Six to eleven pieces allow arrangers freedom that the conventions and sheer size of sixteen-piece bands tend to limit. Medium-sized groups have been important since the beginnings of jazz.
They continue to be important. Here are three recent examples, quite different from one another.
Felipe Salles, South American Suite (Curare Records). Salles performs on several reed instruments. He is exceptional in his tenor saxophone solos, but his writing for an octet of spirited young players is what makes this some of the most intriguing mid-sized-band music of the year. Among other elements, Salles melds Brazilian forms and bebop spirit for exhilarating blends of simplicity, complexity and sophistication. His resourceful harmonic voicings for horns and violin often make the band sound half again larger. This is music of insistency and depth. It demands and rewards attentive listening.
New Jazz Composers Octet, The Turning Gate (Motéma). The NJCO’s arrangers and composers craft challenging settings for the soloists, who include themselves. The group’s sparkplug, trumpeter David Weiss, has long since established himself as a forward-looking writer. Pianist Xavier Davis, bassist Dwayne Burno and saxophonist Myron Walden also contribute substantial works to this collection. Trombonist Steve Davis and tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene grace the group, along with drummer Nasheet Waits and baritone saxophonist Norbert Stachel. All are key players in today’s New York modern jazz community. Weiss’s “The Turning Gate” and Xavier Davis’s four-part “The Faith Suite” are rewarding new contributions to the repertoire.
David Berger Octet, I Had The Craziest Dream: The Music of Harry Warren (Such Sweet Thunder). Many of the songs Harry Warren wrote for motion pictures were among the biggest hits of the 1930s and ’40s. The dozen that Berger chose for this CD are standards that have endured for decades. His arrangements of “September in the Rain,” “I’m an Old Cowhand,” “Jeepers Creepers,” “I Had the Craziest Dream” and the rest do Warren justice he has too often been denied. Berger’s charts are idiomatic in surprising ways; “Boulevards of Broken Dreams” as a slinky tango, for instance, and “The Gold Diggers’ Song” outfitted with a flying bebop soli for the ensemble. Eight fine musicians abet Berger. Saxophone soloists Harry Allen and Joe Temperley stand out, with stirring work from relative newcomers Isaac Ben Ayala on piano, trumpeter Brian “Fletch” Pareschi, alto saxophonist Matt Hong and trombonist Marshall Gilkes. Veteran drummer Jimmy Madison and the young bassist Yasushi Nakamura generate serious swing throughout.