For the past 18 years, trumpeter-arranger David Weiss has been flying under the radar, quietly going about the daily struggle of being a working jazz musician in New York City while performing at a consistently high level on the bandstand and amassing a bunch of impressive credits along the way. Although the New York native had been on the scene since 1986-when he graduated from North Texas State, returned home and began working in everything from Latin and Haitian bands to sideman gigs with jazz veterans like Frank Foster, Jaki Byard and Jimmy Heath-it wasn't until 1995, when he made some key contributions to Freddie Hubbard's Music Masters recording, Monk, Miles, Trane & Cannon, that Weiss began gaining attention for his arranging skills.
Since then, he has done numerous arrangements on a host of recordings by such artists as Abbey Lincoln, Phil Woods, Vincent Herring and Antonio Hart. But his best work to date as a composer and arranger has been in the service of his own sextet and for the New Jazz Composers Octet, the boundary-stretching cooperative group he founded in 1996. Since then, the NJCO has made two excellent recordings on Spain's Fresh Sound New Talent label: 1999's First Steps Into Reality and 2003's Walkin' the Line, which saw the group make an incremental leap in its development. Comprised of such advanced young composers and players as pianist Xavier Davis, alto saxophonist Myron Walden, tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene, baritone saxophonist Chris Karlic, trombonist Steve Davis, bassist Dwayne Burno and drummer Nasheet Waits, the NJCO also backed Freddie Hubbard on his ambitious 2001 recording, New Colors (Hip Bop), performing Weiss' fresh arrangements of familiar Hubbard pieces. "New Colors had its moments," Weiss maintains, "but I'd like to make a grander statement with Freddie. It would be nice to get a second crack at things because we do have a lot of material, and it's definitely better material than the first one. Plus, it would be nice for him to go out in better style."
In 2002, Fresh Sound New Talent put out Breathing Room, Weiss' highly acclaimed recording as a leader. His follow-up for the label, The Mirror, is a showcase for the composer's writing and arranging for his tightly knit sextet, including the propulsive modal tune "Stalker" and a dynamic new take of Kevin Hays' jaunty stop-time swinger "Our Trip." Both of those pieces are highlighted by some authoritative blowing from the sextet's frontline of Weiss on trumpet, Myron Walden on alto sax and Marcus Strickland on tenor sax alongside a crack rhythm section featuring NJCO bandmates Davis and Burno, with E.J. Strickland on drums. Two ambitious octet pieces that complete The Mirror-a darkly beautiful ballad "Love Letter to One Not Yet Met" and a stirring new arrangement of Wayne Shorter's swinging Jazz Messengers anthem "Mr. Jin"-showcase Weiss' knack for rich chordal voicings and contrapuntal embroidery. "I do think there is a difference between my writing for the sextet and the octet," he says. "The sextet is moodier, more straight-eighthy; more of the melodies are in the bass while the horn stuff is more static. It's just a different kind of mood than the octet, which is more of a go-for-the-jugular, knock-you-over-the-head, take-no-prisoners kind of approach."
The ongoing dilemma Weiss faces with the NJCO is that it lies somewhere in the no man's land between hard bop and the avant-garde, while perceptions of the group vary depending on which camp the listener is in. "Straightahead people think the octet is really out while out-people hear ding-ding-a-ding and think it's straightahead, so they dismiss it as old hat," he says. But right in between is where Weiss wants to be because, he says, "the best music that I know of-the records from the mid-'60s that pretty much define everything that we do now-encompassed elements of both worlds. They were based on harmony, but those guys didn't approach it that way-they were just pushing the envelope all the time.
"And that line between both worlds has always intrigued me, which is why I called the second octet record Walkin' the Line. But the lines were a lot more blurry at some point in the mid-'60s, when you had the Miles Davis quintet with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, and you had Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan, John Coltrane and other players like James Spaulding and Charles Tolliver. Those guys played hard. They played this music with a passion and a conviction. And I think the music was much better off for it."