Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Michael Treni Big Band: Pop-Culture Blues

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

In this age of miniaturization and mobile optimization, it’s nice to find something big.

I’m all for portability, compression, zipping and unzipping of data which allows for accessing information anywhere and everywhere in a variety of formats, but sometimes I want the real deal.

I don’t want to squint my eyes, plug-in earphones or manipulate gadgets and widgets with tactile precision, I want to encounter the life-size version.

When I’m in this mood, nothing satisfies my appetite for things full-size more than a Jazz big band.

Four trumpets; four trombones [preferably five with two bass trombones], five saxes [2 altos, 2 tenors, one baritone], guitar, piano, bass, drums; I want the sound to be so rich and vibrant that I can almost wade into a big band’s sonority.

In this regard, the new Pop-Culture Blues CD by the Michael Treni Big Band certainly brings on the satisfying bigness that reminds me of why I fell in love with Jazz big bands in the first place – they are excitement personified.

Michael Treni is a trombonist who brings three important things to his big band – musicians who know how to play in a big band setting, an understanding of the range of each instrument so as to make them standout individually and collectively and the ability to write arrangements that make a big band sound full, powerful and pulsating.

Big band Jazz is music for grown-ups. You can’t mess with it, but it is easy to mess it up. If it is not done properly, staffing and writing for a big band can result in an implosion – muddled sound, tedious solos and rhythms that are lifeless and drone on with monotony.

Instead of the big, explosive resonance of a stirring big band one gets a jumbled cacophony of boring, repetitive blarings.

Mike Treni’s new recording does a superb job of featuring big band Jazz at its best.

Now only does it offer 18 first-rate musicians in every chair, but its ten compositions have been arranged by Michael into a thematic suite.

As he explains it in his introductory insert notes:

“To Most People, Pop-Culture and the Blues go together like peanuts and popcorn.

After all, Pop-Culture refers to what is popular in the cultural mainstream, and what could be more popular than the blues? Of all American music, the blues is perhaps the most widely known and admired around the world. The blues, which has its roots in the African American spiritual, plays a major role in most popular music forms including, gospel, jazz, rock and roll, and of course, rhythm and blues. Its influences can even be found in folk, pop and rap music.

The definition of the blues varies from source to source but there is a common thread throughout all.

Merriam-Webster defines the blues as "A song often of lamentation characterized by usually 12-bar phrases..."

According to the Harvard Dictionary of Music, the blues is "A standard rhythmic-harmonic structure in which the 12-bar progression...may be rendered literally...or radically altered, as in modern jazz improvisation. Secondary dominants and dominant substitutions are common in jazz styles, and the use of the lowered seventh degree in bar 4 (producing the dominant seventh of the IV of bar 5) is especially common."

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians states that the blues is "Melancholic music of black American folk origin, typically in a twelve-bar sequence... finding a wider audience in the 1940s, as blacks migrated to the cities. This urban blues gave rise to rhythm and blues and rock and roll."

Wikipedia says "Blues Is the name given to both a musical form and a music genre that originated in African-American communities... from spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts and chants, and rhymed simple narrative ballads. The blues form, ubiquitous in jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll is characterized by specific chord progressions, of which the twelve-bar blues chord progression is the most common."

The common thread in all these definitions is that the blues is most frequently found as a 12-bar form made up of Dominant 7th chords with the IV chord used in the 5th measure. Given the historical underpinnings of the blues, perhaps Pop-Culture and the blues aren't as like-minded as people think.

One aspect of Pop-Culture is that in order to find consensual acceptance throughout the mainstream it has become fashionable to dismiss much of the traditions and standards of the past. In the arts, music, film, and literature there seem to be an attitude that previous forms and techniques are not only passé, but are to be avoided. This is especially true in music where musicians often say they must disavow the past in order to move the art form forward. Is this the reason, or is it because, in their rush to seek peer acceptance and celebrity status, many of today's musicians feel it takes too much time and trouble to assimilate and master the prior art?

Roger Kimball, writing on the legacy of Hilton Kramer, one of the founders of the literary magazine, The New Criterion, observes that "Tradition is not the enemy, but the indispensable handmaiden of originality and lasting cultural achievement".
Today, the embracing of tradition in popular music is rare, but when it comes to the blues, its practitioners understand the importance of preserving its legacy through their own work.

The same is true in jazz where musicians strive to preserve the genre's heritage even as they seek to innovate. This is particularly apparent when it comes to the use of the blues in jazz. There have been many modifications to the blues form over the years contributed by players and composers alike.

- 16-bar blues (12 bar blues with a 4 bar turnaround extension)
- 24-bar blues (usually written in 6/8 or 3/4 time)
- Minor blues (blues based on a minor key)
- Major 7th (Bop) blues   (with chromatically descending II-V progressions)
- Other variations and combinations of the above are possible and even songs that use a non-standard form and harmonic structure can also be labeled a blues if it is evocative of the genre.

