Big Bands Reign Supreme at Angrajazz


Not many jazz festivals can boast the lush, historic setting of Angrajazz, which celebrated its 20th anniversary Oct. 3-6. The four-day festival was held at Angra do Heroísmo, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Azores—a part of Portugal.

At the Centro Cultural e de Congressos, Lisbon’s Orquestra De Jazz Do Hot Clube De Portugal helped open the festivities. The group’s current mission is the interpretation of works by António Pinho Vargas, a composer and pianist who began in jazz, but shifted toward large-scale classical pieces. “Do Cinema” featured a searing guitar solo from Nuno Costa, brisk and urgent, although not quite high enough in the mix. Then “La Corazón” moved from a poised, articulate trombone solo courtesy of Lars Arens, straight into a stippled, powdery trumpet solo from Gonçalo Marques, all topped off by Pedro Felgar’s drum feature.

The orchestra’s director, Luis Cunha, also plays trumpet and led three impressive off-shoot quintet gigs at various locations during Angrajazz.

The crisp power of the medium-sized theater’s sound was immediately noticeable, combining fine acoustics, well-calibrated speakers and deft soundboard mixing. The pristine sound of four muted trumpets produced a sonic ecstasy. Strangely, this clarity was even apparent during the balancing of big band sounds. Angrajazz was particularly strong on large ensembles this year, but there also were small-combo sets by saxophonist Andy Sheppard, as well as pianists Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Billy Childs.

Orquestra Angrajazz is locally grown, and has appeared annually at the festival since 2002, the year of the band’s formation. Its latest repertoire revolves around a second album, which features specially commissioned works from mostly Portuguese composers, the most well-known being pianist Mário Laginha. The most distinctive instrument featured was the viola da terra, a traditional Azorean 12-stringed guitar. Even though much of the Orquestra Angrajazz set was lyrical and mellow, there were occasional forays into sleazy, juggernaut blues. The orchestra was slick, but tended to lack dynamic punches, and placed less emphasis on solo expression, particularly when compared to the previous evening’s Hot Clube extravaganza. The ranks maintained their softness, lending color, and only getting into a harder swinging gait as its set reached a close.

The final night’s showing by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society represented the festival’s absolute pinnacle, taking big band expression to its highest level. The erudite Argue conducted with delicate, finely formed hand signals, making it look like his music’s nuances were springing directly from his fingers. Of course, Argue also can thank the sterling efforts of the exceptional players in his band, many of whom are bandleaders themselves.

Argue’s preferred palette was a noir drama, descended from Quincy Jones’ 1964 soundtrack for The Pawnbroker. “Flux In A Box” reeled with a distinctive-toned alto saxophone solo by Alexa Tarantino, who repeatedly showed her primacy in the reed ranks. The set trawled through the entire Argue catalogue, presenting three selections from Brooklyn Babylon (New Amsterdam), with sometime silences revealing the rubbing of cicadas. “Ferromagnetic” rolled on a tolling guitar riff, as horn passions rose, pushed by a cycling Fender Rhodes pattern. Tarantino again soloed majestically on “Best Friend Forever,” while “Winged Beasts” featured a swarming solo from trombonist Ryan Keberle, agile and pointed. Argue closed with his signature “Transit,” another classic, with a frazzling, escalating trumpet solo from David Smith.

Following all of this action, Argue’s encore settled into the after-hours cheer of “Last Waltz,” dedicated to Levon Helm. DB

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