Yes, yes, nonet! Hickey-Shanafelt 9ollective oozes third-time charm at Jazz Kitchen

Bands less than big but not within small-group parameters have special attractions, eschewing the

Kent Hickey leads nine-piece band with Alex Shanafelt

sectional contrast and tussle of timbres of the bigs but giving room to a wider range of textures and harmonic variety than the combo. Another plus that totally lifts up the jazz spirit in such groups is the natural blurring of lines between solo and ensemble.

"If writing is to be jazz writing, it should fuse the elements particular to its own tradition -- the beat, improvisation within a disciplinary frame, and its own unique feeling," arranger/baritone saxophonist Manny Albam told liner-note writer Burt Korall for the issue of "Manny Albam and the Jazz Greats of Our Time." 

The title is a touch of hyperbole on this Coral LP, which I acquired as a teenager (wowed, I admit, by the all-star lineup*) circa 1960. I can't find any reference to it in either of the huge books on jazz recording I own, but I've always liked Albam's seven arrangements for ten adept players who must have enjoyed the gig. I hope they were decently paid.

Albam goes on to say, "I feel that an inter-relation, inter-dependence between writing and blowing in jazz composition is imperative." And that's what Kent Hickey and Alex Shanafelt have achieved many decades later with their nine-piece band, which appeared for the third time Sunday night at the Jazz Kitchen

The nonet configuration is surely inspired by the size of the landmark "Birth of the Cool" bands of 1949-50, issued under Miles Davis' name but creatively engendered by Gerry Mulligan, John Carisi, and Gil Evans. I don't know if the Hickey-Shanafelt 9ollective knows anything about the Albam LP, but the band most consciously (I presume) extends exploration along  the avenues suggested by "Birth of the Cool."

Mug shot: Band has merch, too.

What a large audience heard Sunday night, all new arrangements and mostly originals conducted by Alex Shanafelt, connects with that blend of improvised soloing and written ensemble that Albam explicitly celebrated. Right from the start, in Hickey's "Dilbert's Dilemma," the manner in which Joseph Trahan's baritone sax lent feisty commentary to a tune (built upon "Along Came Betty" from the Art Blakey book") justified the blended approach. 

When a big-band arranger gives an extended showcase to a soloist it's a rare scenario for jousting between the one and the many. With a band this size, even a standout solo tends to be processed in context. (I have no idea if either the soloist or the arrangement intended the music to reflect on the trouble the comic-strip creator has gotten himself into recently.)

With Trahan picking up the bass clarinet in the next piece behind Garrett Fasig's alto-sax solo, the audience was treated to the impressionistic coloring of Alex Sjobeck's "Blue Light." This sort of dappled shading was a frequent occurrence in the set. Arranging for a nonet can dispense with the whole idea of sections and really get into the kaleidoscopic variety of individual instruments in combination. And the format allows a thoroughly prepared band to exhibit its flexibility in tempo changes, which came off mostly without a hitch Sunday night. 

Hickey's "Sublit Anticipation" provided for one of the evening's most outsized solos. Guitarist Eric Garcia absolutely shredded and strutted as the tune went for a wild ride, confirmed at a slightly lower level of  intensity by Tim Pieciak's trumpet solo.

Co-leader Kent Hickey is the band's other trumpet player, and we heard trim wonders from him on a variety of pieces, from George Shearing's bebop-saturated "Conception" to his own surging "World Noise," whose churning pulse accommodated both Hickey and Garcia in solos before giving way to a series of exchanges between them near the end.

Of all the band members, I'm most familiar with tenor saxophonist Sean Imboden, whose solo outing on drummer Miles Damaso's "Forward Push" was among several turns in the spotlight. His brief allusion to "Bye Bye Blackbird" was a fine touch, slightly dismissive as a new piece with such a title might well imply. The composer's drum solo confirmed the message: "Hey, here's something new!"

Fasig's "Row Song" was notable for considerable solo space, highlighted by vaunting assertion from the baritone chair, with more than enough screech and shudder to flavor it, succeeded by a grainy, growling trombone solo by Andrew Danforth. Danforth's usual suave manner seemed more to be the focus of his own composition, "Homegrown," which featured another to-the-point Fasig solo and tasty ensemble harmonies as it approached its nifty, slightly nostalgic conclusion. 

This band makes a fresh, exciting contribution to Indianapolis-based jazz. Its fitness for all manner of well-designed expression, together with the excellence of its players in both improvisational and written aspects of their work, makes their appearances worth penciling in on any jazz lover's calendar. 

(*including Gerry Mulligan, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Phil Woods, Bob Brookmeyer, Art Farmer, Osie Johnson, Milt Hinton, and Hank Jones)


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