It is not often one gets to hear a big band these days, especially in Canberra. Their dominant moment in the history of jazz is long gone even though a number of jazz clubs around the world still feature some sort of rehearsal big band on Monday nights. Thus to hear a big band at all at the moment is intrinsically surprising - especially when we are so used to listening to small groups, sextets at most.
New York-based Steve Newcomb's concert at the ANU School of Music Band Room on August 18 was even more surprising than expected - and gratifying. The evening began with a solo piano performance by Steve based around "There Will Never Be Another You", after which John Hoffman from Brisbane joined him for a duet ballad on trumpet. The short first half then concluded with Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train" with sensitive, understated solos from Hoffman, Miroslav Bukovsky, John Mackey and Steve himself. The Ellington/Strayhorn reference was probably deliberate, foreshadowing as it did the second half of the evening where Ellington's style of orchestral writing was one of several beautifully integrated influences.
Given the importance of improvisation in jazz, the term "jazz composer" may seem oxymoronic but with his new multi-movement composition, "Caterpillar Chronicles", Steve Newcomb, showed that this is far from the case. Although the piece is loosely programatic (following the development from caterpillar to butterfly) its main interest lies in the sonorities used and in the integration of its improvised and composed elements. After an impressionistic introduction on piano, Steve conducted the orchestra from out front, leaving Andy Butler to the piano role. Although the orchestra included several of Canberra's top young improvisers (Niels Rosendahl, Matt Handel, Reuben Lewis and Alex Raupach among them), most of the improvising was done by senior figures - John Mackey, John Hoffman and Miroslav Bukovsky). In each case the solos were satisfyingly integrated with the music as a whole - and occasionally involved antiphonal elements, especially between Hoffman and Bukovsky.
Although Steve Newcomb appeared disconcertingly youthful out the front conducting such a large assembly, he clearly knows his jazz history very well. In addition to Ellington, it was the arranging innovations of Gil Evans which were the most strongly felt. Like Evans, Newcomb did not use the brass and woodwind sections by turn or against each other but combined their timbres in sonorities that often hovered at a compelling mid-point between harmony and (relative) dissonance. There was a strong sense throughout of both tradition and of never having heard anything like this before (not even from Evans or Ellington). At times I thought an influence of French twentieth classical music could also be detected. It made one feel that this orchestra, its composer and its (mostly) young musicians should also be heard in a larger hall by the audiences who flock to classical concerts. It's hard to imagine they too wouldn't have enjoyed it. Nevertheless, the experience of hearing such a sophisticated and original piece up close and so well played was certainly a satisfying one.
Sitting in the front row, I was able to notice just how much the young musicians were enjoying being part of it - even though, I was told later, there had not been extensive rehearsal time. The feeling was even more obvious in the sections where they were "laying out", as it were. I could see how they clearly understood why they were not playing in those particular bars and how even their silence at that point contributed to the total effect Newcomb was aiming for. Fortunately, the concert was recorded but when, or if, it becomes available is not known at this point. It's unlikely that even the best recording techniques could in any way duplicate the experience of hearing such a concert live.
Caterpillar Chronicles was composed by Steve Newcomb and premiered by the ANU Jazz Orchestra at the ANU School of Music Band Room on 18 August 2011. John Hoffman (trumpet) visited.