Modern, large ensemble jazz from an under appreciated composer/conductor.
Don’t use the term big band jazz when it comes to arranger/conductor and trombonist Ed Neumeister. True, he utilizes many musicians on his self-released and fan-funded album, Wake Up Call. Twenty, to be exact (including Neumeister). This is modern, forward-veering large ensemble jazz in the same context as fellow conductor’s Michael Gibbs, Maria Schneider or Gil Evans. Think of the NDR Big Band as another likeminded large ensemble. Neumeister is a veteran of major big bands of the 1980s including the Duke Ellington Orchestra led by Mercer Ellington; Lionel Hampton; Buddy Rich; and Gerry Mulligan. He was a student of Bob Brookmeyer. And he was part of the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra (now the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra) from 1981 to 1999. The 67-minute Wake Up Call is Neumeister’s first studio recording with the NeuHat Ensemble. He formed a different version of the NeuHat Ensemble in 1983, and has previously written for the group, but Wake Up Call marks the debut of both Neumeister and his NeuHat Ensemble together on a CD.
Neumeister’s eight compositions focus on melodic and harmonic development rather than as an outlet for multiple solos. Neumeister is more concerned with musical storytelling than just providing an arena for improvisation. For sure, there are soloists, but the music is more orchestral and less about individuals. The opener, “Birds of Prey,” is through-composed, which means the piece is comparatively continuous, non-sectional and/or non-repetitive. Don’t expect traditional verse-chorus-verse structures with Neumeister. “Birds of Prey” shifts peacefully along with persuasive percussion and melodic advancements which arrive in sections. Different instruments move in and out with detailed nuances from massed horns, electric guitar, and double bass. Despite numerous instruments, the arrangement is clear, not dense. There’s some similarity to what Duke Ellington did with his arrangements, although no one will mistake “Birds of Prey” for an Ellington tune. Beginning with the second track, Neumeister begins to feature specific players. Clarinetist Billy Drewes is the star on the suitably witty “Dog Play,” an eight-minute cut which echoes Ellington in nature and form due to a wafting melody and the use of the clarinet, which recalls older jazz conventions.
Neumeister gets much more contemporary on the nearly nine-minute “New Groove,” fronted by tenor saxophonist Rich Perry. The ensemble sustains a lifting cadence—highlighted by John Riley’s drumming, especially his cymbals—which is bolstered by David Berkman’s piano and Hans Glawischnig’s bass. Perry’s sax sololing is filigreed and nicely interlaced with the pulsing orchestrations. Another type of influence can be heard on the lengthy, 11:21 opus, “Locomotion.” In the liner notes writer Bill Kirchner states “Locomotion” is dedicated to John Coltrane. Although Neumeister’s original shares a title with Coltrane’s tune of the same name (see Coltrane’s 1957 LP, Blue Train) the harmonies heard during “Locomotion” are based on Coltrane’s 1965 composition “Dear Lord.” Kirchner describes the driving “Locomotion” as “a melodic bolero” and it showcases Dick Oatts’ striking tenor sax as well as Neumeister’s warm-toned trombone. There’s also an advanced progression to the nearly nine-minute “Processize,” a fugue-based and popping piece which Kirchner explains is purposely reminiscent of some West Coast jazz artists such as Jimmy Giuffre, Bill Holman and others. Listeners might be able to notice how Neumeister uses counterpoint and dissonance in subtle yet distinctive ways, akin to what Holman created. Berkman is the main attraction on “Processize,” and manages to capture the cut’s melodic flair regardless of the sometimes-knotty arrangement.
The CD’s midpoint is consciously moodier. Neumeister designates the aptly-titled “Reflection” as a slowly-evolving “concerto for jazz orchestra.” The 9:21 composition is introspective but also compelling. Oatts (on tenor sax) and trombonist Larry Farrell are the soloists on this meditative tune, where a kind of orchestrated pressure is intensified by cyclic lines which vary rather than stay the same. Dissonance and a sense of being unsettled suffuses several sections. Oatts takes the first solo segment, and then Farrell does a second solo portion. The shorter “Deliberation” is less tension-filled and more upbeat then “Reflection.” Alto saxophonist Mark Gross puts in a swinging solo and Neumeister utilizes a plunger to generate a unique, vocalized trombone scatting sound. Neumeister and the NeuHat Ensemble conclude with the animated title track, another through-composed number which Neumeister says, “Is positive in nature” and reflects his confidence, “That someday we will be living in peace and prosperity without violent conflict against our fellow citizens or Mother Nature.” Neumeister has spent a good part of the previous two decades teaching and performing overseas. Now that he has returned to the US, hopefully we’ll hear more from this captivating and creative large ensemble maestro.