Fuse Music Review — The New World Jazz Composers Octet: Big Ideas, Small Boxes

With musicians of the NWJCO’s caliber, there never was a question that the music would be performed well in concert. It’s more that, after living with this repertoire for almost a year, the players took greater possession of the music and made it more their own, even in performance of the written material.

By Steve Elman.

Several contemporary jazz musicians define their work more in “project” terms than was customary for their predecessors. Dave Douglas, for example, has almost made a career out of changing hats—he plays music in a variety of genres, using different group names, pursuing diverse artistic goals.

Reedman Daniel Ian Smith has also parceled out his music into projects.  I confess that I knew him only by reputation until I had the chance to hear Transitions, the second CD by his New World Composers Jazz Octet (NWCJO), and to see the group in performance at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown, MA. This little band makes really satisfying music, and I’m glad I’ve caught up to them.

The NWJCO is hardly an ego venture. If Smith is one of the band’s featured soloists (on alto, soprano, baritone, and flute), so too is the redoubtable trumpeter Ken Cervenka, and it’s apparent that Smith admires Cervenka’s work enough to provide him with plenty of solo space. In addition, the band serves as a vehicle to spotlight small-group compositions by musicians other than Smith himself; in fact, Ted Pease, who is much admired for his percussion work and in more recent years for his composing, has come to be the ninth member of the octet—providing a significant part of the band’s book and helping to produce their recordings.

If you’re looking for a pigeonhole, then you might consider this a Berklee band. Smith has taught at Berklee for more than 15 years; percussionist Ernesto Diaz and Ken Cervenka teach there as well; Pease is one of the faculty’s most distinguished retirees. On the new CD, Dino Govoni, also a Berklee faculty member, fills the second reed chair and Matthew Nicholl, chair of Berklee’s Contemporary Writing and Production Department, contributes two compositions.

But Smith has filled out the rest of the band with a diverse quartet: Keala Kaumeheiwa spent two years as the bassist of the Thelonious Monk Institute at the New England Conservatory(NEC); trumpeter Walter Platt is on the faculty of UMass Lowell; the newest member, reedman Felipe Salles, is from Brazil via New York; and finally, there is Tim Ray, whose resume is so broad and varied that he could be considered the area’s Piano Everyman.

The New World Jazz Composers Octet. Photo: Matt McKee

The Octet emerged from Smith’s Big and Phat big band. It began its separate existence some 10 and a half years ago in the Jazz in the Sanctuary series in Brookline (which Smith produces at the Church of Our Saviour). By now, though there have been a number of personnel shifts along the way, it has an easy identity not just as a Smith project but as a team of congenial players. And the presence of Ernesto Diaz, a marvelous and original percussionist, means that the tunes frequently have an agreeable Latin feel.

But in performance, it’s apparent that there’s a unifying quality in the choice of compositions as well. The material Smith selects to perform—whether by Pease, Nicholl, NEC faculty member Ken Schaphorst, Jeff Friedman (also a Berkleeite, if you’re counting), or other less-well-known writers—isn’t just theme-solos-theme stuff. It recalls some of the great Blue Note larger-group sessions, where you could be pleasantly surprised by a second theme emerging after a round of improvs, or an interesting horn figure creeping in under a solo, or an unexpected rhythmic shift. It’s music that moves from A to C to J, not just from A to B and back to A.

As for the specifics, the CD, Transitions, was recorded last year in the studios of WGBH. The program moves from strong, straight-ahead tunes to more adventurous material, taking breaks for short, free-improv interludes that spotlight the individual players. At the Arsenal Center for the Arts on October 25, Smith called for the group to duplicate the CD program, more or less.

Is the Arsenal Center’s Black Box an ideal music venue? No. The resonances of the room muddied Kaumeheiwa’s bass sound, and the flatness of the acoustics did not help the horn blend. But any new outlet for jazz is welcome, plenty of convenient parking is provided, a steep rake in the space gives almost everyone a great view, and the 100-person capacity ensures an intimate feel.

Guitarist John Baboian is booking the Berklee Jazz series at the Arsenal Center’s Black Box, and this fall’s last concert will feature him and Rakalam Bob Moses on drums as part of Daryl Lowery’s Instant! Groove (November 15, 7:30 p.m.).

