If big band jazz began on dance hall stages, it didn’t take long to move up to the concert hall. It was a move that offered musicians new possibilities. Danceable swing was great, but the concert hall offered them the place to compete with the kind of music that was considered more serious. As early as 1924, Paul Whiteman and George Gershwin had famously shown them the way when “Rhapsody in Blue” was premiered at New York City’s Aeolian Hall. And while Benny Goodman took his orchestra to the Carnegie Hall stage in 1938, there was swinging dance music aplenty; there were concert pieces—most notably a 12-minute version of “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)”—as well. And if economics made the big dance band something of a dinosaur after the ’40s, concert jazz bands had better luck—think Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, and Miles Davis’s work with Gil Evans.
While there is clearly some growing momentum these days to resurrect the big dance band as seen in recent releases by Bernt Rosengren and Joe Clark, Culture, the new album from trumpeter/composer John Vanore and his unique 12-piece ensemble, Abstract Truth is clearly intended as an innovative voice in the concert band mode. This is not dance music. As Vanore says about Curiosity, an earlier album, and the creation of the band: “It was decided to write for and create a ‘new’ group, based on the concept of the intimacy of a small group with the fire power of a big band.” In the liner notes to the new album, Vanore explains the group’s aesthetic: “Abstract Truth defines our voice by presenting a uniquely instrumental large ensemble, where the solo voice is prominent, if not dominant … drawing on the traditions of the big band, but neither limited by nor imitating it.”
Unique seems to be the key term to describe the band. Brass dominates. Aside from Vanore’s trumpet, personnel includes four more trumpeters who double on the flugelhorn, a French horn, a trombone, and a bass trombone. Add two reed players, a guitar, bass and drums, and a pianist and a bass clarinetist are featured on a few of the tracks. It is easy to see that unique is certainly an apt descriptor; this is a band that has a sound all its own.
Culture has nine tracks—six composed by Vanore and one by band member Kevin Rodgers. The album is bookended by a Vanore arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” and “Mompou,” his adaptation of Federico Mompou’s “Canción #5.” The center piece of the album is Vanore’s “Easter Island Suite,” a three-part “culturescape,” if I can coin a term, which “looks into the mystery and myth of a culture that left us hundreds of statues and many unanswered questions.” It is perhaps the best indication of the album’s focus on what it calls “storytelling” through the abstraction of sound.
In many respects it is a jazz master’s take on 19th century program music, the kind of thing appropriate to the concert hall. Indeed the sections are called movements. The first movement, “Discovery” features George Barnett on French horn, Craig Thomas on bass and Mike Falcone on tenor sax (although Falcone is never mentioned in the list of personnel). It, like the other movements, is a clear illustration of the band’s emphasis on the dominating soloist. “Gods & Devils,” with Vanore on trumpet and Bob Howell on tenor sax, is the second movement, and the third, “The Secret Caves,” has Howell on soprano sax, Michael Mee on alto flute and Brian Landrus on bass clarinet. If music can tell a story through sound, the “Easter Island Suite” does it. Although as with much program music, it’s not clear that all listeners hear the same story.
Shorter’s “Footprints” opens the album with a good indication of what’s to come, taking the familiar piece and setting off in a dynamic new direction. “Mompou” ends it with a short nod to what Vanore calls an “homage to the great influence of Spanish music on jazz.” “Whispers of Spring,” “The Arsenal” and Rodgers’ “Parallax” complete the album’s playlist.
If you like your jazz innovative, cerebral at times, at times instinctual, or if you appreciate the attempt to make the abstract concrete, John Vanore and Abstract Truth is a band you’ll want to hear, and Culture is an album you’ll find right up your alley.