Big band free jazz is more than discordant noise.
Matt Lavelle’s 12 Houses – Solidarity [TrackList follows] – Unseen Rain UR-9945, 48:52 [5/6/16] ****:
(Matt Lavelle – cornet, Flugelhorn, alto clarinet, conductor; Lee Odom – soprano sax, clarinet; Charles Waters – alto sax, clarinet; Ras Moshe Burnett – soprano sax, tenor sax, flute, bells; Tim Stocker – baritone sax, bass clarinet; Mary Cherney – flute, piccolo; Claire de Brunner – bassoon; Chris Forbes – piano; Laura Ortman – violin; Gil Selinger – cello; Anders Nillson – guitar; Jack DeSalvo – banjo, mandola; John Pietaro – vibraphone, percussion; François Grillot – doublebass; Ryan Sawyer – drums; Anaïs Maviel – voice)
Matt Lavelle likes to use the fullest spectrum of instruments as possible. The multi-horns player (cornet, Flugelhorn and alto clarinet) includes 16 musicians on Solidarity, his debut as the leader/conductor of 12 Houses. Lavelle also penned the six originals. Instead of pursuing a typical jazz big band or large ensemble approach, Lavelle focuses on sweeping improvising, with cues provided by his compositional writing. In other words, while there are moments of melodic, lyrical and harmonic construction, there are many more where instrumentalists apply elements of free jazz or open soloing.
Lavelle’s preliminary plan was to employ 12 musicians, embodying the 12 zodiacal signs. But he felt he could further supplement his music, so the group enlarged, and the opportunities for a range of sounds widened. This broad technique is heard on the 12-minute title track opener. Massed horns (clarinet, Flugelhorn, saxes, flute, bassoon and piccolo) are balanced alongside piano, a strings unit, guitar, vibes, bass and drums. Different players enter and leave during the lengthy tune, so sometimes the horns drop out, or the rhythm section is spotlighted. Throughout, there are striking touches from the horns, strings and rhythm instruments, which span from bright to dissonant. There is close to a constant sense of eddying as the band progresses from slow to a quicker pacing, and various solo or smaller instrument groupings create distinct portions among the greater whole.
One of the standouts is the nine-minute “Cherry Swing,” a tribute to the late Don Cherry, who initially came to prominence with Ornette Coleman but whose perceptions on improvisation came to the fore on his solo releases. “Cherry Swing,” Lavelle says, “represents the absolute core of my personal philosophy that free jazz never abandoned everything that made jazz what it is. Free jazz, set jazz free to be itself. Everything that makes jazz what it is, and why it’s so great, is even more important to strive for in free jazz.” Lavelle is upfront on cornet, emulating and echoing Cherry’s manner and musical viewpoint, while bass and drums craft a swinging foundation. Vibes are lower in the mix, inserting coloring to the percussive perspective. Banjo appears as well when Jack DeSalvo solos. For the most part, “Cherry Swing” is not a bigger-band setting, although the horns come in toward the conclusion to supply a discordant ending. Another memorable piece is “Knee Braces,” which indicates Lavelle’s issues with knee problems. The nearly ten-minute “Knee Braces” has a melancholy, almost dark nature exemplified by the reflective introduction. The arrangement becomes truly haunting when violinist Laura Ortman takes over, with extended dim tones which are at times reiterated by Gil Selinger’s cello. Ortman shapes a tender emotional magnetism throughout “Knee Braces,” even when other strings and the horns are occasionally utilized.
Minimalism is supported on the brief, 2:51 “Moonflower Interlude,” a solo spot for bassoonist Claire de Brunner. Lavelle states, this “is a song sung by a secret society of little white flowers that only bloom in the moonlight.” The most poignant piece is the 9:33 “Faith,” dedicated to Lavelle’s mother, who miraculously survived three brain surgeries. Chris Forbes’ introductory piano sets the mood, which sways from peaceful remembrance to a hymn-like invocation accentuated by hand-clapping, Anaïs Maviel’s non-verbal voice, and DeSalvo’s banjo; and from frictional improvising to lyrical asides. Everyone in the ensemble contributes to build up a celebratory responsiveness. Forbes’ gentle solo piano adds the finishing sensitivity. “Faith” is a fully-formed sketch of a deeply-loved personality, and comprises the many feelings one has when thinking about an individual’s life. On Solidarity, Lavelle’s ambition to incorporate composition and improvisation, to stay true to his central philosophy, and to balance melodicism with free jazz has resulted in a commanding debut for his 12 Houses group.
TrackList: Solidarity; Brooklyn Mountain; Knee Braces; Cherry Swing; Moonflower Interlude; Faith.