That the blues has played and continues to play a central role in jazz is evident by its continued popularity over the course of jazz history. Go to any jam session and invariably at some point one of the performers will call a blues "head" (blues song). Blues heads are universally known among jazz musicians and most jazz players consider the blues the perfect vehicle with which to demonstrate their improvisatory skills.

What many players, even experienced players, fail to realize is that the blues can actually highlight the limitations of an improviser. It is much easier to master improvisation on a tune with many chord changes, such as "Giant Steps" (tempo aside), as there are fewer correct note choices and less time for thematic development. In the blues, there are many more scale and note choices available and more time to outline the harmony of the moment and develop thematic ideas. While this might seem easier to the uninformed, it is in fact more demanding of the improviser. The notion that there are "no wrong notes' in the blues is somewhat of a fiction, for in the blues, there are always "better" notes with their implied harmonic substitutions available at any given time.

The blues is not only important to jazz players, it is important to jazz composers as well. Consider the following jazz blues compositions that have become an essential part of the jazz repertoire; "All Blues" (Miles Davis), "Billie's Bounce" (Charlie Parker), "Blue Trane" (John Coltrane), "Blues on the Corner" (McCoy Tyner), "Footprints" (Wayne Shorter), "Straight No Chaser "(Thelonious Monk), "Stolen Moments" (Oliver Nelson), "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" (Duke Ellington), "Watermelon Man" (Herbie Hancock).

Pop-Culture Blues is a suite in 10 parts that presents the development of the blues within the jazz idiom by utilizing the changing compositional styles prevalent from the late 1950s to today. The goal of the composer is to present the most important
variations of the form in both technical and stylistic terms, though there are certainly many more variations possible than the ones contained on this recording. The complete work presents a logical and inclusive progression from traditional to contemporary blues, in so far as the composer is inclined and his
craft is capable.

Each movement was written to reflect the compositional style (at least in spirit) of an influential jazz composer or band leader of that period.”

The 10 ten tracks are:

01.   One for Duke [Inspired by the music of Duke Ellington
02.   BQE Blues [Inspired by the music of the Basie band]
03.   Minor Blues [Inspired by the music of Charles Mingus]
04.   Bluesy Bossa Nova [Inspired by Lee Morgan/Other 1960’s Blue Note artists]
05.   More Than 12 Blues [Inspired by the music of Gerry Mulligan & the “cool” school]
06.   Summer Blues Inspired by the music of John Coltrane & Oliver Nelson]
07.   Blues in Triplicate [Inspired by the music of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and the orchestrations of Gil Evans]
08.   Mr. Funky Blues [Inspired by the music of the Brecker Brothers]
09.   Smokin’ Blues [Inspired by the music of McCoy Tyner]
10.   Pop Culture Blues [Given the stylistic arc of this recording the listener probably expects the closing track to be the most contemporary of the suite. The composer has chosen instead to finish off the album on a more relaxed note. Pop-Culture Blues incorporates a variety of stylistic elements that is both representative of contemporary practice yet also pays tribute to the past..]

“What then is the Pop-Culture Blues? Several interpretations are possible. Pop-Culture Blues could refer to the importance of the blues within Pop-Culture. It could also describe the feeling that certain people get when they consider the influence that Pop-Culture has had on music, the arts, and society in general. It might even be that the music on this recording is a product of our Pop-Culture. Which meaning is correct? Perhaps it is all three. - Michael Treni, January, 2013”

Ann Braithwaite and her fine team are handling the media relations for Pop-Culture Blues and here’s what Braithwaite & Katz Communications had to say about the recording in their media release.

With Pop-Culture Blues Composer/Arranger Mike Treni Delivers A Thrilling & Thoughtful Jazz Journey Through America's Quintessential Musical Form
Featuring an 18-piece orchestra with saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi & trumpeter Freddie Hendrix

Like a trickster in a West African folk tale, the blues can come in a multiplicity of guises, from a soul-bearing lament on a bottleneck guitar to a buoyant blast of brass on a ballroom bandstand. Trombonist Mike Treni, a well-traveled composer who has reemerged in recent years as one of the most resourceful arrangers on the jazz scene, knows that above all the blues is a communal celebration, and he gives the stellar cast of improvisers on his new album Pop-Culture Blues plenty to party with. Slated for release June 25, 2013 on Bell Production Co., Treni's fifth big band album offers a sweeping historical overview of the blues' pervasive presence in post-World War II American jazz, while suggesting that we need look no further for the soul that's absent in so much contemporary culture.

I’ve always been fascinated with the blues from a player's perspective; there are so many different things you can do with the form," says Treni, who composed all the pieces to evoke or pay tribute to jazz masters who have fruitfully explored the blues. "The title isn't exactly a commentary, but a lot of artists and musicians don't want to know the accomplishments of the past. I don't have a problem with people doing their own thing, but not with ignoring the craft."

