Jazz fads and styles may come and go but the thrill of the big band – like Classic Rock, ABBA or Mozart – will never go away. To experience the heavy impasto textures or watercolour washes of a large jazz ensemble is a buzz like no other.

Importantly, the Big Band sound harks back to a time when jazz was King (yes, kidz, a Jazz Age!) yet, at the same time, suggests a future maybe not entirely Pro-Tooled and Auto-Tuned into meek submission.

Jenna Cave and Paul Weber’s Divergence Jazz Orchestra is one of Australia’s keepers of the big band flame. More power to them.

And now we have their (astonishing) debut, The Opening Statement.

divergence2

Of course, quality – of conception, arrangement and execution – is where it’s at. This is not a nostalgia trip (if it is only that, it deserves to wither and drop) – it is music of Here and Now. Luckily, the Divergence band has arranger Cave at the helm and an astonishing array of Australia’s best and brightest to breathe (literally, in the case of the horns) life into her brilliant charts.

Check opener, ‘A Stranger In Helsinki’ – a snappy (and snapping) chart based on a nimble guitar figure (like the later tune ‘Odd Time In Mali’). The noticeable lack of piano across The Opening Statement allows a greater range of dynamics – Luke Liang’s guitar solos and comps in a lighter way, with those slightly odd guitar voicings, allowing all nuance and colour of the horns to remain at the forefront.

This is apparent in the multi-part suite ‘Dear Miss Upstill’ – one of Cave’s most idiosyncratic and adventurous charts. Led by Wil Gilbert’s understated flugelhorn, the piece grows from a melancholy prelude through a punchy middle section – with smart and funky tenor from Michael Avgenicos – back into a translucently pretty restatement. The arrangement has no fat or flab, reinforcing Cave’s skill and great ear for economy and emotional trajectory. Gilbert shines on this track and across The Opening Statement – def a player to watch.

‘And Then There Was One’ is also built on a spidery guitar figure – 7/4 then 6/4 and back again, but hey who’s counting? – and features a sharp drum break from James McCaffrey, messing with the horn riff to great effect. Cave’s arrangement keeps the rhythm section to the fore, never forgetting – unlike too many contemporary large ensemble arrangers – that rhythm is King, which is one of the many delights of her charts all over The Opening Statement.divergence3

‘Jazz Euphoria on Frenchman Street’, a chart inspired by Cave’s visit to Where-It-All-Began, New Orleans, draws out some tasty/dirty blues guitar from Liang and some real joy-in-the-telling from the band. It also reinforces Jenna Cave’s – and through her, the Divergence Jazz Orchestra’s – commitment to the tradition of jazz and the big band expression of the past, and the future. It’s a beautiful thing.

Title track, ‘The Opening Statement’ (nice title for a confident debut, n’est-ce pas?) is pure modernist tones spread across the pallet of the ensemble. The writing is clear, aquatint and astringent and speaks to me of cities and streets and bars, with neon reflecting off wet nighttime streets. It also is a very beautiful reminder of the entirely original voice of the Divergence Jazz Orchestra.

Closing track ‘Odd Time In Mali’ holds a special place in me – I first saw Sydney’s all-woman Sirens Big Band, when Cave was their altoist-arranger, grapple with its tricksy Afro-Jazz 9/8 rhythm at their inaugural gig a couple of years back and it made me prick up my ears to this young arranger on the block, Jenna Cave.

Smoothing out to straight 4’s for a range of solo workouts (Weber trom, Matt Collins tpt, Josh Willard alto, David Groves bass and McCaffrey dms), ‘Odd Time In Mali’ seems to encapsulate the joy, chops and colour of the Divergence Jazz Orchestra.

The Opening Statement is, all up, one hell of an opening statement from a group that – it is apparent – has a hell of lot more to say. I, for one, am all ears for anything else they want to shout my way.

 

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Prior to posting this review I asked Jenna Cave a handful of questions. Here are her responses:

 

John Hardaker:  What was the spark that led to the formation of The Divergence Jazz Orchestra?

Jenna Cave: For so long it was one of those “dream scenario” fantasies that seemed impossible but that I couldn’t get out of my head. I remember about 7 years ago (when I was 22) I had a saxophone student who was about ten or fifteen years older than me. I think he thought it was inspiring that I was a musician.  He asked me “If you could do anything with music, what would you do, ultimate dream scenario” I thought for a minute and just blurted out of nowhere “to have my own big band that I get to compose for”. On election night 2010 one of my friends had a house party and a bunch of musicians were there. Paul Weber and I were chatting and he told me he wanted to form a big band, then I said ” Hey! I want to form a big band”. By the end of the night we’d pretty much decided we were going to form a big band together down the track. Then when we both had some time to dedicate to it in 2012, so it began.

JH: To compose, organise, record and perform with a jazz orchestra is a huge undertaking. What is the rush that makes it all more than worthwhile?

JC: I love composing. I love getting in the creative zone where all that exists is you, and the music in your imagination. It’s a fun place to be. Having your music performed really well, especially when it carries forth your emotional intentions, is an incredible feeling. For me there is no better way to express how I experience the world.

JH: The band is pretty much packed with some of the best and brightest of today’s young players. Do you seek them out or do they gravitate towards you? 

JC: When we started the band Paul and I had many a long discussion about who to recruit. In the end the bulk of the band we first put together were in the Con big band when we were both there (Paul doing jazz trombone, myself doing masters in composition). As time went on some players moved on as people do, and the new players we got on board tended to be people we knew and had worked with, or that other people in the band had worked with. Rapport is very important, considering we don’t rehearse all the time, existing musical relationships are very handy to draw from. Equally, it’s important to have players who are willing and keen to put in the group rehearsal hours. Even if someone is a great player, if they don’t want to be a team player there’s not much point with what we are doing here.

JH: Your compositions have always struck me as highly original in concept – where do they come from?

JC: I have heaps of influences, there so much music I love. But I don’t think this inspires me to go and write music to sound like those musicians. I mean sometimes ill like a groove and want to write something with that feel, but mostly other people’s music just opens up my imagination to all the possibilities. So when I compose I just sit down and write what I’d like to hear.

Sometimes this can take me a long time, because ill have a vague concept in my head of a sound that I imagined, but then actually getting that on to paper can take a lot of fumbling until you can hear it clearly. It’s very exciting composing this way though. It means you are following your instincts and intuition which is a lovely way to express yourself and have your own voice.

JH: What are your thoughts on the state of large jazz ensemble musical  today?

JC: There seems to be a fair bit happening!

JH: What are your thoughts on mainstream music in general today?

Not much, I don’t really follow it. Occasionally there’s something mainstream that I will really enjoy, but mostly I just listen to music that catches my ear.

 

Published October 2103 on australianjazz.net 

 

 

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