In an exemplary display of programming fortitude, the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival began its with a musical equivalent of the Big Bang: the opening set at Performance Works with 20 musicians in John Korsrud’s Hard Rubber Orchestra followed by 17 musicians in Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society. The Hard Rubber Orchestra played five compositions, two of them brand new big band charts, an excerpt from Suite for Hard Rubber Orchestra by Kenny Wheeler (1930-2014), and the other by Darcy James Argue, Tensile Curves. In the second set, The Secret Society played the complex and exhaustingly long Brooklyn Babylon (not covered in this review but available on the 2013 recording http://darcyjamesargue.bandcamp.com/album/brooklyn-babylon).
Korsrud formed the Hard Rubber Orchestra in 1990 as a unit specifically designed for the performance of commissioned contemporary classical and creative jazz (68 unique compositions to date). Korsrud makes a it a point of pride that none of them are ever repeated, the exception being this year’s reprise of a piece from the White Hot Core. That’s quite a track record for a large ensemble from a city of any size, and quite remarkable given Vancouver’s relatively minor glimmer on a satellite photo compared to New York, Paris, or Berlin.
Very few of the original Hard Rubber Orchestra gang were present at this concert, but one of the absent had a composition dedicated to him. “Poem for Ross” was for the unwaveringly vital and genial tenor saxophonist-pianist Ross Taggart (1968-2013). Well-loved by the music community, he had a supreme historical and musical knowledge of the jazz tradition at his fingertips (Anecdote: Taggart once grinningly flummoxed me by asking who was the pianist on a recording we were listening to. The pianist was Aaron Bell, primarily known as an Ellington bassist. Now, that is obscure knowledge but it showed the depth of the music he had absorbed). While he typically worked with quiet fire in established structures on tenor saxophone and piano, when given the nod and expectation he could tap immediately into the high velocity stratospheres of a George Adams or a Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Korsrud’s compositon was a short, spirit-invoking eulogy. Chris Gestrin (piano), Ron Samworth (guitar), and Cam Wilson (violin) created a zone of the ethereal as if the the mist of a soul were consolidating after it had lost the hearth of the body’s warm home. Then gradually and surely the Hard Rubber Orchestra’s full complement joined in with a repeated, mournful melody, its first introduction by Wilson, then restated and amplified by the lower end horns and again at a higher volume by the ensemble at higher pitch. It was a wonderful way to wish the spirit of Ross Taggart a gentle musical wind to wherever he may be sailing. Should “Poem for Ross” be formally recorded, it has the compositional guts to be lengthened considerably.
Korsrud announced Kenny Wheeler’s Suite for Hard Rubber Orchestra by saying, “In case you don’t know about him, Kenny Wheeler is from England, he’s in his eighties, and so he doesn’t get around much anymore.” With 28 years of highfalutin’ listening at the Vancouver festival under their belts, Vancouver audiences are pretty well familiar with jazz’s personalities. Korsrud’s spontaneous reference to the venerable Ellington composition got a good-natured repartee from the packed house. Korsrud explained that he had asked Wheeler if he could compose ten minutes of music once the funding was approved by the Canada Council for the Arts. Wheeler accepted, and sweetly so. Instead of waiting for the grant, Wheeler got to work and sent Korsrud a package containing 30 minutes of music two months before the adjudication jury even met.
The first segment of the new Suite was played without conduction with a structure something like this: a lush, dreamy line from the full orchestra, a double four-note melody by violinist Cam Wilson echoed as response from the orchestra, different orchestral voicings with each repeat, a tenor saxophone solo by Eli Bennett, a mid-tempo Chris Gestrin piano solo with the double-percussion, bass rhythm section (Jack Duncan on congas, Dave Robbins on drum kit, and Andre Lachance, bass), a Cam Wilson reprise with orchestra, and out.
That’s a lot of music for eight and a half minutes and with five winds and four trombones has the finely honed skills to articulate Wheeler’s complex composition. After the melodic introduction, Eli Bennett’s solo started out easily enough. Accompanied by the rhythm section only, his horn was as sweet and tender as the melodic arrangement that opened the composition. But then in tandem with the propulsion of Dave Robins on drum kit, his velocity, intensity, and passion soared and at its peak the horn sections started to kick in. The voicings were tightly orchestrated and differentiated, riff upon riff climaxing and then melding into into a multi-section reading of the double-four note theme but hitting it at different intervals. There were closed eyes from Bennett during his entire solo but the twenty-four eyes on stage were wide open on the charts. The pacing of the solo and the musical instincts of the band were impeccable for the moment that the orchestration ended its final cycle, Bennet terminated his solo exactly as he began, pianist Chris Gestrin played a slight riff and went into his solo. The orchestra reprised the theme with Cam Wilson at the lead. One would have thought that the Hard Rubber Orchestra had been playing this composition for many months given the synchronicity of the peaks and valleys of the first section of the Suite for Hard Rubber Orchestra by Kenny Wheeler.
Part II, next up: Tensile Curves composed by Darcy James Argue