Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Back in action: Icarus Ensemble, after a hiatus of about two months, returns to the scene

With his well-stocked stand of reed instruments in a commanding position onstage, it was evident that
Reeds at the ready.
Mark Ortwein had returned to jazz after a medical hiatus, enabling Icarus Ensemble to rejoin the musical scene.

Put into play in the course of a first set Monday night at the Jazz Kitchen, the instrumental armory took on the aura of a Burning Bush of inspiration. But then, all five members of the band proved capable of bringing down stone tablets from the musical Sinai they mount whenever they hit the stage.

With co-founders Peter Hansen on bass and Gary Walters on piano, Icarus delivered ten easy-to-follow musical commandments while I was there. The gang of law-givers also includes drummer Jon Crabiel and violinist Dean Franke.

The first set rested on the firm foundation of its self-titled 2014 CD. Material for a follow-up is still
Icarus Ensemble: Building a charming book and playing as a unit.
being gathered, and some of it was on exhibit Monday night. That started with Hansen's "Is That Your Toaster?" (which sounds like a Bad Plus song title), an attractive piece with a bridge that eased its way through unexpected keys, but not enough to sound wayward.

Franke burned the toast invitingly in his solo, followed by Ortwein and Walters. The coda really took off. That prompted a settling down for Walters' "IzzyBaby," whose steady patter of eighth notes provided a calming backdrop for the nimble theme, presented in both unison and close harmony by soprano sax and violin.

The Icarus Ensemble is building quite a formidable book of tunes.  Melodies like "IzzyBaby" and an untitled Hansen piece with a deep-dyed folklike theme are not just solo vehicles. They also open up opportunities to reconfigure the ensemble through arrangements, which sound as fresh as the tunes themselves. I can think of a few jazz celebrities who, as tunesmiths, can't boast the success that this band already can.

Ortwein's first outing on bassoon didn't register well because of amplification difficulties. The instrument was fully in the mix the second time out, on a reflective Walters composition whose title I didn't catch. He turned to bass clarinet profitably on that solemn untitled Hansen original mentioned above.

With its calculated, tongue-in-cheek dissonance, Ortwein's "Schizoid" is one of the most striking Icarus Ensemble pieces. On Monday night, its performance was especially cheeky. The hushed passages between solos lent suspense. The solos themselves were outsize — imaginative and almost manic. Walters seemed to be channeling McCoy Tyner, Hansen contributed one of his more exuberant arco solos, and Crabiel laid out a timbrally adventurous statement, moving from tintinnabulation on cymbals and triangle to hand-drumming episodes.

Ortwein's new piece, "Lunar Love," found Hansen in an especially expansive mood. Expressively, his bowed solo, which started by foregrounding the tune's hints of tango, seemed to take in every which way of looking at the moon from "I'll Be Seeing You" to "Pierrot Lunaire."  Typically, much of what Icarus Ensemble has on offer is comfortable music, but these gentlemen also never want listeners to take things too easy. They seem to have found a good balance.

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