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Brief Repairs on the
Gradually Unraveling Spool
in The Sense Continuum

Contrary to what Ken Burns' "Jazz" series might've led you to believe, large ensemble jazz did not die with Ellington only to be resurrected by Wynton. While the music business shift toward rock in the 1960s made touring big bands into economic albatrosses, a separate tradition of creative music orchestras developed and miraculously survived. Sun Ra kept his Arkestra together through thin (rarely was there ever "thick" for them) and composed reams of innovative music for the group; Gil Evans used the cream of New York's most advanced musicians to perform his brilliant scores; Michael Mantler and Carla Bley started the Jazz Composers Orchestra; and in Chicago AACM founder Muhal Richard Abrams was stretching the music with his Experimental Band. The 1970s saw amazing large group music from Anthony Braxton, Sam Rivers, Horace Tapscott's Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra, and South African expatriate Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath. A new page in jazz history was being written.

It is within this maverick tradition that we happily find guitarist/composer Jonathan Freilich's Naked Orchestra. It was an impressive feat when Freilich first assembled this group, whose personnel comprise a Who's Who of the best and busiest players in New Orleans, for a few concerts at Tip's and the Mermaid. So it's damn-near a magic trick that he's managed to keep the project alive, do more shows, and produce this recording, which beautifully documents nine pieces from the group's expanding repertoire.

It has been said before but it bears repeating: there is just something about the sound of a big band. The massed instruments allow for such expanded color and power that the listeners and musicians alike feel awash in the sound. Freilich knows this, and uses the increased firepower of the Naked Orchestra to great effect: there is majesty and thumping swagger, delicate shading and lyricism, jubilation, nostalgia, and fury in these nine pieces.

The Naked Orchestra began in 1997 as an outgrowth of recording sessions for Freilich's small group Naked On the Floor. As the revolving door of players expanded, Jonathan saw the opportunity to expand the group to orchestra size and began adapting some pieces to that scale. Enter composition professor Dr. Jimbo Walsh (bassist in Michael Ray's Cosmic Krewe), from whom Freilich was taking composition lessons at the time. Jimbo helped arrange some of the pieces and offered his services as conductor, initiating a sort of David Murray-Butch Morris dynamic between him and Freilich.

Anyone who has seen one of the (only) ten Naked Orchestra gigs can attest to the excitement of hearing Freilich's vision played out on such a large scale. I am happy to report that this recording captures those thrills for home-blasting use. "Nicholas Slonimsky's Freedom Mambo Jazz Dance Party" kicks things off in an appropriately celebratory fashion—wonderful contrasting use of barking trombones against shimmering flutes. "Sunny's Late Night Hammer" is an explicit tribute to Sun Ra, built on a bass line reminiscent of Ra's "Love in Outer Space"—there is excellent use of baritone saxes on this track and throughout the recording, another nod to Sunny's legacy. "Memories of 22 Dartmouth Road" uses program music motifs to invoke some of Freilich's childhood experiences. "The Semitic Problem" opens with a klezmer fanfare before locking into a gutbucket backbeat like Julius Hemphill's classic "Dogon A.D." Dynamic shifts ensue, and then you're swept into some Sousa-march in the Catskills with tailgating TremŽ trombones riding shotgun.

"Well... Whatever!" invokes Charles Mingus, especially his underrated large group outing "Let My Children Hear Music." Hot horn solos on this track too, though one wishes for a listing of the soloists in the copious and otherwise excellent liner notes. Then we get to Jimbo Walsh's composition "Memories of Illegal Music," perhaps the standout track on the disc. The title refers to the types of music banned by the Nazi regime, most notably African-American jazz and the 12-tone compositions of Schoenberg and the second Viennese school. Coincidentally (or not!) these musical forms are crucial to the legacy of the current creative music vanguard. So Jimbo poses the question: Why did they feel the need to ban it? "Can you hear freedom?" Well I think you certainly can in this piece, especially in the rip-snorting tenor solo from (I think) Quintology's Brent Rose. Walsh's use of 12-tone techniques in a jazz context is mature and confident, no fumbling experimentation here, resulting in a strong and moving declaration of defiance to the forces that seek to crush creative spirits.

Freilich takes some nicely spiky guitar solos on various tunes on the disc, but it is to his credit that he subsumes his own playing to the voice of the group. As a matter of fact there are fine solos all around. Special mention must be made of drummer Mark Diflorio for driving this band's engine with subtle finesse and of the potent trombones of Jeff Albert and Rick Trolsen—these are key elements to the band's distinctive sound.
The Naked Orchestra's presence in New Orleans has added significant energy to the local creative music scene (and to think five years ago we had no "scene" like that to speak of!) and helped to create a sense of community among the band and its supporters. This has value that extends beyond just this CD and will be the catalyst for many musical adventures yet to come. Consider this disc as a culmination of some past efforts and as the beginning of even more. One gets wild visions of the Naked Orchestra having friendly battles-of-the-bands (ˆ la the Lincoln Center vs. Carnegie Hall shows) with William Parker's Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra or Sam Rivers' Rivbea All-Stars. Stranger things have happened—anybody remember Braxton's "Music for Four Orchestras"? These are the crazy dreams that keep us reaching, learning, and living MOREÉ.

The Naked Orchestra are: Dr. James "Jimbo" P. Walsh (conductor); Tim Green (tenor sax); Janna Saslaw (piccolo, flute); Doug Miller (flute, tenor sax, baritone sax); Hart McNee (flute, bass flute, baritone sax); Brent Rose (soprano sax, tenor sax, flute); Scott Bourgeois (alto sax); Joe Cabral (tenor sax, baritone sax); Michael Ray (trumpet); Eric Lucero (trumpet); Antonio Gambrel (trumpet); Jeff Albert (trombone); Rick Trolsen (trombone); Matt Perrine (sousaphone); James Singleton (bass); Brady Kish (bass); Mark Diflorio (drums); Jonathan Freilich (guitar/composer).
—Rob Cambre Offbeat Magazine June 2001