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New Jazz Composers Octet: Walkin’ the Line

The independent Fresh Sound New Talent label is based in Spain, but in the last couple of years it has become a place to find the strongest young players in New York. A compelling example is Walkin’ the Line by the New Jazz Composers Octet. It may be the most ambitious, most fully realized project yet undertaken on a label that has quickly assembled an impressive portfolio.

NJCO was founded in 1996 and released its debut album, the well-received First Steps Into Reality, in 1999, also on Fresh Sound New Talent. The frontline is now founder David Weiss (trumpet), Steve Davis or Andrew Williams (trombones) and varying combinations of Jimmy Greene, Myron Walden, Craig Handy and Chris Karlic (reeds). The rhythm section is pianist Xavier Davis, bassist Dwayne Burno and drummer Nasheet Waits. Collectively and individually, this group is successful in addressing the primary challenge facing today’s young jazz musician: how to acknowledge the great achievements of 40 and 50 years ago that shaped the standards of the art form and yet meet the aesthetic imperative of jazz to innovate.

The band’s commitment to creative composition is fulfilled in six exceptional originals, all very different. Davis’ “Deadweight” starts convoluted and dense, a blaring anthem that suddenly clears spaces for incisive solos from Weiss, Davis and Walden on alto. Weiss’ quasiwaltz “A Little Twist” is Ellingtonian in its rich burnished colors and its elegant, swaying momentums. The title track, also by Weiss, is intricate and formal before it launches soloists. Craig Handy takes two epic solos on the Weiss pieces, on soprano for “A Little Twist” and on alto for “Walkin’ the Line.” They are grand yet concentrated soliloquies, full of heedless melodious ravings. Handy also contributes the single most memorable composition, “Abdullah’s Demeanor,” an intense 11-minute slow burn over bassist Burno’s repeated five-note ritual. Handy (on tenor) flails and tears at the restraints of patience imposed by his own song.

The octet configuration is beautifully suited to the purposes of this enterprise. The ensemble is large enough to provide weight and a variety of voicings but small enough to pivot and swerve on short notice. The acutely intelligent charts, in their harmonic sophistication and meaningful melodic content, reflect an internalized awareness of the great acoustic mainstream as defined by seminal figures such as Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. But they also refresh this tradition with postmodern, open, asymmetrical structures. Solos grow organically out of the carefully detailed designs, but then they find the freedom to fly, in phraseologies that acknowledge all the jagged history that has transpired since 1960. These guys invent with a zeal made relevant by musicianship and the passionate focus of players who have found their format.

More than most small independents, Fresh Sound New Talent is interested in audio quality. For Walkin’ The Line, they used one of the best studios and best engineers in the country, Systems Two in Brooklyn and Joe Marciano respectively. Even when the Octet screams loudly as one, Marciano provides precise discrimination among instruments.

Originally Published