Tuesday, January 30, 2024

The Neal Kirkwood Big Band - Night City

Night City, The Neal Kirkwood Big Band is, all at once, playful, urbane and exuberant. The musicians and the compositions conjure up hopes and dreams, bring to mind the magnificence and tawdriness of city life, and paint sound portraits which evoke breathtaking landscapes. Kirkwood’s melodies can be wistful, they can be mysterious, or uplifting. You will feel as if you’ve returned home with this album if you have spent time in a big city past midnight, with smoke billowing from the streets, parties in full flow, couples heading home, and many just heading out, characters hustling, the rhythm of traffic and of the subway underneath your feet, and of course music, emanating from everywhere.

Night City is pianist/composer Neal Kirkwood’s eighth recording, but his first big band album. Kirkwood has been writing music for big bands and large ensembles for over forty years, and Night City reflects his musical journey. The album also embraces the history of big bands through their many manifestations, from the 1920s into today. Night City opens with “Prelude: Invitation,” which is a lively rhythmic etude, introducing the listener to the band. Next up is “Eve’s Garden,” which Kirkwood describes as, “an outdoor drama, from unfolding beauty to battles with critters and ultimate triumph.” The lovely solos are from Ron Horton on flugelhorn and Kirkwood on piano. “Jim Knew” was written in memory of playwright Jim Neu, “the most knowledgeable jazz aficionado I ever met. He was the ideal listener, because whatever you played, Jim knew!,” explains Kirkwood. Bassist Jennifer Vincent and drummer Rob Garcia get things swinging, and we hear solos from trumpeter Andy Gravish, and alto saxophonist Bruce Williamson. “Paddy Harmon’s Dreamland Ballroom” is an homage to Chicago in the 1920s, and the colorful character Paddy Harmon, owner of the Dreamland Ballroom in Chicago. Kirkwood elaborates, “Paddy financed the introduction of the Harmon mute, used by brass players to create a unique timbre.” Featured soloists are Dan Block on clarinet and David Smith on trumpet. “Skywalkers,” which was commissioned for a tap dance piece, features Willie Applewhite on trombone and Adam Kolker on tenor sax, with the entire band chiming in for some riveting moments. 

Other highlights on Night City include, “When I Hear That Serenade In Blue,” originally a setting of Jack Kerouac’s poem from Mexico City Blues for jazz vocal ensemble. After a piano introduction, Diana Herold takes the lead vocal line on the vibraphone, and we hear James Zollar on trumpet. The title track, “Night City,” was inspired by Maurice Lapp’s painting of the same name. Kirkwood explains, “this composition imagines a night on the town with two musician friends. Their adventure begins quietly but soon the conversation becomes lively. Things get a little crazy and wild, but as dawn approaches they head home amicably, contemplating the wonders of the city at night. The two friends are portrayed by James Rogers on bass trombone, and Ed Neumeister on trombone. “Alaskan Serenade” is dedicated to saxophonist/composer Harry Mann, and was composed for the great Ellington trombonist Britt Woodman. The featured soloist is Art Baron, who worked with Ellington’s last band. David Smith takes the trumpet solo. On “Interlude: Play” we are treated to lovely and intriguing duet for marimba, performed by Diana Herold and Neal Kirkwood. “Monolithic Attitude” is one of Kirkwood’s earliest compositions, and features Matt Hong on soprano sax, Adam Kolker, James Zollar, Willie Applewhite and Patience Higgins trading fours and soloing collectively; and the composer soloing on piano. Kirkwood explains that, “this music depicts an epic confrontation, and I hope it resolves satisfactorily!” The album closes with a dedication to Kirkwood’s memories of Bill Evans. “The Light of Birds” gets its title from the last line of Jacques PrĂ©vert’s poem Au Hasard Des Oiseaux (“Birds, At Random”). It features the composer on piano with flute work by Matt Hong and Adam Kolker.

More about Neal Kirkwood: Pianist, composer, and educator Neal Kirkwood’s main ensemble right now is his seventeen-piece ensemble, The Neal Kirkwood Big Band, featured on Night City. Throughout his long career he has also composed for classical ensembles, vocal ensembles, solo piano and full orchestra. He has received commissions from the New York State Music Fund; the New York State Council for the Arts; the Children’s Aid Society; the Jazz Composer’s Alliance and Belgian ensemble, Octurn. His melodic, harmonically rich compositions draw from Ellington, Gil Evans, Stravinsky, Bartok and others. His music has been described by Tim Page as, “simultaneously modernist and immediately appealing: lyrical, gracious and rhapsodic in character.” As a band leader and soloist, Kirkwood has released seven albums: Piano Stories (2022), Welcome To My Dream (2021), Blue Inventions (2019), The Neal Kirkwood Octet, The Chromatic Persuaders, Extrospection and Time’s Circle.

Kirkwood has performed and recorded with jazz artists Pony Poindexter, Bobby Previte, Lindsey Horner, Phillip Johnston, Mike Clark and others. He has toured internationally with vocalists Bobby McFerrin, Abby Lincoln, Michel Hermon, and Chris Connor. Kirkwood continues to work extensively as a composer and performer with NYC's creative and experimental theater ensembles, and has composed new music for Ralph Lee’s Mettawee Theater for twenty years. He has also composed songs and incidental music for playwright Jim Neu productions and has worked with experimental theater directors Joseph Chaiken and Anne Bogart.

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