by John Cook
The local saxophonist Brad Linde and his 18-piece expanded ensemble joined the fabled alto saxophonist Lee Konitz at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on June 14, performing the American premiere of a challenging set of Konitz-related arrangements. Linde, 33, is a Konitz student, the Atlas’s jazz advisor, a co-director of the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra, and an all-around switchboard operator for the D.C. jazz scene. With this performance, one of the last at this year’s DC Jazz Festival, Linde once again raised the profile of big bands in the city in a triumph of organization, artistry and balance.
The foundation of the evening’s success was laid by Linde’s careful selection of a very effective group of players reflecting local, national and international origins and reputations. The sundry, swinging unit came together tightly despite having only one rehearsal, and it included a cross-section of D.C. talent, including a handful from the Bohemian Caverns big band’s ranks; some of the best musicians from Baltimore and New York; the Austrian pianist Florian Weber, and the 85-year-old master at the fore. The engine of any big band is the rhythm section, and it was truly a joy to hear the drummer Matt Wilson and the bassist Michael Formanek propel the music, particularly since it is rare to hear them in this sort of context.
As with any great big band, the players struck an innate, illusive balance between the music’s arranged and improvised elements, while Linde deftly orchestrated the compositions from within the flow of the performances. (The arrangements, by Michael Abene, had originally been performed by Cologne’s WDR Big Band in spring 2012.) Konitz’s intentional, improvised dialogues with soloists led to many memorable exchanges, perhaps highlighted by Leigh Pilzer’s baritone saxophone solo with Konitz, and later the trumpeter Carol Morgan and Matt Wilson’s near-whispered volleys.
The band effectively wrapped itself up inside Konitz’s unique feel and voice, imbuing the arrangements and solos with his characteristic style – clarion, bright, warm. And Konitz displayed his own still-agile imagination by opening a number of songs in unaccompanied solos, frequently improvising lyrical lines, and drawing the other musicians into new territory. The notoriously gruff Konitz was obviously quite pleased with the result, revealing an unexpected sense of humor in off-the-cuff comments and ending his closing remarks with generous compliments for Linde and the band.
Perhaps most remarkable was the size and diversity of the audience, which locked into the performance quickly. This nearly sold-out show had the highest ticket sales of any presentation so far in the two-year history of Jazz at the Atlas, according to Linde. In my opinion, it was the perfect sort of event for the DC Jazz Festival: It seized the opportunity to present these musicians in a completely different context from the one in which you’d normally see them – mixing local and international talents in a unique, well-thought-out program. None of this would be possible without the larger permanent infrastructure that is flourishing in D.C.; it includes a community of players up to the challenge, a venue that is committed to presenting and supporting a top-flight, creative programming schedule; an imaginative and well-connected curator; generous patrons who funded the arrangements; and a large, enthusiastic audience to appreciate the way these efforts came together.