The New Jazz Composers Octet – The Turning Gate (2008)

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PhotobucketNOTE: The New Jazz Composers Octet was the last backing band of jazz trumpet legend Freddie Hubbard, who passed away this morning at age 70 due to complications from a heart attack suffered on November 26. A truly major figure in jazz and one of the best trumpet players of all times, Hubbard leaves behind a legacy of excellent recordings and his passing creates a huge void. It’s a solemn day in the world of jazz.

A few weeks ago I began to wax poetic about this CD in just a handful of paragraphs within a Quickies and quickly came to the conclusion that I would be selling it short by doing so. In fact, The Turning Gate merited a spot on my best mainstream jazz record of 2008…in advance!

It’s a solid effort by this talented cooperative group, the New Jazz Composers Octet. The NJCO is comprised of accomplished players who have already established themselves solidly elsewhere: David Weiss (trumpet, flugelhorn), Myron Walden (alto sax, flute), Jimmy Greene (tenor sax, flute), Steve Davis (trombone), Norbert Stachel (baritone sax, bass clarinet), Xavier Davis (piano), Dyayne Burno (bass) and Nasheet Waits (drums).

Even cooperatives tend to have a leader, and in this case, it’s Weiss. In addition to being the ensemble’s founder and spokesperson, Weiss brings to the table his considerable acumen as a producer and arranger. Weiss’ vision for the NJCO from the time it began more than a decade ago is to provide a big enough setting to fully realize the potential of the ambitious compositions by its members.

Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of this combo’s music is the deft balance achieved between the harmonic complexity in these compositions and the high octane of blowing sessions. That’s the beauty exemplified on cuts like Weiss’ own “Turning Gate,” which is underpinned by evolving cyclical themes but nicely fits in swinging solos by Walden and Xavier Davis.

Weiss’ discerning touch on arrangements can be found everywhere: the short, dissonant charted horn statements the breaks up of Greene’s sizzling solo on Xavier Davis’ “David and Goliath;” the reeds playing the main melodic line while the brass tackles a countering line in “Turning Gate,” and the three distinct phrases played simultaneously in the chorus that harmonize so well together in “New,” also a Davis composition.

However, none of those songs required as much genius to pull off convincingly as the Henry Cow cover “Bad Alchemy” (see my jazz.com review on this number here). Weiss retained all the basic signatures changes and the basic, contorted harmony, but made some other adaptations to fit the band’s configuration and skill set better. Most notable of these adjustments is assigning the tricky job of soloing over the choppy changes to Walden, which Walden succeeds in doing by a mile.

Xavier Davis, the first composer to win the Chamber Music America (CMA) award twice, contributes a six movement suite to The turning Gate. “The Faith Suite” puts four of those parts together, as “New (Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego)” and “David and Goliath” are sequenced elsewhere on the album. The remaining four movements begin in a hopeful, peaceful frame of mind (“In The Beginning,” “Twilight”), then turn tentative (“Twilight”) and finally, turbulent (“Panic”). This is how Davis had intended, as he wanted to portray faith, or lack thereof, in its different forms. Along the way, there’s some sturdy solos provided by Walden, both Davises and Greene and Stachel.

The closing track “Onward” was provided by Walden. The song unfolds over two sections: a delicately orchestrated beginning that features Walden on flute, and a longer, midtempo segment where Walden switches back to alto in time to give another passionate solo sandwiched in between Steve Davis’ and Xavier Davis’ own.

The combination of taking select songs from the pens of its members and the arranging and production touch of Weiss make The Turning Gate one of the most consistently strong statements of modern jazz introduced in 2008. This being only their third release, with each one coming every four of five years, The New Jazz Composers Octet makes their records worth the long wait.

The Turning Gate hit the streets last October 14 on the Motema Music label.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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