With musicians of the NWJCO’s caliber, there never was a question that the music would be performed well in concert. It’s more that, after living with this repertoire for almost a year, the players took greater possession of the music and made it more their own, even in performance of the written material.

I enjoyed having two bites at this particular apple. When I first heard the CD, Nicholl’s “Without a Paddle” yielded immediate pleasure with its funk beat and strong solos, and Cervenka’s smart and witty spot on Schaphorst’s “Bats” made me smile. On the strength of the live show, I discovered aspects of the music I had overlooked. Actually seeing the logistical challenges Nicholl presents to the horns in “Komla’s Saudade,” where the reed players move from flutes to saxes and the trumpeters double on flugelhorn and juggle their mutes, gave me a new appreciation of how much tone color is available to the band and how gracefully the players manage transitions within tunes. Only on hearing Pease’s “Triple Play” in performance did I realize how it draws again and again on the rhythmic pattern (not the chords) of “Autumn in New York.” And when I returned to the CD after the concert, I wondered how I’d glossed over Smith’s snappy bari solo on Edgar Dorantes’s “Transition.”

Smith began the performance with a moment of silence for the late Marion Brown, and he made one notable substitution, reviving Jeff Friedman’s “Nocturnal,” a 24-bar, altered blues the band recorded on their first CD, No Place to Hide. This made it regrettably necessary to cut Pease’s “Spring Rounds,” with its intriguing use of thematic material from Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”

Upcoming gigs: The Octet plays at the Rivers School in Weston,MA, on November 20 at 8 p.m., as part of the school’s annual jazz festival and at the Lily Pad Gallery in Inman Square, Cambridge, on December 5, at 6 p.m. They’ll also play a radio concert on WGBH on December 8, at 9 p.m., as part of Eric Jackson’s “Eric in the Evening” program.

A grab bag of other impressions follows: Smith has developed admirably distinctive voices for each of his solo instruments, which is no small feat. Ernesto Diaz uses a good deal more palm than other conga players I’ve heard, which gives his sound a warm intimacy. Keala Kaumeheiwa has the greatest of all bass gifts—taste. Drummer Steve Langone has a firm touch when he’s supporting the band and a coherent solo voice when the spotlight shifts to him. Felipe Salles was so good in performance that I forgot it was his first night with the band. Tim Ray is a wonder; how can any one pianist authoritatively cover so much, both creatively and stylistically? And what a pleasure it is to hear Ken Cervenka: the guy is a master storyteller, a superbly original, creative talent.

From an organizational point of view, I’m not convinced that the interludes of free improvisation are a successful idea, on the CD or in concert. It’s not that the soloists don’t negotiate this idea well. Tim Ray demonstrates, both on the CD and in person, that this is a form at which he excels. And the live performance gave us at least two other memorable free excursions—the four horn players cooked up a thrilling, blue-tinted two minutes, and Smith, playing alto, and Kaumeheiwa created a somber spot that felt like a requiem near the end of the show before “Triple Play” (were they again thinking of Marion Brown?).

My problem with this idea is what it asks of the audience, particularly on the CD. For the most part, these interludes are not introductions or codas to the composed works; rather than providing transitions, they are 90-degree turns in the musical flow. When listeners must repeatedly shift orientation from large form to small and then again from spontaneous creation to long-form construction, it taxes the aesthetic muscles. If Smith had asked me, I would have suggested knitting all the free-form spots into a suite at the center of the concert so that we could concentrate for an extended period on the players’ free skills.

But that’s a small matter, really. You can listen to any one of the tracks on Transitions by itself and be completely satisfied. Or you can see the New World Jazz Composers Octet in performance and enjoy the ride.


  1. Daniel Ian Smith on November 8, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    Greetings from Xalapa, Mexico Steve! So nice to receive word of this while I’m here at the international festival JAZZUV here in Mexico. Thanks for the thoughtful words about my group. I’m do proud of this band and hope the word gets out even more. Nice to know you were listening!! Many thanks.
    Daniel Ian Smith

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