What a pleasure to the ear and soul it is to hear a large group of instruments played acoustically in the same room. Every nuance and colour-shade floats up, as bold and brassy or as transparently wispy as the composer and the instrumentalist intends, entirely uncorrupted by the distorting mirror of electronic sound reinforcement.

This has long been the intimate joy of acoustic jazz, but when that joy is made manifest by a 17-piece jazz big band, it can be truly a thing of wonder.

The Divergence Jazz Orchestra – the new large group put together by composer Jenna Cave and trombonist Paul Weber – is one such aural wonder. The band was launched at Petersham’s Bald Faced Stag and showed great strength, colour and balance. On the night they needed all the strength they could muster to combat the sirens wailing by on Parramatta Road and the thud of Lucy De Soto’s blues-rock band in the front bar (only a thin wall away – good timing, Bald Faced Stag…).

The distractions thankfully didn’t detract from the music of the Divergence Orchestra at all. Created to perform the works of Cave and other Australian jazz composers, the band is made up of some of Sydney’s brightest young players, which gives it a high-energy, bright-eyed attack, evident throughout the eleven tune set.

Opener, the aptly named ‘One Woman’s Day of Triumph’ roared the band into life, after being counted off by the pixie-like Cave. The enthusiasm of the group was evident from the first beat – they came out of the gate warmed up and ready to go – and carried through bristling solos from Chris O’Dea on baritone sax and Peter Koopman on guitar.

The Sammy Nestico-inspired ‘For Miro’ showed Cave’s swinging side with the band putting out a sweetly traditional sound, trumpeter Paul Meo playing a beautiful solo ‘in the cracks’. ‘And Then There Was One’ rocked between 7/4 and 6/4 timing without losing its latin-rock groove, Evan Atwell-Harris signifying on tenor.

One of the aims of the Divergence Orchestra is to give voice to the work of Australian jazz arranger-composers. Nadia Burgess’s crisply swinging ‘34 Degrees South’ was the first non-Cave choice for the night. Later in the set the band would play two tunes by Cameron Earl (conducted by the composer), ‘Run Run’ and ‘Ruby’s Tune’. All proved to anyone with ears that this music is alive and well and living in Australia.

Jenna Cave has a nice line in incorporating West African grooves in her arrangements. ‘A Stranger in Helsinki’ was based on a joyous township high-life jive that was infectious (we were here to listen but I saw every toe tapping) and taken to a far hotter place than Helsinki by Justin Buckingham’s weaving soprano solo. Later in the set every soloist in the band got to fun it up on Cave’s snaky 9/8 Afro-jump ‘Odd Time in Mali’, with drummer James McCaffrey ‘putting the pots on’ (as people far hipper than me are allowed to say).

The well-travelled Cave has drawn inspiration from her globe-trotting jazz odysseys. She is also a rare jazz arranger in that she hasn’t forgotten the power of rhythm. ‘Jazz Euphoria on Frenchmen Street’ finished the night on a jumping New Orleans hand-jive note, as funky as only a Nawlins-inspired gumbo can be.

The whole room smiled. The Parramatta Road sirens and Lucy De Soto’s blooz didn’t matter anymore; they had been blown far far away. The Divergence Jazz Orchestra had belied the fact that this was their first gig through a vibe of fun, happy work and collective groove. Long may they sail.

The Divergence Jazz Orchestra’s Facebook page is here.

Published August 2012 on theorangepress.net

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