Belgian saxophonist Bruno Vansina crooned and shouted his way through the Zappa-esque art rock-jazz of 2009's Nirvana Bonus and the Demons of Shame but, in sharp contrast, his Bruno Vansina Quartet (plus guest vibraphonist Steve Nelson) released the sparkling, beautifully expressive creative jazz album Stratocluster in 2012. The often stunning 2014 Rat Records album Morning Forest aka Nose Up Bottom Down -- credited to the Vansina Orchestra -- falls squarely on the saxophonist's creative jazz side, but on a comparatively massive scale. Here, the Vansina Quartet has expanded into a five-piece -- with leader/composer Vansina on alto, drummer Teun Verbruggen, pianist Christian Mendozza, guitarist Bert Cools, and bassist Stefan Lievestro -- augmented by an 11-piece grouping of horns and reeds arranged by Dree Peremans (and with percussionist Kobe Proesmans added on three tracks). With composition titles including "Ploink" and "Symphony of the Fried Bananas," one might expect the Vansina Orchestra to plow some of the same sometimes oddball Zappa-influenced turf as Vansina's Demons of Shame outfit or Peter Vermeersch's Flat Earth Society big band, to which the saxophonist has contributed for years. But Vansina clearly had something else in mind for his own large ensemble. Instead, Morning Forest takes inspiration from the likes of Gil Evans and Charles Mingus, sweeping the listener along through the multi-layered arrangements and deep color palette of five spacious full-orchestra compositions in the ten- to 13-minute range.
Opener "Dark Night" begins sparsely, the leader's alto reinforcing a mysterious mood over pulses and washes from the quintet before high reeds and then forceful horns open the composition to the modal explorations of clarinetist John Ruocco, the supporting ensemble building around him in a balance of beauty, tension, and drama. The pace remains measured and even ritualistic, but the piece's ultimate brightening suggests darkness giving way to a lovely sunrise. In sharp contrast, "Fiesta Festivo" and "Ploink" -- the former arranged by Vansina and Peremans and the latter by Vansina alone -- kick up the tempo with highly infectious grooves. "Fiesta Festivo" has a strong Afro-Latin flavor with numerous rhythmic shifts, ensemble permutations, and solo showcases, the track's ebullience highlighted by the freewheeling flute and exuberant vocalizing of Malik Mezzadri, while the stuttering syncopations and sharply jabbing horns of "Ploink" push into animated circularity before building to an ultra-tight finale highlighted by Verbruggen's rolling drumwork. The horns and reeds provide comparatively subtle coloration to "Groove Along" as Vansina and then Mezzadri explore the interstices formed by a slow and irregularly accented pulse, while "Bike Insprivation" brings the album to a rousing conclusion. Along the album's multifaceted journey, outliers come in two tracks from the unaccompanied quintet: the slow tango-esque title track falls within the small-combo Stratocluster aesthetic, while "Symphony of the Fried Bananas" tumbles between angular composed lines and noisy, skronky improv (with wild, effects-laden axework from Cools). The latter comes as a particular surprise, but it's as excitingly immediate as Morning Forest's full-orchestra tracks are gorgeous, atmospheric, and vibrant.