Friday, November 18, 2011

Music Review: “Breaking News” by The New World Jazz Composers Octet


Breaking News

Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about ‘large groups’ is that there is no room for the average player. Especially when that group is tasked with playing the work of major composers. In a ‘band’, four or five pieces, you usually have one or two outstanding musicians and a solid list of other contributors. In an Orchestra there is room for the proficient, but not super star musician. But when you get to a ‘group’ like an octet, especially a jazz octet, where the individual composers are really writing orchestra music, each individual must be a master of his instrument. Additionally they must be able to play a wide variety of music and be flexible in ‘genre’ – Latin, bop, post bop, etc…NWJCO

The New World Jazz Composers Octet knew this going in, and fulfilled that requirement very nicely. The players bring not only the ability to play diverse styles – from ballads to minor blues to funky hip-hop – but possess some seriously dangerous chops.

Ken Cervenka and Walter Platt on trumpet and flugelhorn can play soft or loud, sweetly slow to four on the floor, and they do it as if they were clones of each other. Tim Ray plays some pristine piano, at times evoking Horace Silver, other time Bud Powell, but mostly Tim Ray. When he gets to tickling, you forget everybody else and enjoy Tim. Keala Kaumeheiawa has the most letters of the alphabet, but the fewest strings. He is laying the foundation on acoustic bass. Keala is one of those acoustic players that makes me want to give up the electric. On drums is first call drummer, Mark Walker who is always outstanding and translate the score to the skins tastefully and spot on. Ernesto Diaz more than covers the other percussion needs. Filling out the lineup card is Daniel Ian Smith on sax.


Smith founded the ‘group’ in 2000 in the spirit of the Mingus Jazz Workshop with the idea that in a city full of the greatest players and composers, and not enough places to feature them, he wanted to create an outlet.

This is the third CD release by the ensemble following up 2010s Transitions . It’s also the third collaboration between Smith and Ted Pease, the Professor of Jazz Composition at Berklee College Of Music. The two met in ‘95 and quickly discovered they admired each others work. Pease is also the author of the acclaimed book, Jazz Composition: Theory and Practice published by Berklee Press.

Breaking News features nine compositions by Matthew Nicholl, Pease, Walter Platt, Richard Lowell and Felipe Salles and a prose piece by Paul Haines, famous for his collaboration with Carla Bley, set to music by Jeff Friedman. In total it is a primer on ‘group’ performance with beautiful execution and solo work, moving and diverse pieces and a unity of purpose. NWJCO1 

The album opens with two Nicholl’s compositions, “Poco Picasso” an up tempo swing tune featuring the trumpet work of Platt and some impressive piano work featuring Tim Ray and Mark Walker keeping the beat. “Wishful Thinking” is batting second, a marvelous ballad that evokes closing time early in the morning. The piano work again shines and the sweet, slow trumpet and flugelhorn dance together before the sax leads then to the parking lot.

The title track, composed by Platt, is a nice minor blues that takes you back to the hay day  of bop in the ‘50s and ‘60s and makes you want to check the liner note to see when Horace Silver played this tune. Platt goes high on the staff bringing back memories of Dizzy Gillespie before moving into a smokin’ display of virtuosity on the baritone sax by Smith. Is dancin’ the jitterbug back in style?

Next is the tone-poem by Felipe Salles, “Children’s Waltz”. Ray’s solo work  and Salles jaw dropping tenor is what it’s all about as it takes you through the sojourn of youth. NWJCO2

“Warp 7, Now!” as the title implies, is a high gear cruise to the stars. A chromatic excursion to “explore other galaxies” musically. It shows off the incredible way these guys work together; an intense trumpet solo by Cervenka, a photon torpedo battle of tenors between Salles and Smith, a piano solo that leaves tracers and a shuttle craft race between Diaz and Walker. This one will leave you needing a trans-galactic gargle blaster just to cool down, “Waiter! drinks all around.”

But you can sit back and catch your breath to Paul Haines poem, “Song Sung Long” set to music by Jeff Friedman. It’s a surreal poem recited by Smiths young daughter. Nicely done.

the album closes with a tip of the hat to three of Pease’ favorite composers: “Thad’s Pad” for Thad Jones, “Strays” for Billy Strayhorn and “Willis” for Bill Holman. this trilogy really shows off the ensemble working together as well as their ability to play in diverse styles. the orchestration is daring and the rhythmic changes go from ballad to modal barn burner. You have to look once again to make sure your not hearing a much larger band.

The New World Jazz Composers Octet puts on an artful, but still accessible, display of what can happen when some of the most exciting section players and soloists in jazz meet some of the most original and important composers today. the album is a great success, and I for one hope to hear more from them in the near future.

The Dirty Lowdown

Copyright © 2011 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved


  1. Thanks for the wonderful words Robert! It's clear you listen and I'm thrilled that you like what you hear. Your prose is eloquent and I'm deeply appreciative for your time and energy here. There will be more to come, absolutely!
    warm musical regards,
    daniel ian smith

  2. PS thanks for sharing those images, I just want to give credit to Matt McKee of McKee Photography for his amazing work on the pictures and his cover images! Thanks!!

  3. You are more than welcome, Daniel. And writing well of the music is a joy, and so easy when it is this good. Truly enjoyed the album (does saying album show my age?). And I'd like to thank you, the 'group' and Jon Munchin at Braithwaite & Katz for sending the album along. I look forward to your future work.