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David Sanford leads impressive big band in ‘Art of Jazz’

David Sanford is an interesting composer and an unconventional jazz artist. Although he didn’t play a specific instrument in Sunday’s “Art of Jazz” concert at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Sanford’s greatest “instrument” is the big band he conducts. He leads musicians with gesticulations that wouldn’t be out of place if he was directing a symphony orchestra through passages from Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, etc., etc.

Sanford gathered together the elements for his big band from around the country, securing talented musicians, many of them from Western New York, to play challenging charts before an appreciative audience.

Jon Nelson, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s “Art of Jazz” series producer, is responsible for having brought Sanford and his ideas to Buffalo. The two men already had a long-standing relationship by virtue of Nelson’s championing Sanford’s music via the former’s membership in the Meridian Arts Ensemble, a brass and wind based group whose repertoire ranges from the Baroque to Frank Zappa and beyond.

The results unveiled weren’t typical jazz tropes although the dressing may have made them seem that way. This is what you get when there are 20 talented musicians playing together and the script allows the soloists to play with the dialog in different and exciting ways.

Much of the material heard during this program began with one or two players setting the scene for the others to build on. Percussionists set rhythms for a base, saxophones piled ideas onto one another while trumpets and trombones shouted in the chorus as the leader, from the best spot in the house, urged his forces into the next exploration.

The concert opener, “Fenwick,” highlighted tenor saxophonist Andy Weinzler’s heated riffing while the closer, “Full Immersion,” spotlighted the ferocious trombone playing of Jim Messbauer. Sandwiched between those sterling performances were praiseworthy efforts by drummer John Bacon Jr. (especially in the ballad “Una Notte all’ Opera” and quickly paced “Alchemy”), the entire saxophone section (Weinzler, Ted Levine, Ken Kuriscak, Brian Tervo and Bruce Johnstone) and the trumpet corps (Nelson, Brad Goode, Tim Leopold, Mark Filsinger and the masterful Hugh Ragin).

This was the last concert in the “Art of Jazz” season and all indications bode well for the future. There was some doubt that the program would have another season after longtime producer Bruce Eaton, who set the event on its noteworthy path, left. But Nelson’s appointment and funding by Hunt Real Estate have continued the tradition.

The “Art of Jazz” has proven to be a worthy addition to the area’s cultural calendar and deserving of all the accolades it has been given. Jazz fans should be hopeful that its future is assured.

Concert Review

What: David Sanford’s Pittsburgh Collective

Where: Sunday afternoon at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery

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