Last night the New England Conservatory Jazz Composers Workshop Orchestra, (that's a mouthful) the only school big band I know of devoted to playing only student composition, played it's first concert of the year. This band is close to my heart because I was a player and writer in it for two years, and helped run it the second year. The band, only seven years old has also been a springboard for some well regarded young writers, including Ayn Inserto, Rob Bauer, Camille Jentgen, and some guy named Darcy. It was an important concert for the band for two main reasons. One there were thirteen writers, a new record, and two, it was the first time the band played without the guidance of founder and mentor Bob Brookmeyer, who is on sabbatical. Frank Carlberg pinch hit.
Due to the sheer length of the concert, I only stayed for the first half (a mere eight tunes and 80 minutes), but I can safely say that it was the strongest, most consistent concert I've seen from the group. Of course I liked some things better than others, and there was no one piece that blew everybody's ears off as in years past, but all the pieces were solid, interesting compositions, well prepared and well performed. Anyone in a workshop situation knows this is nothing short of a miracle. (I'm loathe to talk too much about any one piece, since I wouldn't have wanted critics on me when I was a student.) There was a lot of stylistic variation as well, from more traditional big-bandy sounds to pieces that drew strongly on Ligeti, rock-steady and latin language. It's refreshing that while Maria Schneider is clearly still the strongest influence on many writers, she was not the only or even the overriding one at this show. Congratulations to Frank, my buddy and band coach Jeff Claasen, and the composers and players of the band. It's clearly in good hands.