Night Lights - Liner Notes by Dr. Herb Wong
The refreshing jazz dialect and inspiration of Octobop are built on the sturdy shoulders of the landmark dimensions in modern jazz orchestrations of the 1950s. It is not, however, just a niche repertory band simply replicating the past. It is aimed at blending the writing for the eight-musician jazz ensemble with improvised features, and it centers infusions of modern jazz elements embracing a gentle tonality with no vibrato and a relatively subdued use of rhythm. To achieve this, the number of instruments is reduced without compromising the wide range of colorful voicings, usually found in large orchestras. Moreover, the variations in the use of dynamics, tempos, and ensemble palette are intrinsic elements.
Octobop leader Geoff Roach says, "From a practical point of view, I like it because it's smaller than a big band, giving some structure, melody, and enough space for all to play. It's also more organized than a bunch of guys standing up at a free blowing session." Historically, it is a reflection of the genesis and overtones of the legendary Miles Davis Nonet, which spurred the growth of other mid-sized groups such as the Gerry Mulligan Tentette, Shorty Rogers Octet, Marty Paich Dektette and the Dave Pell Octet. Octobop carries the salient values of this tradition with its own twist. From an arranger's viewpoint, having six melodic instruments permits writing a spread of textures.
Roach cites the integration of "a bari/guitar playing a line together versus the trumpet/vibes versus the tenor and trombone" evoking the concept of different lines is associated with the luminous writing of Bill Holman. Octobop's music reveals relevant connections to those ideas with solid integrity. The combinations of unlike instruments within the slate of tunes on this CD express an expanded spectrum of sounds, as well as deeply colored segments of the aural color wheel.
Exciting harmony between the solo voices and the band is so immediate that it suggests they are unified. Each piece possesses an aura of completeness and each soloist makes a firm, interesting statement. Bolstered with expressive players capable of wide range, there is depth in both tone and content. By way of the finery of lyrical writing and felicitous performances of the band, the broader textures, hues, deep sonority and harmonic shifts contribute to the handsome subtleties in harmony.
The band's ability to strike a fine balance of technical precision with depths of emotional warmth is worthy of notice. The dozen performances on the CD illuminate Octobop's spirited personality and passionate style. Staked on the heritage of West Coast jazz, Roach and the band shape the music anew. He has been successful in capturing nuances and freshness and weaving them into his arrangements.
Critical to the CD's presentation is the choice of material, ranging from refreshing re-makes culled from the West Coast jazz canon to the works of a cadre of superb writers in the ‘cool’ idiom. The thoughtfully chosen selections show that Roach's studious research and inherent good taste—spiced with passion and wit—has clearly paid dividends.
Both a veteran executive in the software industry and lifelong reed player, Roach had studied arranging with harmonic wizard, pianist Don Haas, and briefly with Russ Hoffman of Berklee College. His inspirational models include Gerry Mulligan, Shorty Rogers, Jimmy Giuffre, Bill Holman, Marty Patch, Nelson Riddle, and Henry Mancini. Roach's perceptual snapshots from the musical photo album of Octobop and the tunes offer keen pertinence.
From the potent pen of versatile Mulligan, the opening salvo Rocker was part of the "Birth of the Cool" recording that articulated the fusion of elements from bebop with several characteristic jazz practices. Roach adapted Mulligan's chart to better fit Octobop, retaining the disciplined merger of the written and improvised, plus the pre-arranged and the spontaneous. "What went well was the interplay and the use of different colors," observes Roach. "I changed the original lead of trumpet/alto to trumpet/vibes. For a 50-year-old tune, it sounds incredibly modern. Listen to Matt and Randy --interesting ideas!"
Walkin' Shoes is a Mulligan classic from 1953. Roach wrote an adaptation for tenor and baritone in place of the original tandem of trumpet and baritone. Along with Mulligan's beautiful, disarming Night Lights, Walkin' Shoes makes up the pair of his tunes very frequently programmed by yours truly during my over 30 years of jazz radiocasts on KJAZ-FM. By the way, Roach invited vocalist Nancy Gilliland to record on Night Lights after he serendipitously heard her sing it at Cafe Fino--her weekend gig in Palo Alto. He exclaims, "She blew me away!" She and Octobop deliver with a gorgeous feel and melodic strength.
Marty Paich's Blue Mist hints at Ellingtonian flavors with an infectious melodic line. The vibes and rhythm players are such an attractive foil with the ambient horns! Randy Smith blows a sympathetic trumpet. Matt Kesner's solo opens with shades of Ben Webster and Darrell Jefferson's plunger is compatibly effective. Also apropos is Roach's bass sax solo.
Inextricably connected to West Coast jazz, Bill Holman's brilliant, fresh writing promotes a special brand of excitement. Holman says he strives for "form, continuity and economy while retaining the swing and vitality necessary to a good jazz feel.” His Jazz Goes to Siwash is an “incredibly complex chart to play well and does twists and turns so typical of Holman,” notes Roach. Dig the nice bits by trombonist Bob Boring, guitarist Bob Calder and a series of paired voices.
Bud Shank's Cotton Blossom is from the 1960s when it was titled Sambinha. Featured highlights include Smith's fiery, crackling horn, Kesner's hip soprano and Roach's lusty baritone.
Jazz Wagner is Shorty Rogers' prancing essay for Jack Wagner, a deejay on L.A.'s KBIQ-FM in the 50s who used it as his theme music. A very swinging chart with engaging solos propelled by the resilient support of David Kopf on bass and Jon Wagner on drums.
Notably linked to alto saxophonist Art Pepper, his original Minor Yours was featured on record in 1956 with Chet Baker, Phil Urso and the trio of Carl Perkins, Curtis Counce and Lawrence Marable. Roach's lightly floating pure baritone voice and vibraphonist Bill Hazzard's fluidity are especially appealing.
Dave Pell's Octet was a reigning small big band in the 50s. Pell's group played numerous campus hops and made recordings aimed at campus audiences. Prom to Prom is typical fare and certainly Octobop's execution and delivery is complimentary.
Ah, talk about appealing sounds—Neal Hefti and Bobby Troup's lovely Girl Talk fills the bill. Again it was through Roach's alertness to a happenstance that it is included here. He recalls, "Rehearsing one night, our guitarist Bob began fooling around with Girl Talk and Bill, our vibist, joined in and I was hooked. I wrote the chart over the next two nights.” Don't miss how Roach snuck in a bit of Hefti's Lil' Darlin’. (The bell tones of the beginning are basically what Count Basie's guitarist Freddie Green played!)
Jeru is hard core Mulligan. It amplifies how resourceful he was in pulling off some intriguing things. They swing so much that his interesting details may elude the listener. There is a gang of time signatures to catch—check the bridge. Coupled with the harmonic structure, the piece could verily be as fresh as today. Roach says, "Gerry had many different ways to reharmonize standard tunes resulting in a series of different textures floating all through the song."
A driving closer, Shorty Rogers’ 12 bar blues Short Stop is characteristic of West Coast writers and arrangers. Layered above the blues structure, Rogers wrote a host of mobile harmonies. It is rooted in the blues, but as Roach pointed out, "Shorty did something so it wasn't just an open blowing jam. It’s obligatory to navigate through the interesting harmonies. Part of the challenge of this music is to make it familiar enough for people, but to make it different enough to provide a challenge for both the listener and the player."
In sum, Geoff Roach remarks: "The music was so interesting and so much fun to play. We enjoy playing it and keeping it moving forward." Indeed, Octobop's second CD possesses a buoyant, forward-motion quality through its own lens. "Night Lights" is a ’cool’ voyage.
Dr. Herb Wong