thing that is for sure about Dave Holland’s big band music is that it leaves a lot of space for people to be creative and improvise. Sure there are the section solis, and full band hits, but almost everyone playing in the 14-piece “little big band” had their chance to tell a story. Holland was also sure to mention numerous times about how lucky we all are to have a community that supports this kind of music and has top notch facilities like SCCC’s Taylor Auditorium in which to consume it.