Monday, March 9, 2015

Icarus Ensemble nails down its niche on the local jazz scene with its first CD release

Mark Ortwein, Peter Hansen, Dean Franke, Gary Walters, and Jon Crabiel constitute Icarus Ensemble.
It's heartening to hear how so much potential has borne fruit in the development of an unusual  local band called the Icarus Ensemble. Seven years after its founding, it's an expert collaboration  of three Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra musicians and two members of the Butler University music faculty.

Nearly two years ago, I reported in one of my early blog posts how firm a grasp the quintet had on its musical vision and how well the musicians seemed to be suited to fulfilling it. They have since come up with a "book" dependably showcasing the versatile front line of violinist Dean Franke and multi-instrumentalist Mark Ortwein, whom you'll hear on bass clarinet, soprano saxophone, or electric bassoon depending on the piece. The rhythm section acts well as a unit, yet is often conspicuous in the texture for the individuality of each member.

Sunday night Icarus Ensemble released its self-titled recording debut at the Jazz Kitchen. I was unable to attend this reportedly triumphant event, but if it merely put the cap of concert performance upon the repertoire captured on this disc, it couldn't have been more successful.

Well-distributed compositional skills are evident, and a strong feeling for balance comes through without fail. Impeccably recorded at a couple of Bloomington-area studios, "Icarus Ensemble" displays the solo inventiveness of the players, nestled in an approachable, never needlessly complex  layering of instrumental lines in the ensemble. Nowhere is that more joyfully exhibited than in the disc's concluding track,"Circle Dance," written by founding member and bassist Peter Hansen. As in the other tunes, an animated, timbrally sensitive pulse emanates from Jon Crabiel's percussion.

Infectious exuberance is evident throughout the program, starting with pianist Gary Walters' catchy "IzzyBaby."  The compositions, without getting too fancy about it, find attractive ways not to fall into the head-solos-head rut. I liked the imaginative layout of Hansen's "Merry Go Round" and reedman Mark Ortwein's "Schizoid" in particular.  Throughout the disc, Ortwein injects his full-hearted freedom from cliche into solos on all  three of his instruments.

I also liked "Homage" for its evocative piano and soprano sax solos and the concise "Buffalo Shuffalo" for its edgy introduction and the unison oomph of bass clarinet and arco bass in the theme.

"Icarus Ensemble" is strong enough to represent the group well for some time to come as a fan souvenir of the many concert appearances it deserves to play — subject to the demands of each man's schedule outside the band.