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Aardvark exploits tonal options of orchestra jazz

Aardvark Jazz Orchestra
First Congregational Church, Cambridge.
Oct. 23.

By Dave Fox
Staff Reporter

The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, led by trumpeter and MIT lecturer Mark Harvey, is one of the most interesting groups on the Boston music scene. As befits the "orchestra" moniker, Aardvark is composed of no less than nineteen musicians (including Harvey), who play virtually all instruments ever associated with jazz music.

This gives Harvey as a composer immense flexibility in tonal options, which he exploits as fully as any big band composer ever has. Instead of the usual grouping of five saxes, four trombones, five trumpets, and a conventional rhythm section, Harvey has replaced the piano and several brass chairs with electric bass, french horn, and a dedicated hand drummer to produce a very exciting instrumentation. Coupled with Harvey's formidable composition skills, this makes for very exciting new music.

Saturday's concert was a CD release performance celebrating the release of Aardvark's first CD, Aardvark Steps Out (soon to be reviewed in this space). The concert was in two halves, with a short intermission. The first half consisted of pieces from the CD. (Unfortunately I missed this part because of my folly of driving to the Harvard Square venue.) The second half featured the premier of Harvey's ambitious long work "Passages/Psalms II," inspired by contemporary social justice issues.

The piece opened with some hand drumming (on a conventional drum kit) by Harry Wellott. This drumming was joined by hand clapping, and "hand drumming" by John Funkhouser on the body of his upright bass. Richard Nelson added the first melodic strains to the piece with random jazz guitar licks. To add to the mood-setting effect, various horn players embellished the sound with whistles, key slaps, and other rhythmic sounds. To complete the introduction, Funkhouser bowed his bass in a duet with the guitar, producing a haunting groove effect and setting the stage for the entrance of the horns.

The horn entrance was subtle, with the three trumpets (muted) playing against Phil Scarff's soprano sax. The trombones and bari sax played a counterpoint to the theme played by the trumpets. Scarff then played a soprano sax solo over the horns, in a somewhat understated fashion.

The overall effect of this section was rather muted and understated, but was completely changed by the simultaneous entrance of all thirteen horns. This was very dramatic, and was further intensified by a musical duel between Bob Pilkington's trombone and Marshall Sealy's French horn. As this duel went on, the established groove dissolved completely, leading to a full-out free jazz section.

A bit of digression. Free jazz is the commonly accepted term for non-precomposed music. As one might imagine, this is difficult to coordinate between a few musicians, let alone nineteen. (Or, "Anyone can play free jazz, but few can make it sound good!") Aardvark succeeds admirably in this respect, which gives Harvey's compositions an almost unrivaled intensity. Because of virtuosity among Aardvark's members, the individual musicians know how to use their own instrument to best convey to the mood Harvey intends. Thus, far from being a collection of nineteen competing voices, Aardvark's free jazz represents simultaneous improvisation which melds together to produce some of the most intense and thought-provoking new music being played today.

The free jazz section dissolved into coloration drumming by Wellott, featuring moody cymbal playing. Over this, two flutes and the trombones played a chorale-sounding line. The trumpets picked up this line, and Funkhouser played a bowed-bass solo line. This led to a bass trombone solo by Jeff Marsanskis, which was rather mournful. As Marsanskis wove a somber mood, Harvey picked up his trumpet and added some other-worldly, high-pitched half-valved effects, which resolved into a duet between the Harvey and Marsankskis.

After this, Peter Bloom played a wonderful unaccompanied bass flute solo. By running the sound through a two-octave doubler (an electronic effect), Bloom turned what is normally an unremarkable sound into a very arresting and dramatic solo. (As Bloom later told me, the bass flute is primarily heard on Jacques Cousteau programs when manta rays are featured, because the round, low tone implies slow and majestic movements.)Since he is primarily a flute player (and not a doubling saxophonist), he was able to play the unwieldy instrument with lightning speed to make an unforgettable jazz statement.

Near the end of the bass flute solo, Jeanne Snodgrass added a flugelhorn line. The flute dropped out, and Joel Springer added tenor sax to the flugelhorn line. After the addition of bari sax and trombone, the piece came to a momentary break, which was followed with a rather dirge-like line.

This led to an unaccompanied alto sax solo by Arni Cheatham (who is one of the best saxophonists in Boston). This solo featured flawless technique and dramatic dynamic changes to weave a rather somber mood. As Cheatham continued playing, the upright bass, drums, and other horns entered one by one. Cheatham's solo grew in complexity, which much use of the altissiomo range of the horn.

After all of the orchestra entered, there was another short break, which was followed by a rapid "hard bop" groove section featuring maniacal walking bass by Funkhouser. Brad Jones offered a nice bari sax solo, during which he pulled all the stops out. He used multiphonics and very high altissimo notes to great effect. The other horns entered under Jones' solo, and Jerry Edwards offered scat-style vocalizations, reminiscent of the African world-music standout Fela. This led to an intense trombone solo by Bob Pilkington. As he played his solo, the saxes played a line which began in harmony and expanded to harmony. The trumpets came in, and Pilkington concluded his solo. The piece ended on this rather subdued note.

To conclude the evening, Aardvark played "Freedom Song", which Harvey dedicated to the Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and F.W. DeKlerk. The piece began with a dramatic, quick bass trombone/bari sax vamp, to which the saxes added a nice counterpoint. The trumpets and trombones/french horns added their own counterpoint lines in turn, producing a pyramid effect.

When the pyramid was completed, the sound dissolved into an infectious groove. The trumpets (including Harvey) played a sweet-sounding line above the groove. This led to a dramatic French horn solo by Sealy, who performed flawless improvisation on the difficult-to-play horn. This lead to a reestablishment of the groove/trumpet melody to end the piece. The sound of this piece was rather African in nature, appropriate to Harvey's dedication.

Overall, the quality of this performance was exceptionally good. The sound in the small auditorium was quite good, with dynamic changes clearly discernable, and good balance. "Passages/Psalms II" is a major contemporary jazz statement, which should be recorded and which is deserving of a far wider audience than Saturday night's disappointing turnout. MIT is fortunate to be associated with a jazz composer as formidable as Mark Harvey. All serious jazz fans should hear Aardvark, as they are an important part of the activity at the frontiers of jazz music.