Sunday, May 07, 2006

Better Late Than...

One of the vagaries of print journalism is that sometimes there simply isn't enough room to get everything into print in a timely matter. What follows is a review I wrote for the Globe and Mail of Gary Morgan and PanAmerica! that met just such a fate.

Gary Morgan and PanAmericana!
At the Montreal Bistro in Toronto on Monday, April 24

Reviewed by J.D. Considine

If there’s any truth to the saying “talent will out,” then there will undoubtedly come a day when Gary Morgan is widely recognized as one of the brightest big band composer/arrangers in the business.

For now, however, the former Torontonian is merely one of the better-kept secrets in jazz. Based in Manhattan, he has been directing and composing for a Latin big band he calls PanAmericana! (yes, the exclamation mark is part of the name). On Monday, he brought his book and a select group of Toronto musicians to the Montreal Bistro, where they blew the roof off the joint for two sets. It was the sort of performance that makes you understand why Morgan feels entitled to that exclamation mark.

There’s no denying the guy’s mastery of his trade. Where many big band arrangements seldom move beyond the primary colours of saxophones, trombones and trumpets, Morgan’s charts work from a surprisingly varied and subtle palette, both by adding less common voices (two French horns as well as having the saxophonists double on flute, piccolo and bass clarinet) to the mix, and by taking a more orchestral approach to the ensemble, so that the instrumental voices are woven together in a rich tapestry of sound.

Moreover, because his PanAmericana! project draws from a variety of Latin musical traditions, Morgan has also mastered the art of writing rhythm — samba, bembe, beguine, you name it. As such, his charts are not only written around very explicit beats, they use changes in the rhythmic pulse as part of the compositional development, as well as additional fuel for improvisation.

Although Morgan’s crew had only a few hours of rehearsal, they performed with such authority you’d have thought this was their regular Monday night gig. It helped that Morgan had assembled an ace rhythm section, with Hilario Duran on piano, Roberto Occhipinti on electric bass, and powerhouse drummer Mark Kelso augmented by two percussionists. But it wasn’t just the rhythm section; the whole band seemed not only to get what Morgan was aiming for, but responded enthusiastically to his direction.

This wasn’t easy music, either. Morgan’s arrangement of Deanna Witkowski’s Happening At Once, for instance, was built over two distinct rhythmic ideas, one a loping, West African-derived 6/8, the other a more conventional Cuban pulse. On top of all that, there was some delightfully kaleidoscopic interplay between the brass and reeds, which sketched a harmonic structure every bit as intricate as the rhythm. Not only was it played beautifully, but there was an illuminating contrast in Morgan’s soloists, with tenor saxophonist Quinsin Nachoff varying his phrasing in response to the rippling shifts within the percussion, while Kevin Turcotte’s trumpet opted for a straight, boppish line over the roiling rhythm.

There was also a wonderfully inventive treatment of the Cole Porter chestnut I Concentrate on You, which opened with gorgeous pedal-point harmonies before slipping into a sly, sophisticated beguine. Mark Promane offered a wonderfully tart solo on alto saxophone, but the highlight of the performance was probably the arrangement itself, which loaded increasingly dense harmonies into each verse so that Porter’s habit of ending a minor-chord line with a sunny major-chord resolution took on additional impact with each iteration. Brilliant stuff.

By the time they got to the hymn-like opening of Milton Nascimento’s Vera Cruz at the end of the first set, Morgan had made it clear that he deserves to be thought of in the same terms as classic big band composers as Chico O’Farrill and Neil Hefti. Here’s hoping that doesn’t stay a secret.

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