Uptown Jazz Tentet – What’s Next
(Irabbagast Records. CD review by Frank Griffith)
The Uptown Jazz Tentet is a NYC-based ten-piece ensemble led collectively by trumpeter Brandon Lee and trombonists Willie Applewhite and James Burton III. The band owes its unique sound to the musical prowess of its members coupled with the benefit of years of friendship between them. This is their second release, following on from their 2017 debut CD, There It Is, also on Irabbagast.
Their new disc provides an ever-advancing study of orchestration, blend and groove amongst a climate of quickly shifting political, social and artistic conditions. What’s Next effectively combines a seamless blend of original pieces and refreshing and inspired reworkings of jazz classics. These include SKJ by Milt Jackson, Ellington’s In A Sentimental Mood, Infant Eyes by Wayne Shorter and Kenny Barron’s epical uptempo romp, Voyage. The latter recorded by so many, including Stan Getz in 1986 with the composer at the piano.
The Uptown Jazz Tentet is one of today’s best examples of a small big band – bridging the sound of a small group (quartet/quintet) and a full (16-piece or larger) big band. This concept started as early as 1947 with Miles Davis’ Birth Of The Cool nonet LP on Capitol Records. A somewhat similar instrumentation to the UJT excepting the presence of 1 trumpet, 1 trombone, 2 saxes joined by a french horn and tuba. This resulted in a softer, cloaked and much mellower sound. Ten years later, the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band sported ten horns (six brass/four saxes) but operated more as an expanded small group with its more transparent aural quality. This was coupled with extended solo sections, which were not often the case with big bands at the time.
The first example of a full sixteen-piece band equally marrying the small and larger group qualities was the emergence of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra in 1965. This included their Monday night residence at New York’s fabled jazz venue, The Village Vanguard. The more intimate nightclub setting allowed and encouraged the band’s soloists to fully “stretch out” and in many cases the rhythm section (piano trio) warmed up the chart with a host of choruses before the band entered.
All of the above attributes are fully realised and evident on What’s Next. Co-leader, James Burton III has the following to say about this: “The decision of the 10-piece configuration was unanimous and important because it provides a sweet spot for large ensemble orchestration and small group flexibility. Composing for this ensemble instrumentation provides the wonderful challenge of writing for each member’s individual voice, because with 10 pieces, everyone’s part is extremely important.”
Indeed it is. A wonderful example of this is demonstrated on Willie Applewhite’s arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s Infant Eyes. Baritone saxist Carl Maraghi plays Shorter’s lead role (video extract below), offering a rich and full tone which is reassuring to the the extent that Shorter’s was so poignantly desperate. Applewhite’s treatment embodies the musical equivalent of a most welcome relief.
What’s Next covers a variety of moods, styles and textures that are all brilliantly executed by this flawless yet creative and unique ensemble. After There It Is, Whats Next deliberately builds expectations for another release; so I eagerly await the the next instalment The Uptown Jazz Tentet has in store for us.