A savvy concept album that wears its theme with grace and style, Pop-Culture Blues is a 10-movement suite that explores modern jazz's rapidly evolving compositional styles through the lens of the blues. A project devoted to investigating the elasticity of the blues is promising to begin with (see: Coltrane, John Coltrane Plays the Blues). What makes Treni's music so enthralling is that he has attracted a jazz orchestra laden with world-class section players and improvisers who can express themselves with authority in an array of blues idioms.

The album opens with Treni's "One for Duke," a piece inspired by the Maestro, Duke Ellington, who found an inexhaustible well of inspiration in the blues. A swaggering polytonal number that provides tenor sax legend Jerry Bergonzi with a lush but indeterminate harmonic field over which to gambol, the tune gets things started with a rush of adrenaline.

From the heady opener Treni charges headlong into the suite with the raucously riffing "BQE Blues," a tribute to Count Basie's powerful New Testament Band, featuring a searing tenor saxophone solo by Frank Elmo (a versatile New York cat who should be heard more in jazz contexts).

"The closest band I can think of where you have this kind flexibility are early Thad Jones/Mel Lewis bands," Treni says. "The breadth of ability to cover various styles is mind blowing."

As no modern jazz composer made more vivid use of the trombone than Charles Mingus, Treni picks the perfect spot to step forward with a lowdown gritty solo on his Mingusian "Minor Blues."

He tips his hat to Coltrane on "Summer Blues," a modal vehicle for two of the ensembles most potent players, Bergonzi and powerhouse trumpeter Freddie Hendrix, who's recorded widely with George Benson and performed with heavyweights such as Lou Donaldson, Slide Hampton, Wynton Marsalis, Rufus Reid, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and Michael Brecker.

The Breaker Brothers inspired Treni's "Mr. Funky Blues," a sassy, brassy modal workout featuring some appropriately tough tenor work by Frank Elmo and a pungently expressive solo by the great Bob Ferrel on a fearsome buccin trombone.

Treni closes the album with the title track, a wide-ranging and supremely hip chart that breaks the orchestra up into various units and then regroups in full force.
Just when it seems like the band must have revealed all its treasures, a new array of solos highlights masters such as tenor saxophonist Ken Hitchcock (whose credits include recordings with several of the legends evoked on this album, namely Charles Mingus and Gerry Mulligan), and the supremely swinging drummer Ron Vincent, a longtime Mulligan collaborator who's also recorded with Phil Woods, Lee Konitz, Bill Charlap, John Lewis, and Slide Hampton, among many others.

"Each guy has a niche, and on every tune someone can stand up and play with complete authority," Treni says. "It's like having a baseball team with a deep bench. I thought a lot about which guys to feature, and put them in spots that showed off their strengths."

Pop-Culture Blues is the latest and most ambitious missive from an artist in the midst of a sensational resurgence. After a promising start on the New York scene as part of a cadre of brilliant young improvisers, Treni eventually walked away from music in the late 1980s to pursue an entrepreneurial vision as the founder of a company specializing in innovative wireless audio and language interpretation systems (he holds two patents in wireless technology).

A decade ago he returned to jazz, his first passion. Working in partnership with his equally gifted producer, Roy Nicolosi, who's also an accomplished reed player, he gradually assembled the Michael Treni Big Band, a jazz orchestra loaded with heavyweight players. With critically acclaimed albums such as 2007's Detour, 2009's Turnaround, and 2012's Boys Night Out, Treni has taken his rightful place in the jazz firmament. As Mark Gilbert wrote about Boys Night Out: "5 out of 5 stars.... Smartly played swinging set of standards and originals with Jerry Bergonzi. Outstanding." While his reemergence is a welcome development, given his background it's not a surprise.

Treni earned a full scholarship to Boston's Berklee College of Music, but instead enrolled at the University of Miami, where he displayed such prowess that the school recruited him for the faculty at 19. Before long, he launched the band Kaleidoscope with classmate Pat Metheny. By the mid-1970s he was a rising player in New York City keeping company with other prodigious young artists like Tom Harrell, John McNeil, Paul McCandless and Earl Gardner. But when Treni lost the opportunity to tour Europe with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, his ambition took him in another direction. Recommended for the Messengers by his University of Miami buddy Bobby Watson, Treni impressed Blakey at an on­stage audition at the Village Vanguard.

"After the set Art came up and gave me a bear hug and said, 'Damn man, you can play! Treni recalls. "I finished the week with him and everything seemed set for the European tour, but when I didn't hear anything I called Bobby. It turned out that Curtis Fuller heard about the tour and asked if he could do it, so I didn't get to go. That snapped something in me. If I wasn't going to play with Blakey, I was going to pursue a career as a writer and commercial arranger."

Treni brings all his far-flung experiences to bear in Pop-Culture Blues, a tremendously rewarding and entertaining album that highlights the enduring wisdom of Art Blakey's first impression.

Order information about the CD is available at Once on the site, click on “Recordings."

And with the help of the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD and the production facilities at StudioCerra, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles has developed the following video on which you can preview Mr. Funky Blues from the new CD.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave your comments here. Thank you.