NDR Bigband: Hamburg Radio Jazz Orchestra:
The long title of this new release by the NDR Bigband, the premiere orchestra of German public radio in Hamburg, requires some explanation: the first part, Tall Tales of Jasper County, alludes to the Missouri area that composer Dale Wilson drew upon for inspiration for the album; the second part, The Double Doubles Suite, refers to the idea of instrument doubling (the recording's primary soloists augmenting their main instruments with others), as well as the idea of compositional doubling (as witnessed in the connections between the album's opening and closing pieces, “Brother John's Vision” and “Double Vision”). For this project, NDR's lead alto sax player Fiete Felsch (also alto flute, flute, and piccolo) commissioned Wilson to compose material that would prominently feature Felsch and tenor saxophonist Lutz Buechner (also clarinet) along with the rest of the ensemble.
Wilson isn't merely a historian with a passing interest in the rural Midwest but rather someone with strong family-related roots in the area. The album package comes with a booklet that includes detailed background by Wilson about the folk tales passed on to him by his grandparents August and Bessie Schreiber, who grew up in Kansas and lived most of their married lives in Webb City, a small town located in Jasper County and home to all kinds of colourful townfolk. Although the song titles allude to Wilson's family history (“August's Moonstone,” for example), none of them is programmatic, and all were written so that they could function as stand-alone pieces. That said, subtle connections between them do arise: the opening and closing pieces, for example, present the same themes but do so in reverse order, and “Double Vision” also opens with a collage of motives presented throughout the suite.
The NDR band, whose first jazz concert occurred in May 1974, is in exemplary form throughout. With drummer Gary Husband aboard as a special guest and Wilson in the conducting chair, the musicians breathe the composer's pieces into life with flair and conviction, resulting in an irrepressibly swinging fifty-minute set of traditional big-band jazz guaranteed to satisfy fans of Gil Evans, Maria Schneider, Duke Ellington, and others. In keeping with the rural America theme, a dusty Old West feel sometimes emerges in the material, whether it be in the form of a laconic rhythm or bluesy stride. “Brother John's Vision” opens arrestingly with Felsch and Buechner doubling up on piccolo and clarinet before the horns appear with robust Evans-styled phrases. The bluesy ostinatos of pianist Boris Netsvetaev catch one's ear, as do the alto and sax solos taken by Felsch and Buechner, respectively, and one comes away from the performance impressed by the panoramic scope of the writing and the band's realization of it.
Felsch and Buechner might be the primary soloists, but they're hardly alone: guitarist Stephan Diez is a textural presence on “Major Fete,” and bluesy contributions from trumpeter Ingolf Burkhardt and trombonist Dan Gottshall are featured on “Chloe's Lamma.” Dynamically, the music ranges between loud declamatory passages and quieter episodes: there are moments during “Major Fete,” for instance, where the saxists' smoky purr might have you wistfully thinking of Ben Webster or Stan Getz; it's hard not to think of Evans, on the other hand, when those muted trumpets and luscious woodwinds send “August's Moonstone” on its way. Bringing such a large ensemble project to successful completion isn't without its challenges, as the composer and musicians must reconcile formal composition and jazz-based soloing in such a way that the results sound natural and, ideally, effortless. Interestingly, the playing of this rather large group often feels like that of a small outfit, especially during those hushed episodes where the music turns intimate.