It only makes sense that Brooklyn-connected big bands have proliferated in recent years, for the borough is stocked with underemployed world-class musicians who can easily read complex music, relate comfortably to diverse genres, and blow their hearts out. Darcy James Argue, Shan Barnet, Mike Fahie, Alan Ferber, Michael Formanek, Pedro Giraudo, Miho Hazama, Ryan Keberle, Brian Krock, Remy Le Boeuf, Jihye Lee, Angela Morris, Justin Mullens, Dafnis Prieto, Erica Seguine, Emilio Solla, Anna Webber, and Miguel Zenón are just a few of the names currently hiring.
Two excellent 2020 releases by trombonist Jacob Garchik and alto saxophonist Andrew D’Angelo document extremes of the BK spectrum.
Garchik’s Clear Line (Yestereve) is a meticulous, mostly notated puzzle box filled with composerly delights. The suite is inspired by varied non-musical sources, especially the ligne claire style of drawing pioneered by Tintin creator Hergé and the general whys and wherefores of architecture (anyone who follows Garchik on Twitter knows he has an eye for interesting buildings).
Garchik himself describes his musical influences as eclectic, dropping names like Wolfgang Rihm, Duke Ellington, Raymond Scott, Igor Stravinsky, and Mexican banda from the state of Sinaloa. Another antecedent might be György Ligeti, specifically certain Ligeti piano études that build in manic waves of near-tonality. But part of the triumph of Clear Line is how the influences resolve into a discreet object; each track on the record could only exist in this particular here and now.
There’s no rhythm section, but there’s plenty of tempo: The horns have to not just play damn near impossible parts but swing ’em besides. The solos are less important, but several of the scene’s brightest lights like Jonathan Finlayson and Anna Webber get a few telling bars here and there. The two longest pieces are particularly inspired; “Sixth” has a relaxed syncopated hook ideal for world-building and the title track begins like a Bob Brookmeyer exercise gone very, very wrong before resolving into an extended coda of rare beauty.
The music on Andrew D’Angelo & DNA Orchestra (Human Use) dates from a session in January of 2011. It was tracked in a studio with an intimate audience; there’s much applause and general good cheer. This is a band of players, and almost everyone on the bandstand gets to stretch out to good effect. Some pieces have written-out parts, some are more like head arrangements. While Garchik effectively wields compositional control (and doesn’t even play trombone on his own session), the musicians’ individual personalities come more to the fore with D’Angelo.
D’Angelo’s heritage is partly punk, as he fiercely wields an alto that extends the skronk tradition of Eric Dolphy, Anthony Braxton, and Tim Berne. The DNA rhythm team of Trevor Dunn and Dan Weiss supports this attitude, happily treating “rocking out” with as much reverence as anything nominally “jazz.”
However, since D’Angelo’s dramatic brain surgery in 2008, his music has mellowed, and DNA Orchestra is some ways a surprisingly friendly listen. Although the opening quasi-rhythm changes “Free Willy” has the kind of raucous energy that dominated D’Angelo’s early years, the current offering also has several gorgeous moments of reflection, including “Felicia,” a tender ballad composed for Matt Wilson’s late wife featuring violist Nicole Federici, and Bill McHenry’s anthem “Norman,” written while D’Angelo was in the hospital. (McHenry also supplies one of the best star turns with a roaring tenor solo on “Egna ot Waog.”)
Carefully crafted subtleties abound, but it’s also good when D’Angelo lets the dogs out, as on the sublime “Gay Disco,” which ascends even farther when the leader starts blowing on top of the mayhem. “Marching Fvckers” recalls various circus and parade pieces from the AACM school.
Garchik’s experimental and flamboyant aesthetic is also post-AACM. Based on the evidence of these two engaging and creative offerings, Brooklyn large-ensemble music is ready to knock your door down and make you listen.
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society: Real Enemies (New Amsterdam, 2016) – The Secret Society may be the flagship Brooklyn big band. Here Argue turns to the compelling theme of conspiracy theory—and successfully tames Schoenberg’s 12-tone system in the process—for what was originally a multimedia collaboration with writer/director Isaac Butler and designer Peter Nigrini for the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Guillermo Klein: Los Guachos V (Sunnyside, 2016) – One of the founding fathers of the contemporary big-band concept sees Duke Ellington and Steve Reich through the prism of Argentinian folklore. Everything lays just right in this hard ensemble music, not least due to the presence of drummer Jeff Ballard.
Carla Bley: The Carla Bley Big Band Goes to Church (Watt/ECM, 1996 – Bley’s madcap humor, complex compositions, and embrace of rock foreshadowed the modern Brooklyn scene as far back as A Genuine Tong Funeral in 1967. An epic and amusing concert recording, Goes to Church deserves to be better known.