The trick about falling down rabbit holes is knowing how to get back out. The insistently inventive composer, arranger, bandleader and educator Ayn Inserto has built a brilliant career around her gift for designing fantastical but slyly logical musical landscapes and crafting sonic adventures marked by sinuously surprising melodies, Technicolor harmonies, and arrestingly vivid voicings. Due for release on Summit Records on September 21, 2018, the Ayn Inserto Jazz Orchestra's first new album in a decade, Down a Rabbit Hole, reintroduces her sly and imaginative musical world, a realm populated by some of jazz's most expressive improvisers.
In many ways Inserto conceived Rabbit Hole to showcase her three special guests - trumpet star Sean Jones, tenor sax great George Garzone, and trombonist John Fedchock - along with her exceptional cast of players many of whom have been with her since she launched the group in 2001. "I saw the album as an opportunity to feature these three amazing musicians, people I consider good friends and musical influences," says Inserto. "They're three artists who don't necessarily play together so it was really fun to bring them together."
A protégé of legendary trombonist/arranger/composer Bob Brookmeyer, Inserto has ascended to jazz's top ranks over the past two decades, earning numerous awards and commissions. Her last release, 2015's Home Away From Home (Neuklang Records), documented her collaboration with Italy's acclaimed Colours Jazz Orchestra. With Rabbit Hole, she's landed back on home turf. From the first track "Three and Me," her bespoke sensibility provides her guest triumvirate with passages tailored to their musical personalities.
She arranged "BJ's Tune" as a vehicle for Jones' gorgeous trumpet, a sound as rich and glorious as any on the scene. His poised solo is a case study in melodic development as the band gently churns underneath his ascending lines. Inserto doesn't really write programmatic music, but the briskly swinging "Mister and Dudley" does capture the frisky energy and quotidian pleasures of spending time with the tune's sources of inspiration. Inspired by Fedchock and bass trombonist Jennifer Wharton's two namesake dogs, the piece evokes the pooches with affable affection.
Inserto recorded the title track, which was commissioned by the Amherst Jazz Ensemble, on her last album with Colours Jazz Orchestra, but that sojourn underground was a relatively calm excursion. Unleashing Garzone on the tempestuous chart results in a whirlwind adventure with his Mad Hatter saxophone inciting the band's tea party rumpus. The album's centerpiece is Inserto's two-part suite pairing of "Ze Teach" with "And Me," a commission by Madison Technical College. The first piece is inspired by Brookmeyer (who signed off on notes to Inserto as "Ze Teach") while the second movement is a powerhouse statement driven by her sensational rhythm section with guitarist Eric Hofbauer, pianist Jason Yeager, bassist Sean Farias, and drummer Austin McMahon (whose supple touch and architectural sense of form always elevates her music).
There are any number of ways to run and maintain a jazz orchestra. Duke Ellington's ornery crew was famous for its long-running feuds and disputations, a bumptious environment that clearly didn't impede his unprecedented creative output. Inserto has taken the opposite tack, fostering a familial vibe that encompasses her special guests. She met Jones during his tenure as chair of the Berklee College of Music's brass department. "We started collaborating early on," she says. "I've gotten to know him really well and was so excited he was into recording."
Garzone, who has mentored several generations of improvisers and is the subject of a new documentary Let Be What Is, has appeared on every album by Inserto's orchestra. Though not an official member, he has played an essential role in shaping the group's sound. Fedchock has intersected with Inserto in various ways over the years, from hiring her as a copyist way back when to marrying her longtime friend, the orchestra's able bass trombonist Jennifer Wharton.
Inserto worked assiduously to foster an environment in which exceptional musicians like trumpeter Dan Rosenthal, saxophonist Allan Chase, and reed expert/flutist Rick Stone can thrive. "I always cook for my band," she says. "Any time we have a gig I make sure they have food. I consider lot of the players close friends. My husband Jeff Claassen plays lead trumpet. There's a trombone and bass trombone duet in 'Mr. and Dudley,' featuring Jen and John. Randy Pingrey (trombone) and Kathy Olson (bari sax) are another married couple. There's not a single person in the band who I couldn't call on or hang out with."
Born in Singapore, Inserto was 14 when her family relocated to California. Within a year had settled in the San Francisco Bay Area's East Bay, where Inserto was well prepared to take advantage of the region's extensive jazz educational resources. She had started taking piano lessons as a child and jumped into music at her Catholic church where she became "very active in the church choir. They had this one band that had a little more modern sound," Inserto recalls. "I was playing the organ, and there was lot of improvising that would go on before the service started. A lot of our music only had lead sheets, and I'd make up stuff to go with them."
Introduced to jazz via the Manhattan Transfer, she learned to read chords from a book of Disney tunes and soon started substituting her own chord choices to make the songs sound more interesting. By the time she entered Clayton Valley High School in the East Bay city of Concord, Inserto was obsessed with music, playing piano in various school ensembles including the jazz band. She discovered Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner and other piano giants while continuing to study classical piano. She was also an avid member of the award-winning Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps, playing mallet percussion. A weeklong Berklee camp in Los Angeles expanded her jazz vocabulary exponentially, she says. "Around that time," she says, "I also got hired to write for the Blue Devils corps, writing all these mallet percussion ensemble pieces."
She attended Los Medanos College's respected jazz program for several years and then transferred to Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay), where she thrived under the tutelage of trombonist/arranger Dave Eshelman, a revered educator and bandleader who has mentored several generations of exceptional Bay Area jazz musicians (he provides Rabbit Hole's spot-on liner notes in verse). Encouraged to apply to New England Conservatory by saxophonist and NEC professor Allan Chase, Inserto was drawn to the school by Brookmeyer. "I studied two full years with him," says Inserto, now a long-time associate professor of jazz composition at Berklee College of Music. "I was writing from a piano player's point of view, and he got me into more melodic writing, developing these long lines. After NEC he really took me on as a mentor."
While Brookmeyer's influence is laced throughout Inserto's music she has honed an independent musical identity writing and arranging for her orchestra as well numerous other ensembles that come calling with commissions. Her orchestra's 2006 debut album Clairvoyance earned rave reviews hailing her vivid writing and seemingly boundless well of ideas. The project featured Brookmeyer, Garzone, and many of the key players who are still part of the 17-piece ensemble. Her second album, 2009's Muse, cemented her reputation as a composer and arranger of exceptional acuity.
The various connections manifesting in Down a Rabbit Hole are captured in the album's cover art by Kendall Eddy (a former bassist for the band). Inserto commissioned him to create the artwork, which features various layers of symbolism - like Boston's skyline in the background - readily discernible to a sharp-eyed observer. "There's the brook running through the field, which stands for Brookmeyer," Inserto says. "There are the three giants who drank the potion, like Alice, and became the big artists. I'm running around amidst all the madness."
Crazy like a fox, Inserto has created her own musical Wonderland with her orchestra, a sensational aural universe easily accessible with a little step down a rabbit hole.