Frank Carlberg Large Ensemble, "Monk Dreams, Hallucinations, and Nightmares" (Red Piano); Mary Halvorson Octet, "Away With You" (12 Records)
Hugely ambitious jazz ensemble playing is on these two records.
There are a couple selections on"Monk Dreams, Hallucinations and Nightmares" that are some of the greatest ensemble jazz recorded in 2016. Carlberg's freeform versions of Monk's "Ruby, My Dear" and "Round Midnight" are in the Gil Evans tradition of orchestral jazz and they're glorious. Monk's compositions are some of the greatest original repertoire in all of jazz. What Carlberg does on the best of his record is expand Monk's tunes and invent richly embroidered variations on them, while, at the same time, alluding to such direct musical relatives of Monk as Herbie Nichols. It is, we're told, informed by "awe of Monk" and "presented as an act of love and respect," all of which couldn't be more obvious in some of the most gorgeous Monk fantasias I've heard in many years. "I've just thought it fitting" says Carlberg "to present this recording in Monk's Centennal Year, 2017."
So, a little premature no doubt, but let the Monk Centennial begin. It's a good place for it. This orchestra does things to such classics as "Light Blue," "I Mean You," "Straight, No Chaser," "Ugly Beauty," "Ruby, My Dear" and "Misterioso' in re-compositions that are reminiscent of nothing you've previously heard. The finale is a beauteous version of Monk's most recorded and familiar tune, "Round Midnight" that is both stunning and original. Soloists from the band include Kirk Knuffke, Andrew Kolke and John O'Gallagher, among others, all of them proving that European Orchestras and Maria Schneider's bunch aren't the only great jazz orchestra in the 21st century.
The octet that guitarist Mary Halvorson has assembled on 'Away With You" is twice as large as the contingent that Halvorson will bring with her to the Albright-Knox Gallery for the Gallery's "Art of Jazz" series on Jan. 29. That Halvorson band, called "Reverse Blue" will be a quartet. Halvorson is the most unusual guitarist in contemporary jazz. She spent some years with Anthony Braxton and her octet is as ambitious as Carlberg's larger orchestra if not nearly as polished in sound or performance or as gorgeously orchestrated. Not surprisingly, three members of her band are female. Her most familiar musician is alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon who previously played an Art of Jazz Concert in the Gallery with the group Mostly Other People Do The Killing. Halvorson's atonal compositions are intellectual to put it mildly and often difficult to perform (so much so that the record's opener "Spirit Splitter" begins with a passing rough patch.) This is a jazz harmonic, melodic and climatic language grounded in Anthony Braxton, one of jazz' most committed and ambitious and difficult individualists. There are, nevertheless, moments of great beauty here.
3 1/2 stars (out of four) for Carlberg
3 stars (out of four) for Halvorson