Arriving on the cusp of the JCAO's thirtieth anniversary year, Why Do You Ride? (October 14, Leo Records) shows off Katz's deft ability to juggle off-kilter modernism with electrifying dynamic shifts and a tumult of jazz-history reference points in his vivid, smash-cut big band arrangements, all combined for this excursion with his love for cycling and his less-than-thorough internet research standards. The results are executed by an expert ensemble that tempers virtuosity with a liberal dose of irreverence, precisely navigating hairpin turns while maintaining just enough danger to make you believe you just might go off the cliff into total chaos.
The Boston-based JCA Orchestra includes an impressive roster of veteran musicians from the Boston area including woodwind players Allan Chase (Rashied Ali, John Zorn), Jim Hobbs (Anthony Braxton, Fully Celebrated Orchestra), Hiroaki Honshuku (Mike Stern, Dave Liebman), and Phil Scarff (Natraj); trumpeters Mike Peipman (Artie Shaw and Woody Herman Orchestras), Gary Bohan (Klezmer Conservatory Band), and Forbes Graham (Para Quintet); trombonists Bob Pilkington and David Harris; tuba player Bill Lowe (Muhal Richard Abrams; Henry Threadgill; Frank Foster); bassist John Funkhouser; and pianist Mina Cho, just to name a few. Rebecca Shrimpton, whose supple and entrancing voice has graced the work of such luminaries as Joe Lovano, Steve Lacy, Oliver Lake, and George Lewis, makes the apocryphal sound beguiling with her elegant rendition of Katz's intricate, circuitous melodies.
The project was born when someone at Katz's local bike shop told the composer that Einstein had once declared the three greatest inventions of the modern world to be "the three-masted sailing ship, the refrigerator, and the bicycle" - music to the ears of the avid cycler. As it turns out, Einstein never said any such thing, but the idea still got Katz started expressing his love for bicycling in musical terms.
The title track recounts a Zen koan in which a master asks his students why the ride their bicycles, praising each one's practical responses but genuflecting before the one who answers, "I ride my bicycle to ride my bicycle." Katz could be praised for his equal commitment to writing music for its own sake, evidenced beautifully by this track as it progresses from moody abstraction to an Ellingtonian growl of a fanfare, a hip Zen groove, Impressionist balladry, and a soulful, fluid guitar solo from the leader himself.
The centerpiece of the CD is comprised of "Wheelworks," an eight-movement suite dedicated to the often inaccurate words of wisdom of one of the 20th-century's greatest thinkers. The wide-ranging piece veers from the urgent "Any Intelligent Fool" through the pensive, shape-shifting disclaimer "What Did Albert Einstein Say?"; the angular "Riding a Bicycle," with its tempestuous free section featuring baritone saxophonist Dan Zupan, tuba player Bill Lowe, and trumpeter Gary Bohan; Mina Cho and pedal steel guitarist Norm Zocher breaking the tension of "Under the Cloak of War"; the martial third-stream march of "Sticks and Stones"; the stealthy, aptly-named "The Mysterious"; the light-footed sway of "We Are the Dancers"; and finally the Copland-tinged hope of "A Better Teacher."
The JCAO exits on "SamiBadGal," a lush, heartfelt eulogy for a six-toed cat, before Katz ends the proceeding with a wistful arrangement of Thelonious Monk's "Monk's Mood" for the JCA Sax Quartet: altoists Jeff Hudgins and Daniel Ian Smith, tenor Phil Scarff, and bari Dan Bosshardt. The wordless piece offers one of the album's most eloquent statements, originally uttered by one of the jazz world's finest minds and here restated with grace and passion.
A composer of more than 70 pieces for jazz orchestra, Darrell Katz is a co-founder of the Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra, which has been a fixture on Boston's creative music scene since its first performance in December 1985. Dedicated musicianship, innovative programming and fresh compositional concepts make JCA concerts and CDs colorful, adventurous, high-energy events. Katz's work has appeared on all eight of the big band's previous albums. (The JCA also released a sax quartet album).
The recipient of numerous grants, including the Massachusetts Artist Fellowship in composition, a Jazz Fellowship Grant from the NEA, and grants from Meet The Composer, The Aaron Copland Fund, The New England Foundation For The Arts, Katz "has forged an identity as a progressive and creative orchestrator of new music in a way that few can claim," says Michael G. Nastos in All Music Guide. Katz was the organizer of the Julius Hemphill Composition Awards (1991-2001). He has a Master of Music Degree from New England Conservatory, and a Bachelor of Music from Berklee College of Music, where he been a faculty member since 1989. "One cannot help but admire Katz and the JCA for their dedication and commitment to creative music," says Jazz Review.com.