Last night’s concert by the Jim Knapp Orchestra at The Seasons Performance Hall drew on much of the repertoire from Knapp’s most recent CD, Secular Breathing. There were a few changes in personnel, most notably the addition of Tom Varner, the brilliant French hornist who has moved from New York to Seattle. Varner fits perfectly into Knapp’s philosophy, which involves the creation of orchestral structures layered in rich textures that he parts to provide soloists opportunities for as much freedom as they care to exercise.
Varner cares to exercise plenty of freedom, as he made plain in his roaming, exploratory solo on “Wild West,” a piece not on the CD. Varner wasn’t the only one who rode the open country of Knapp’s orchestration. Each of the reed men played at length, baritone saxophonist Jim DeJoie ending his long, gutsy, solo by improvising simultaneously with alto saxophonist Mark Taylor; Taylor soloing at length and melding with tenor saxophonist Steve Treseler, who merged with fellow tenor man Adam Harris, who gave way to bassist Phil Sparks for a bowed solo that segued into pizzicato playing and led the orchestra out of the exhilirating untethered region of free time into strict tempo and resolution. The performance kept the audience in its grip. It had focus and energy so profound that later when one of the musicians remarked that the piece had lasted twenty-six minutes, I was startled. I thought it had been ten or twelve minutes.
There were impressive solos through the evening by trombonist Jeff Hay, trumpeters Jay Thomas and Vern Sielert and pianist John Hansen. Andy Omdahl, playing publicly with the band after only one rehearsal, was thrilling in his lead trumpet work on Knapp’s demanding arrangements. But the star of the thirteen-piece orchestra is Knapp, who manages to evoke his influences—including Debussy, Ellington, Gil Evans, Ives and (I think) Dvorak—while creating music that has his own mark of individuality. If this band were based in New York rather than Seattle, my guess is that it would be creating a significant buzz. My further guess is that it will do so in any case. A live recording is reportedly in the works. Keep an ear out for it.