Nathan Parker Smith Large Ensemble – Not Dark Yet (2014)

Rock bands with horn sections are pretty rare. Modern creative heavy metal horn bands are rarer still, and Nathan Parker Smith just might have the only one in the world.

California native Smith formed his Nathan Parker Smith Large Ensemble back in ’09, impressing audiences around NYC venues with his fresh approach to the tried-and-true big band concept. Winner of multiple prestigious prizes in jazz compositions, Smith goes further than using his Large Ensemble as merely a vehicle for his songs; he invests just as much into how these songs are rendered.

Infusing them with dollops of contemporary classical, prog rock and Euro-style heavy metal, Smith finds new ways to harness the power of thirteen horns: five saxophones, four trumpets and four trombones. At the core lies an electric rock quartet with Landon Knoblock on Rhodes Kenji Shinagawa on guitar, Russ Flynn on bass and Jared Schonig on drums. These guys also have the green light to improvise, too (within the parameters of the compositions, of course), making these performances even more unpredictable.

Through Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records, the Nathan Parker Smith Large Ensemble now has its first album out, Not Dark Yet (October 14, 2014).

The songs are so stuffed with twists, turns and variations that they rarely run over five minutes long; Smith’s band gets his ideas presented without messing around and then gets out. The opening number “Mega” is sixty-six seconds of a repeating short, horn-blasted figure that gets slightly ahead of the beat and slightly behind the beat, with quick asides inserted between them.

That’s just the beginning. The horns play so many unconventional roles, sometimes several at once. They’ll cascade, mimic Shinagawa’s heavy rock riffs, offer up counterpoints to those riffs and keep perfectly in sync with the intensely sinuous drums of Schonig. Lots of whiplash-inducing start-stop rhythms, too. Sometimes, a contingent of horns peel off and scatter off in every direction, only to rejoin the charted course at a critical point.

Only about half of the tunes have featured soloists, but that hardly makes anything less interesting, because the compositions themselves create ample complexity and unpredictability. When there are soloists, Parker finds creative ways of placing them. For example, four soloists on “Dark Matter” (Michael Thomas, sax; Nick Finer, trombone); Kevin Russell, sax; Josh Deutsch, trumpet) drop asides at the end of each bar, and sometimes in pairs.

Other twists include the slide blues guitar from Shinagawa that pops up during “Solace,” the muscular, funky groove of “Creature Rebellion” (featuring the soaring trumpet of David Smith) and the majestic horns that seem to float over Schonig’s restive drums during the apprehensive “Fog Over East.”

Don’t let the eighteen-member size of this jazz band scare you. This isn’t Grandpa’s big band, nor your Dad’s. Nor necessarily anybody else who’s into big band jazz. The Nathan Parker Smith Large Ensemble is for the rest of us.

Visit Nathan Parker Smith’s website for more info.

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