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Bloom-- Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra

Asuka Kakitani was a classical pianist in her native Japan until the age of 19, when she first heard Bud Powell and her life was changed. From studying jazz in Kyoto, she moved on to the Berklee College of Music in Boston in 2002, where she was transformed again, this time from jazz pianist to jazz composer and arranger, with an emphasis on large ensembles. "Playing piano, I wanted to play like Bud or Monk," she said, "like there's a box I have to fit in. But I feel freer as a composer." Later acceptance into the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop program in New York enabled her to hone her skills writing big band charts, and she organized and debuted her orchestra at the Brooklyn Lyceum in 2009. Since then Kakitani's Jazz Orchestra has been performing at Brooklyn's Tea Lounge and other venues, and her first CD, Bloom, give us a glimpse of this powerful congregation in action. Kakitani's distinctive compositions and richly textured and illuminating arrangements have various inspirations, including the natural world, a Matisse painting, Japanese folk songs, and a favorite Hemingway novel. Among the soloists passionately interpreting the provocative and evocative music are trumpeters John Bailey and Matt Holman, saxophonists Jason Rigby, Mark Small, John O'Gallagher, Ben Kono, and Kenny Berger, trombonists Matt McDonald, Jacob Garchik, and Mark Patterson, guitarist Pete McCann, pianist Mike Eckroth, bassist Dave Ambrosio, drummer Mark Ferber, and vocalist Sara Serpa.

The title piece, "Bloom," unfurls with harmonious brass, before a saxophone plays the appealing melody and the full orchestra erupts in glorious and sweeping crosscurrents. Bailey's forthright trumpet solo is intermittently enhanced by swaying ensemble passages, while Rigby's darting and bustling tenor exploration appropriately receives more exuberant backing. Ambrosio and Ferber lay down a consistently strong and supportive foundation. The multi-section undulating interlude, with Ferber's drums also spotlighted, provides a heady, uplifting conclusion. Ambrosio's warmhearted prelude opens "Electric Images," accompanied by just McCann's glistening acoustic guitar. The band reveals the hypnotic legato theme prior to a brilliant blending of Serpa's wordless vocalizing, flute, and ultimately exciting call-and-response between brass and saxes. Ambrosio returns for a fuller, more adamant statement with contrasting softer colorations by the orchestra. Eckroth's Fender Rhodes solo sparkles, immediately answered by McCann's impressively surging outing. The instrumentalists and Serpa swell vibrantly as the guitarist plays, only to wind down in mellow synchronization.

Soprano sax and voice harmonize the lilting melody of "Bumblebee Garden," alongside McCann's subtle strumming, until the motifs are expanded to the total assemblage in increasingly intricate and absorbing combinations, through-composed if you will. McDonald's lush-toned trombone solo is lyrically potent, made more so by pertinent orchestral interjections. Serpa's wordlessly enchanting improv is succeeded by densely dramatic meditations by all concerned, giving way finally to a gentle mixture of voice, flute, and guitar. "Dance One," the winner of the 2006 BMI Foundation Charlie Parker Award, was inspired by Henri Matisse's "Dance 1" painting featuring nude striding dancers. This work has a jabbing, exclamatory theme that is accentuated by Ferber's lively percussive designs. Muted trumpets, and then swirling saxes and brass, set the scene for O'Gallagher's prancing, sinuous solo, inundated by ensemble declarations and Ferber's persistent drumming. Garchik's darker trombone invention is bolstered at first by Berger's bass clarinet and then the whole band, which takes over in determined, stimulating fashion as Ferber has one last outburst, all subsiding to Eckroth's ending piano vamp.

"Opened Opened" and "Dragonfly's Glasses" are pieces from Kakitani's "Re-imaging My Childhood" suite, and are reworkings of traditional Japanese children's songs. "Opened Opened" begins with Serpa singing the lyrics endearingly in Japanese. Her voice then melds with flutes and baritone sax in a mesmerizing Far Eastern segment. Berger's extended baritone solo is elaborately and profoundly woven as orchestral embellishments add even more substance, with moods ranging from pensive to cathartic. Saxophones and voice waft calmly to introduce "Dragonfly's Glasses," with McCann's electric guitar phrases interspersed. The intensity and dynamic level increase just before Kono's alto solo commences, his silky, long lines and heated flurries building unrelentingly in tandem with the band's corroborating expressions. The grandeur of Kakitani's writing in the subsequent section is stirring, and Kono's searing alto returns to cap this masterful arrangement.

"Islands in the Stream," title taken from the Ernest Hemingway novel, is initiated by a stair-stepping orchestral motif seasoned by McCann's fills. Eckroth's Rhodes ostinato percolates through the next section of invigorating counterpoint, leading up to Holman's outgoing flugelhorn solo. Small's slow boiling tenor pronouncement follows, and then McCann wails away in unrestrained fusion style until he and the track fade out with one last sigh. The band's commentary behind the soloists, including the vital Ferber, is exemplary. Serpa's splendid vocal prelude to "Skip," and then her continuing input as the orchestra robustly completes the thematic setup, finally makes way for Eckroth's urgently driven piano improvisation. Patterson's trombone solo runs from contemplative to exultant, with typically forceful input from the band, which rolls on in an astoundingly vigorous manner, eventually vamping for Ferber's concluding drum foray.

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Scott Albin