Ken Schaphorst, the bandleader at the helm of the New England Conservatory Jazz Orchestra, is an intrepid director and composer. He’s also an educator with deep knowledge of and respect for the NEC jazz lineage. On Dec. 8 at NEC’s Jordan Hall in Boston, Schaphorst led the ensemble through a program of original compositions and arrangements taken from the group’s new album, How To Say Goodbye (JCA Recordings), a big band homage to several of past mentors at NEC, including Bob Brookmeyer and Herb Pomeroy.
The NEC Jazz Orchestra took up Schaphorst’s musical gauntlet with panache and glee, pulsating with great soloing and collective bravado. For example, Schaphorst’s restless “Descent” was ensnared by the voluptuous depths of Daniel Sagastume’s baritone saxophone solo, (powerful and unbridled in its heady delivery) and by Tyler Bonilla’s gut-thumping trombone solo (with a slow brewing descent of slurring slides).
The flowing wonderment of the album’s title track (Schaphorst’s “How To Say Goodbye”) was propelled by a curvaceous solo by trumpeter Massimo Paparello, snaking in and out of thickets of soft brass punctuations. The fluidity of touches from pianist Inigo Ruiz de Gondejuela also provided momentum, as did the sweep of Max Light’s guitar lines and the nimble bass and drum foundation provided by bassist James Dale and drummer Eladio Rojas (who frequently exchanged sympathetic glances).
The African lilt of Schaphorst’s “Mbira” caroused on guest percussionist (and NEC faculty member) Jerry Leake’s pulsating shakers, which twinkled and crackled in the surrounding air to accompany the brass and woodwind themes.
Schaphorst and the NEC Jazz Orchestra were joined in the second half of the program by NEC alum and faculty member saxophonist Donny McCaslin, a creative dynamo in his own right. McCaslin’s tenor saxophone solos lurched and swayed, acting as twisting forces that built into high, squealing climaxes.
McCaslin has played on all of Schaphorst’s big band recordings, and the duo’s dynamic simpatico was palpable from the first blurt of McCaslin’s tenor saxophone that ignited Schaphorst’s arrangement of McCaslin’s “Second Line Sally.”
McCaslin tore through a solo here (spangled with blues and upturned honks), providing a sharp contrast to the sublime meditative mood of “Warszawa,” a piece written by David Bowie and Brian Eno. (McCaslin and his quartet famously joined Bowie on his final album, Blackstar, and the saxophonist includes a rendition of “Warszawa” on his latest Motéma album, Beyond Now.)
Later, McCaslin shared from the Jordan Hall stage a comment about how playing this piece with his quartet after Bowie’s death in January was both difficult and moving for him.
Performing Schaphorst’s bracing arrangement of “Warszawa,” the NEC Jazz Orchestra and McCaslin shared some intense moments of musical comradeship. They journeyed through the majestic terrain of this piece in beautiful, riveting partnership.
The arrangement illustrated Schaphorst’s unique craft in contrasting sprawling swathes of brass colors with poignant soft trumpet phrases, combining cascading drum rolls with chimes and inviting McCaslin to enter the swell with his own vibrant solo. McCaslin contained the intensity of his blowing to a tart soulful midrange (with deep meditative holds) in a bracing and elegiac salute to Bowie, and in celebration of the vital life of his present musical companionship at NEC. DB