New Jazz Composers Octet: The Elite Eight

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PERSONNEL

  • David Weiss, trumpet/leader
  • Xavier Davis, piano
  • Dwayne Burno, bass
  • E.J. Strickland, drums
  • Jimmy Greene, tenor and soprano sax
  • Craig Handy, alto sax
  • Norbert Stachel, bass clarinet/baritone sax
  • Steve Davis, trombone
NJCO 300; Credit: Courtesy of the artist

The Turning Gate, released in late 2008, is the third album from the New Jazz Composers Octet. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the artist

Even though Dave Brubeck had a stellar octet, the eight-person ensemble is an uncommon configuration in jazz. Saxophonist Dave Pell and his troupe of top-notch Hollywood arrangers also handled the task of writing for a large group of players with style and skill. Yet another saxophonist, David Murray, has had his own modern adventure with the otto link. And the concept of a double quartet is another matter altogether. Large ensemble writing for a five-horn array is akin to devising plays in a spread offense. Making that wide palette fit with a solid rhythm section, and doing so without teetering on the top-heavy, requires a composer skilled in the art of collective bargaining.

Since 1996, the members of the New Jazz Composers Octet have extended their own brand of jazz articulation for eight. The NJCO spent more than a decade touring and recording with the late trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Its sound is part of that hard bop tradition, but it's also part New York hustle and part writer's workshop, all of it redolent with the aroma of newness. Each member of the New Jazz Composers Octet brings original music to rehearse and refine. In this WBGO session, we feature the handiwork of trumpeter David Weiss and pianist Xavier Davis, charter members of the NJCO, and winners of composer grants from Chamber Music America's Doris Duke Jazz Ensembles Project: New Works Creations and Presentation.

David Weiss, the self-described "default de facto" leader of the group, won a CMA grant for "The Turning Gate," a revolving phrase of 51 beats inspired by a Korean fable about unattainable happiness. Jimmy Greene spins a self-assured solo on soprano, and pianist Xavier Davis takes an inviting turn at the gate.

Davis may be the most prolific composer of the bunch. In 2005, he became the first person to receive the "New Works" grant twice. His composition, "New (Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego)," is the opening salvo of "The Faith Suite," a six-part suite on devotion. It features trombonist Steve Davis soloing before the pianist tackles his own congeries of chord changes. "Birth of a Thought" provides a sneak preview from another Davis six-part opus, unrecorded as of this session. Judging from the band's lax album-release schedule, expect the full thought from Davis and the octet no later than 2013.

Weiss wrote the final composition, "Walkin' the Line." It's the title track from an earlier recording, as well as a launch pad for solos by Jimmy Green on tenor, Craig Handy on alto and Xavier Davis on piano.

"Sometimes, great soloists are great because of the context they are in," Weiss says. "The compositions and the band behind them set them up and made them sound better."

That rings true in an ensemble like the New Jazz Composers Octet, a band whose sum is greater than any individual.

Originally recorded Dec. 11, 2008.

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