Hailed by critic Jim Macnie as a “think tank” of today’s leading jazz talent, the New Jazz Composers Octet (NJCO) is proud to release The Turning Gate, its first recording for the Motéma label and third album overall. Featuring ambitious new pieces by founder-trumpeter David Weiss, pianist Xavier Davis, saxophonist Myron Walden and bassist Dwayne Burno, the album once again “stretches hard bop’s kind-of-unstretchable formula” (Macnie) and points the jazz “mainstream” toward a new horizon.
Much of the music on The Turning Gate is the fruit of prestigious grants from Chamber Music America’s Doris Duke Jazz Ensembles Project: New Works Creation and Presentation. Among the funded works are two tracks conceived by Weiss: his own “The Turning Gate,” inspired by an old Korean legend that “happiness is just around the corner, always out of reach”; and “Bad Alchemy,” by the ’70s avant-rock band Henry Cow, an eccentric source well beyond the comfort zone of most jazz musicians, but incisively arranged by Weiss and beautifully performed by the Octet.
Also funded by CMA is Xavier Davis’ “The Faith Suite,” a remarkable six-movement opus, with each movement “representing a different type of faith or lack of faith,” according to Davis (the first composer to win the CMA award twice). The suite portrays faith as ancient, humbling and doubt-inducing, but also able to inspire great feats of courage and devotion. In these six movements one hears the sheer breadth and depth of the Octet’s ability and dynamic range. There are fiery solo statements by trombonist Steve Davis, tenor/soprano saxophonist Jimmy Greene, baritone saxophonist Norbert Stachel, alto saxophonist Myron Walden, drummer Nasheet Waits and of course Xavier Davis himself.
Completing the program is Dwayne Burno’s romantic ballad “Once,” featuring leader Weiss in an exceptionally poignant solo; and Myron Walden’s “Onward,” which proceeds from a breathtaking chorale-like introduction to the main body of the tune, closing the album in high spirits. Here and throughout the date we hear Weiss’ gift as a producer, his yen for “building a rhythmic geography, conjuring a particular emotional landscape, offering an important role to each member” (Macnie) — qualities that have informed every NJCO outing to date.
Founded in 1996, the New Jazz Composers Octet came about to nurture the skills and explore the ever-expanding musical capabilities of all its members in a cooperative setting. Starting from a deep commitment to the timeless harmonic language and improvisational ethos of the 1960s Blue Note era and beyond, the NJCO debuted on record in 1999 with First Steps into Reality, picked by Doug Ramsey as a top-five CD of the year. Walkin’ the Line followed in 2003 and received a top-ten nod from Tony Hall in Jazzwise. Thomas Conrad of Jazz Times has praised the band’s “acutely intelligent charts” and “post-modern, open, asymmetrical structures.” As author Howard Mandel wrote in his liner notes to Walkin’ the Line: “[The NJCO] proposes that the future springs forth from a recent, still-immediate past; that the idiom of small group acoustic modernism conveys exceptionally elegant, liberated and meaningful music, nearly 50 years since its first bloom….”
It makes perfect sense, then, that the NJCO has served as a touring and recording band for the great Freddie Hubbard for the past decade, appearing with the trumpet legend on 2001’s New Colors and this year’s On the Real Side, which garnered Hubbard an appearance on the June 2008 cover of Downbeat (the Octet figures prominently in the article, of course).
Weiss’ connection to the living masters of our time doesn’t stop there. He has played a catalyst role in the renaissance of Charles Tolliver, appearing on the trumpeter’s highly acclaimed 2006 big-band comeback With Love (and a forthcoming live album for Half Note). In addition, Weiss is also the driving force behind The Cookers, a working unit featuring himself with greats Billy Harper, Eddie Henderson, James Spaulding, George Cables, Cecil McBee and Billy Hart. Weiss also devotes himself to nourishing younger talents, such as guitarist Nir Felder and bassist Luques Curtis, as leader of the Point of Departure Quintet, which explores and expands the edgy repertoire of the late ’60s in continuous sets without breaks. One of New York’s most in-demand arrangers as well, Weiss has honed his talent and conceptual rigor at the helm of a Wayne Shorter tribute big band known as Endangered Species, which features several members of the NJCO.
In addition to Weiss, the NJCO boasts some of the most accomplished figures on the current scene. Greene and Davis are both veterans of the Tom Harrell Quintet. Burno has distinguished himself in bands led by Roy Haynes, Bobby Hutcherson, Roy Hargrove and countless others. Walden does knockout work in the Brian Blade Fellowship, while Waits performs with everyone from Jason Moran to Fred Hersch to Peter Brötzmann. Steve Davis served in the final edition of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and went on to appear with Chick Corea’s Origin, Jackie McLean, Eric Alexander and many more. Stachel, a prolific session player (Tower of Power, Neil Diamond, Roger Waters), has been heard to great effect recently with Peter Apfelbaum’s New York Hieroglyphics.
Together, as Bret Primack has argued, the NJCO demonstrates that “jazz isn’t history, but alive and well.” It’s never been more clearly apparent than on The Turning Gate, new from Motéma Music.
Motéma Music (motema.com) is proud to add The Turning Gate to its rich jazz catalog, which also includes acclaimed releases by Rufus Reid, Marc Cary, Lynne Arriale, Ryan Cohan, Pete Levin, Roni Ben-Hur and more. Motéma’s mission to provide creative, comprehensive and intelligent career support for artists with extraordinary levels of accomplishment and the proven ability to reach across the footlights to move people’s souls.
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