Game Changer-- The Ali Ryerson Jazz Flute Big Band

There have been a number of essentially or exclusively one-instrument bands in jazz, from Bill Lee's New York Bass Violin Choir to Max Roach's M'Boom, but perhaps none have come as close to capturing the textures and sonorities of a conventional big band as has Ali Ryerson's Jazz Flute Big Band (JFBB). Ryerson first began commissioning arrangements for her flute master classes in Carmel Valley, CA in 2002, and then formed the JFBB in 2005, which has since played concerts, competitions held by the National Flute Association, and other events. This audacious concept owes its enlightening and enthralling success to several factors. The JFBB is comprised of sections made up of piccolo, C, alto, bass, and contrabass flutes, which help to give it a true big band sound. The perceptively chosen tunes, mostly jazz classics on this debut CD, all lend themselves to the flute, and the arrangers--Mike Abene, Bill Cunliffe, Billy Kerr, Mark Levine, Steve Rudolph, and Mike Wofford--all have proven ability or understanding of how to write for the instrument. Each of the soloists from the band, Marc Adler, Jamie Baum, Andrea Brachfield, Fernando Brandao, Bob Chadwick, Kris Keith, Billy Kerr, Paul Lieberman, and Ryerson, has a distinctive and spirited approach, as do guest soloists Holly Hofmann, Hubert Laws, and Nestor Torres. Finally, the formidable rhythm section of pianist Mark Levine, bassist Rufus Reid, and drummer Akira Tana provide more than enough drive and momentum to keep the engine humming at full efficiency.

The crisp yet velvety blending of the various flutes is heard on the theme of Clifford Brown's "Daahoud," with Tana's elaborations, Reid's strong bass lines, and Levine's perfectly placed chords setting the character for both this opening track and ultimately the entire CD. Lieberman's well-constructed C flute solo surges with energy, and Levine's statement is a concisely flavorful creation. Tana's thematic spot precedes the reprise and Lieberman's eloquent coda, this time on bass flute. The lovely melody of Wayne Shorter's "Ana Maria" is elegantly stated through Wofford's richly harmonized orchestration. Reid's declarative solo is succeeded by the vibrantly nimble phrasing of Adler on alto flute. An entrancing interlude for the full ensemble leads to a swaying summation. Wofford's "Stolen Moments" arrangement features Laws, and cannot help but remind one of composer Oliver Nelson's famous recording. Laws' alto flute phrasing and the pacing of his solo also recall Nelson's soprano and Eric Dolphy's flute on the original version. The orchestral passages are executed with a precise but stimulating flaIr, and Tana's brushwork in both his improv and throughout is sensitively wrought.

Rudolph's treatment of "Speak Like a Child" expertly accentuates the harmonic possibilities of this large contingent of flutes. Levine's piano solo shares composer Herbie Hancock's sound and balladic approach. Baum's alto flute may not have the exceptional resonance of Laws', but her solo is still quite affecting. Cunliffe's brilliant arrangement of "Con Alma" begins with dizzying, swirling flutes, and his writing for the flutes on the theme is daring and intricate, a challenge that these talented musicians are more than equal to. Torres' C flute trills and undulates in his masterful venture that evolves into a provocative give-and-take with Tana. The segment for the band as a whole that follows has the quality of a peppery and propelled individual solo. Cunliffe's uninhibited vision never lets up all the way to the recap and beyond, as realized by this committed troupe. The flutes float easefully through the melody of "Girl Talk," as perceived by Abene. Then the "girl talk" ensues, first with Hofmann's C flute in delightful lyrical form, eventually conversing effectively with Ryerson on alto flute. Reid's succinct, lucid turn gives way to a well-honed, harmonized interlude and the reprise.

The depth of the bass and contrabass flutes in the intro to "Pavane" contrasts nicely with the subsequent light and airy development of the well-known melody. Brandao's solo on C flute mixes darting flurries with refined lines, and the alto flute improv by the piece's arranger Kerr is alluringly expressive. Cunliffe's presentation of Coltrane's "Impressions" has a relentless urgency from the start, as orchestral motifs alternate with Tana's rhythmic explosions. Brachfeld and Keith's C flute solos possess the essential nature of this modal classic in their intense, unflagging attitudes. Their forceful trades with Tana are answered by convoluted full band pronouncements, and even more space is given for the drummer to strut his stuff. Tom Harrell's enduring "Sail Away" is given a polished and wafting arrangement by Wofford that entirely and skillfully reflects the tune's title. Ryerson's sultry alto flute flight is augmented by soaring background flute parts. The second Neil Hefti composition, "Lil' Darlin'," is also arranged by Abene, with some surprisingly darker, brooding sequences artfully inserted. Reid's commanding turn, and Levine's lyrical musings, come before Chadwick's impactful and captivating bass flute improvisation, capped by his exchanges with the bassist.

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Scott Albin