Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra's "Basically Baker Vol. 2" memorializes seminal jazz educator David Baker

Almost 12 years ago, with the honoree still very much alive and active heading jazz studies at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra recorded "Basically Baker" for Gunther Schuller's GM label.
The soul of Indiana jazz education: David Baker (1931-2016)

In June, at a studio in Bloomington, a BWJO with significant changes of personnel expanded on that project with a two-disc set of David Baker compositions and arrangements. "Basically Baker Vol. 2" (Patois Records) is a culminating tribute by Brent Wallarab, Mark Buselli and their colleagues to the Indianapolis native, who died last March.

Adventurous in his jazz visions as a performer as well as a composer, Baker in these big-band charts challenges performers with countermelodies, key changes, washes of acoustic sound, rhythms that rub up against each other, and the spice of dissonance. When we hear the skittering of saxophones complicating the introductory measures of "Harlem Pipes" (the first disc's opening track), we know we are in a questing milieu. And it's a good place to be.

Even the relaxed pieces, such as the no-stress calypso "Walt's Barbershop" (featuring an exuberant Rob Dixon tenor solo) are dotted with challenges: the precise ensemble without rhythm-section support near the end, for example. Many pieces show off a composition's different facets, but not so drastically as to fragment it. Rich Perry's laconic tenor near the start of "Soft Summer Rain"  presents one side of the piece, while later, riding on a tempo boost, Tim Coffman's trombone solo suggests that those soft summer rains can energize us, too.

David Baker always had a down-to-earth side, for all his musical sophistication. So the typical variety within each number seems to present the whole man.  "Black Thursday,"  for example, is like a jaunty stroll down "the Avenue," keyed to Bill Sears' alto saxophone solo. I think of this pace and the swagger that goes with it as a "Killer Joe" tempo, after the famous Farmer-Golson Jazztet song. Mark Buselli's sly, plunger-muted trumpet solo is like a stylish man looking out curiously from under a fedora with a snappy brim pulled low on the forehead. It yields the street to a punchy, accented episode recalling Art Blakey's "Blues March." No one was more steeped in the 1950s idiom that produced such music than Baker.

The one work on the two discs not by Baker, but featuring his arrangement, is Dizzy Gillespie's "Bebop." It offers another indication of Baker's insider status with the era's most characteristic jazz. And Graham Breedlove's trumpet solo thoroughly captures the Dizzy spirit, glinting in and around the upper register.

It's hard to adequately credit all the good work on these two CDs  without getting long-winded. Rarely, a piece's basic material seemed a little weak, but the arrangement and the solos rescued it. In "Shima 13," for instance, solos by pianist Luke Gillespie and tenorman Perry prove well worth waiting for. Otherwise, the piece struck me as somewhat tedious.

Co-leader Wallarab describes this project as "a way we could all channel our grief into something productive," and the result will certainly buoy up the many people, musicians and fans alike, who remember Baker fondly. Proceeds from sales of "Basically Baker Vol. 2" will go to the David N. Baker Scholarship Fund to benefit IU jazz students.

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