Vinny Golia

Portland, 1996

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It can be remarkably difficult to mold a large assemblage of improvisers into an effective performance unit. Improvisers tend not to be the best sight readers, for one thing. If there's much written material, things are liable to be loose, at best. Most leaders of free jazz-based big bands -- William Parker comes to mind -- use only skeletal compositions, or none at all, preferring to treat the ensemble as an enormous organ with flesh and blood stops; they'll conduct/improvise, using prearranged gestures to indicate tempo, key, rhythms, etc. The resultant performance is usually messy, always dissonant, and sometimes not very happening. In contrast, Vinny Golia uses much written material, and while the performance is not exactly tight, there's enough precision to keep even the most curmudgeonly critic at bay. Golia has apparently chosen musicians who can both read and improvise well. His material is substantial; his compositions are determinedly non-tonal -- quasi-serialist, even -- but with a definite jazz sensibility. This is not a typical big band; in addition to the usual saxes, trumpets, trombones, and rhythm, Golia uses bassoon, timpani, and a sizable string section. In keeping with Golia's penchant for multiple reeds, all of his saxophonists double on several instruments. Writing music for such a large band of improvisers and actually getting it played is an accomplishment in itself. Not only does Golia manage to get it played, he gets it played well. There are sections where the band sounds like it's rehearsing a monstrously difficult contemporary classical score, but for the most part the musicians perform the music with a reasonable amount of exactitude and great verve. As you would expect from a band that counts Golia, bassist Ken Filiano, and saxophonist Steve Adams among its members, the soloists are excellent. Big bands might be a pain to get together, but when everything goes well -- as it does here -- they can create wonderful music.

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