The octet is a strange animal – not this octet in particular, but octets in general. The octet is exactly half the size of the standard jazz orchestra, which makes it neither a big nor small band, and it comes in a variety of species; even in its most common configuration of five horns and a rhythm section, it affords all sorts of instrumental combinations. The octet camouflages easily. It can sound as big as a house – as the Metropolitan Jazz Octet does here, on “It Might As Well Be Spring” – or as intimate as a whisper (as on “Andy’s Tune”), and a lot of things in between, limited only by the skill of those who craft its arrangements. Turn the figure eight on its side and you get the symbol for infinity. That’s probably coincidental.
As saxophone John Kornegay relates elsewhere in this booklet, the inspiration for The Road To Your Place lies in a trove of arrangements written by the late Chicago saxophonist Tom Hilliard between 60 and 30 years ago. Hilliard recorded only a handful of tracks with the original version of the MJO, so when Kornegay and multi-reedist Jim Gailloreto began leafing through the rest of Hilliard’s work, they found plenty of other material to engage their interest and fire their imagination. Had they never pored over Hilliard’s work, they might well have embraced the octet format anyway; it certainly suits their own writing. But if you believe the concept that “everything comes from something else,” then the crossing of their path with Hilliard’s would count as a pretty lucky break.
This debut recording of the new Metropolitan Jazz Octet brims with original compositions from its two principals, plus one from trumpeter Doug Scharf and another from guest pianist Andy Cohen. Some were conceived for smaller bands, yet they nonetheless bloom in the hothouse atmosphere of the octet. But to truly gauge what these guys have accomplished, turn to two songs from the standard jazz repertoire for comparison.
Since its initial appearance in 1942, “Come Sunday,” one of Duke Ellington’s most beautiful and heartfelt ballads, has yielded dozens of noteworthy interpretations, from solo piano to several arrangements written by Ellington himself. Gailloreto’s take should nonetheless find its place among them – not just because he has switched it to (mostly) a waltz, but also for the brocade counterline that bounces among the horns. In a different vein, Kornegay’s version of “Lady Bird” gracefully simplifies the original sextet chart written by its composer, Tadd Dameron, despite the addition of two more horns. In both cases, the arrangements stamp the songs without distorting them, which is a lot harder than you might think.
Hilliard’s original iteration of the MJO recorded just one album. It featured his original compositions dedicated to Bix Beiderbecke, the cornet poet of the 1920s; it also included several new arrangements of Beiderbeck tunes, reimagined for the post-swing, post-bop 50s. Now Gailloreto and Kornegay have taken the sound of Hilliard’s arrangements – full but not overripe; translucent, but not thin – and modernized it for a new era. The fact that Hilliard’s original octet concept works so well on these songs – written 90 years after Beiderbecke played, and 60 years after Hilliard’s album – validates his classic concept. And it speaks to the wide-ranging skills of the new MJO’s co-leaders, as well as those of the other instrumentalists, who bring the writing to vibrant life and contribute smart solos that further spark the arrangements.
The road to their place may not be well-traveled. But as listeners discover these unexpected gems, that could change.