Dick Oatts/Mats Holmquist New York Jazz Orchestra ‘A Tribute to Herbie + 1’ CD/DIG (Mama) 3/5

oatts-holmquistBoth Dick Oatts and Mats Holmquist come from the world of Big Band Jazz. Oatts has been performing and recording since the 1970’s, most notably as a sideman with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. He is currently the lead woodwind player and Artistic Director of The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, originally founded by Jones and Lewis. Whilst Holmquist can’t currently match Oatts’s impressive back catalogue he has made a name for himself through his arrangements of classic works by Chick Corea and Wayne Shorter.
In planning this project the pair brought together a talented pool of musicians from New York, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Describing the group as an Orchestra might be a bit of a push though, given that it comprises only of brass, woodwind and rhythm sections; in this instance Big Band is probably more appropriate.
In case you had not already guessed, this album is Holmquist’s homage to another of the 60’s/70’s Jazz gods, Herbie Hancock. The plus one in the title relates to the only original composition, “Stevie R”, dedicated to another one of Holmquist’s inspirations, Steve Reich.
With the exception of “Chameleon” and “Stevie R”, the music comes from Hancock’s Blue Note period in the 60’s. My initial impression, before listening to the album, was that some of the choices seemed a bit safe, especially as Hancock’s work has previously been interpreted in a Big Band setting (take Mel Lewis and The Jazz Orchestra’s Live in Montreux, which Dick Oatts performed on).

It’s the arrangements that make this album different. Holmquist refers to his technique as “Big Band Minimalism”, inspired by the likes of Steve Reich and Terry Riley. If the thought of Big Band jazz mixed with art music fills you with dread then don’t worry. His arrangements do not deconstruct the originals; rather they maintain and repeat the main themes developed to his style.

The results, whilst not exactly revolutionary (this is big band jazz after all) are an interesting take on familiar ground. The brass section is much busier, with a series of short repetitive notes, different instruments adding distinct voices, at times across each other. This intricate phrasing and layering of sound is characteristic of the album and is testament to the talent involved given that they only had a day and a half to rehearse and record.

The album opens with “Cantaloupe Island”, with it’s instantly recognisable piano line. The tempo is faster than the Hancock original and the sound more powerful, as you would imagine. The solos by Adam Birnbaum on piano and Mark Gross on alto sax stand out.

The minimalist style is immediately apparent from the opening bars of “Chameleon”. The piano starts with a single note, becoming four, introducing sax, trombone and trumpets who build similarly before combining for the hook. Whilst Holmquist tries to add different texture towards the end with a guitar solo the track is overlong for my liking, a criticism that I would level at the original as well.

“Dolphin Dance” gives some respite from the energy in the album up to that point, before “Eye of the Hurricane” cranks up the tempo again. Whilst I prefer the Mel Lewis/Bob Mintzer-arranged version for intensity this version swings and uses the original theme really well.

“Maiden Voyage” lends itself to a bigger production. The original itself is quite minimalist, to which Holmquist adds a touch more colour both in the chorus and the solos (most notably from Dick Oatts on soprano sax). My one criticism would be the spaced out, echo filled ending, which feels lacklustre.

For me the pop sounding “Stevie R” does not really fit within the rest of the album, although it does adhere to Holmquist’s approach to music making.

Having played the album any number of times now, I find myself with the same thought; that whilst I enjoy individual tracks I find the overall sound too busy, too overwhelming to make listening to the whole thing an easy experience.

Andy Hazell