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.
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.
‘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.
Read John’s interview with Jenna Cave here >