Saturday, September 23, 2017

Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra adds to its distinguished record with the premiere of 'The Gennett Suite'

Over its 23 years of existence, the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra has accumulated an impressive record as a repertory band with a difference — an ensemble with as much in the way of creative as re-creative credentials.

The latest in its too infrequent schedule of concert appearances came Friday night at Indiana Landmarks Center on the penultimate day of the 2017 Indy Jazz Fest. Brent Wallarab, the co-founder and chief arranger, conducted the first performance of "The Gennett Suite," a celebration of a historically significant record label based in Richmond, Indiana. The outgrowth of the Starr Piano Factory, Gennett in its heyday also had a New York studio (Duke Ellington was among the future stars to have recorded there). Yet the discography of its home studio in the eastern Indiana town is quite distinguished on its own.

It was that activity in the early to mid-1920s that is highlighted in Wallarab's stunning three-movement suite, which puts some
Mark Buselli directs jazz studies at Ball State University.
of Gennett's famous first recordings in totally new contexts, with tight harmonies, a smattering of dissonance, and occasional bitonality. Because the first Gennett issues came in 1917, Wallarab's suite is primarily a centennial tribute to an early label, short-lived but significant; the updating of the Gennett sound is of course an unquestionably right decision.

The year 1917 turned out to be an important milestone for jazz, worth observing 100 years later. Not only were Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Ella Fitzgerald born in 1917, but Storyville (New Orleans' red-light district) was closed down then, prompting a migration of important musicians northward, where they established themselves in Chicago. Among them were Joe "King" Oliver and Louis Armstrong, making the recording opportunity Gennett extended to them practicable. Indiana-based musicians were also attracted to the opportunity to get their music preserved nearby while it was fresh.

Retired as a professional trombonist, Brent Wallarab focuses on  arranging and education.
Coincidentally, since our subject is recording, the first jazz record was made in January 1917 in New York, by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. A cut-up sort of ensemble whose legacy was tarnished by one of its leaders' inaccurate and probably racist claim that jazz itself originated with him and his colleagues, the ODJB today is practically a footnote in jazz history.

The whole matter of race and the "invention" of jazz is also clouded by the stance of Jelly Roll Morton, who is honored in the third and concluding movement of "The Gennett Suite." Morton's importance to jazz far exceeds the ODJB's, but as a proud Creole and reflective of New Orleans' virtual caste system, he was disdainful of black musicians. And he, too, thought he had invented jazz.

Gennett specifically marketed some of its product as "race records," and thus (unsurprisingly) there's no escaping the role of race in the popular arts, marketing divisions and so many other kinds of division in American society.

Now that Jelly Roll has come up, let's start with that finale, which involved fleshing out two famous Morton tunes from the piano solos that Gennett recorded on two successive days in July 1923. It's one of the particularly inspired portions of the suite. The slowing down of "King Porter Stomp," permitting the opportunity for the arrangement to build from Luke Gillespie's opening solo, was a great stroke. A hint of the heat to be put under the arrangement at its climax came in Rich Dole's glowing trombone solo. Jeff Conrad's muted trumpet solo and some soaring work by Tom Walsh on soprano sax were further high points. Then all was prepared for the last tune, "Grandpa's Spells," to bring the whole suite to a brilliant end, capped by a tense pause followed by a couple of full-ensemble blasts.

Walsh had another exciting solo in the first movement, Part 2, on "Chimes Blues," with a pertinent use of "stop-time" ensemble work, in which the tempo is maintained with regular ensemble punctuation behind the soloist marking the way forward. The wonderful band buildup behind Walsh's dialogue with trumpeter Jeff Conrad included duetting imitation and contrast. Part 3 also had some impressive soloing in dialogue, from trombonists Brennan John and Tim Coffman. The vehicle was the evergreen "Dippermouth Blues."

From the first, it was clear that Wallarab would want to do more than bring forward old music spookily preserved in musical formaldehyde. The creative arranging that has contributed so much to the stature of the BWJO — and the eagerness of many musicians over the years to participate in it — was fully in evidence in "The Gennett Suite." Interplay among the sections sometimes involved real counterpoint, with lines poised against each other more than momentarily. No inspiration was allowed to get stagnant through repetition or the manipulation of cliches. The listener was able to find bursts of familiarity continually enlivened by new contexts.

Wallarab told me after the concert that further performances of "The Gennett Suite" are not scheduled, and no recording is planned. His hopes lie in that direction, of course, and so presumably do those of many who heard the premiere Friday night. At least some sense of the permanence of Wallarab's contributions to jazz in the area, and those of his colleague and BWJO co-founder Buselli, was provided to the appreciative crowd by the induction of both men into the Indianapolis Jazz Hall of Fame.