Last night in the Old First Presbyterian Church the Resonance Jazz Ensemble, led by Stephen McQuarry, returned to the Old First Concerts (O1C) series. This was my third encounter with the group, although I think it was their fourth O1C performance. The group might be called a “little big band,” since it is on the same scale at the Fil Lorenz Little Big Band that played at Union Square Live a little over a week ago. However, neither the instrumentation nor the book follow the usual big band traditions, which is what makes Resonance such an absorbing listening experience.
The biggest departures from tradition can be found on the front line. About the only “standard” player is saxophonist Georgianna Krieger, who played soprano, tenor, and baritone over the course of the evening. She was joined by flutist Laura Austin Wiley, who also took one vocal number. The most noticeable difference, however, was that the rest of the front line consisted of a string trio, Michèle Walther on violin, Charith Premawardhana on viola, and Nancy Bien on cello. The rhythm section was more traditional with Ted Burik on bass, Greg German on drums, and McQuarry leading from the piano.
Equally impressive was how many members of the group contributed to either composition or arrangement. Indeed, McQuarry was the only arranger, presenting Chick Corea’s “Spain” and what the program listed as “Jupiter” by Gustav Holst. (For those who like to pick nits, the arrangement was actually of the British patriotic hymn “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” which Holst set to a poem by Cecil Spring Rice. The music was such a favorite that he worked it into the middle section of the “Jupiter” movement from his suite The Planets.) McQuarry also concluded the program with his own “Journey of Each Other.” The program also included one piece by Wiley (“Waiting for Rain,” the opening selection), two by Krieger (“Jingletown” and “Last Honeybee”), two by Bien (“Banana Bread” and “Smoke and Mirrors”), and two by Walther (“Five Seasons” and “Anoushka’s Story,” along with the encore selection, “Valentine’s Waltz”).
Taken as a whole, the evening was a delightful journey through a wide variety of both composition styles and approaches to performance. Most surprising was that Bien’s performance as a cellist contrasted sharply with her preference for down-and-dirty blues as a composer. (“Banana Bread” was the selection in which Wiley shifted from flute to voice; and her approach to blues was a real hoot.) However, the full scope of the program made it clear that this was a repertoire that was as much chamber music as jazz by other means as it was jazz as chamber music by other means. This puts McQuarry in the same league as Satoko Fuji, who similarly seems more inclined to synthesize traditional categories, rather than pull them apart.