Anyone who thought the big band was dead — or, at the very least, hopelessly mired in the amber of nostalgia — would have to reconsider that position after witnessing the adventurous program at this Texaco Jazzfest showcase.
Henry Threadgill is one of the few modern artists able to move readily between jazz’s more difficult and accessible regions, and his Society Situation Dance Band straddles the line between the two. While probably best-known for his sax playing, Threadgill donned the conductor’s mantle here, spiritedly guiding the 20-plus musicians through six compositions bright enough to break through the thick fog that shrouded the semi-outdoor venue.
Throughout the early part of the set, Threadgill engaged his brass and string sections in lively thrust and parry bouts, lending a stylized, Deco air to the ensemble playing. The soloists acquitted themselves well, too, particularly trombonist Osvaldo Melendez and saxophonist John Stubblefield.
The focus shifted — and intensified — when vocalist Amina Claudine Myers took the stage for a pair of lengthy vocal numbers. She’s a remarkably gifted singer, capable of tempering immense power with unusual restraint, as on “Spin of the Wind.” While it would have been more intriguing to hear Threadgill incorporate some of his further reaching ideas, the assembled combo couldn’t be faulted on its ability to groove, and that’s the criteria a dance band should be judged on.
Butch Morris is probably the most longstanding practitioner of avant jazz conducting, and while he generally keeps a loose rein on an ensemble of collective improvisers, Holy Ghost gave listeners a chance to see that Morris is also capable of doing a little dance called the tighten up.
The large group wasn’t exactly adhering to a strict script, but there was a sense of cohesion that’s often absent in Morris’ work; that togetherness, oddly, gave the two pieces performed a more playful feeling than the composer’s often cold, overly cerebral material. Morris pulled out a number of new tricks here, both successfully (DJ Singe proved masterful in her electronic manipulation) and less productively (the passages of funk rock heaviness fell flat).