JC Sanford: Views From the Inside
Whirlwind Recordings

It's perhaps significant that the first trombone solo credited to JC Sanford on his Views From the Inside occurs halfway through the twelve-track set. That's another way of saying that the recording is intent on promoting his talents as a composer, arranger, and bandleader rather than as a soloist per se. Sanford is a key figure within the resurgent jazz orchestra movement, and this new collection argues powerfully in support of the claim. He's also a busy cat: in addition to fronting his own band, he conducts the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble and the Alice Coltrane Orchestra (featuring Ravi Coltrane and Jack DeJohnette), among others, and curates the Size Matters series at the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn.

Dedicated to Bob Brookmeyer (with whom Sanford studied), the disc's material might be rooted in the swing conventions of traditional big band jazz, but Sanford invests them with new energy through the force and daring of his writing and the fifteen versatile musicians whose talents are so wonderfully documented on the release. Though the rich range of orchestral colour is one of the album's major drawing cards, instrument sounds are never used gratuitously. It's a rare recording—jazz or otherwise—that includes French horn, accordion, tuba, English horn, oboe, bassoon, violin, and cello, yet all seem to naturally fit within Sanford's universe. Another appealing aspect of the recording is its mix of short and long pieces, with two being no more than a minute in length and the longest the fifteen-minute title track.

That the album will turn big band conventions on its head is signposted at the start when “An Attempt at Serenity” opens with a babble of voices and atonal harmonic clusters that's more Schoenberg than Count Basie. A ponderous funereal episode follows in a way that suggests Sanford's agenda extends beyond swing while at the same time making good on the jazz orchestra concept. A similar message is sent when the second piece, “Your Word Alone,” follows cryptic march rhythms with bravura solo turns from violinist Meg Okura and soprano saxist Dan Willis, and when “Brownieland” features accordionist Jacob Garchick in a setting that's as indebted to free jazz as anything. Especially epic is the title piece, which Andrew Green in his liner notes accurately describes as “an encapsulation of the totality of JC Sanford's musical universe.” There are moments, however, when the music circles back to embrace the tradition of classic big band playing, such as the mellifluous “Robins in Snow,” which Sanford composed as part of a new score for the 1925 silent film Ben-Hur.

His arrangements transcend the ordinary in the way the soloists contributions are sinuously woven into the structures of the compositions. Rising out of the collective, individual voices make succinct statements at appropriate moments and then just as naturally reintegrate themselves into the whole. While there are countless examples to choose from by way of illustration, especially memorable is the affecting spotlight shared by clarinetist Ben Kono, French horn player Chris Komer, and cellist Will Martina during the opening minutes of the title track, as well as the later classical strings episode featuring Martina and Okura.

Five “Brooklyn Vignettes” are interspersed throughout the sixty-eight-minute album, which, naturally, was recorded at Systems Two in Brooklyn in early 2013. The vibrancy for which the New York borough is renowned comes through in both “2nd & 7th” and “Sunset Park, Sunset Park,” the latter of which even includes a seeming nod to Steve Reich in its rapid pulsations. Sanford also gives trumpeter Taylor Haskins (his sound altered by the Eventide Harmonizer) and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi ample opportunity to shine in presenting three pieces (“Pre-Systems,” “Inter-Systems,” “Systems Two”) as duets.

Throughout this excellent album, Sanford extends his music into areas other than jazz by drawing on modern classical and World music genres, and there are plenty of moments of lyricism and mystery on this wide-ranging collection. It's an encompassing journey filled with multi-scenic variety.

July 2014