Joe Garrison’s composing and arranging for large ensembles has been a consistent source of inspiration for local jazz audiences -- especially in the last few years -- upon the wings of Night People, an orchestra of extraordinary color and depth that also serves as a showcase for the solo powers of some of San Diego’s most talented improvisers.
Garrison’s music is constantly evolving, often subject to last-minute changes and ideas culled from the moment, but there is also a unifying consistency in the creative ways he organizes sound and pairs instruments from opposing extremes into glorious slices of ambiguous harmony that balance consonance and dissonance in equal measure.
Night People’s Dec. 2 show at UC San Diego’s the Loft was well attended, expertly performed and enthusiastically received. The 18-piece ensemble featured a rhythm section comprised of pianist Lynn Willard, guitarist Tonga Ross-Ma’u, drummer Charlie Weller and the twin basses of Doug Walker and Chris Duvall; breathtaking harmonies were often achieved through the efforts of Kirk Johnson on flute, Scott Paulson on oboe, Ariana Warren on bass clarinet, Connor Hughes and Ian Tordella on saxophones, Derek Cannon and Doug Meeuwsen on trumpet/flugelhorn and the magnificent trombone threesome of Jordan Morita, Bryan Smith, and Brian O’ Donnell.
Special guests for the evening were Kamau Kenyatta on soprano saxophone, Dave Millard on alto violin and bass flute and Chris Warren on live sampled electronics. Warren’s bass clarinet spun around the room through electronic manipulation as the whole orchestra riffed outside gestures before leaping into the head of "Casi Cada Dia," a melody greatly enhanced by lush orchestration and liquid solos from Millard and Kenyatta.
A beautiful, pensive tension permeated "South Door," with the higher textures of flute and oboe toggling against the lower colors of the trombones, creating an irresistible format for the creative expressions of Cannon's flugelhorn, Morita’s trombone, Tordella’s alto saxophone and Willard’s flexing keyboards. Millard’s extended, unaccompanied bass-flute introduction to "Sun Soul," (for Daniel Jackson) was raw, vital and almost unbearably revealing, and the amount of orchestral deviations Garrison could layer over the one-note-pulse of the twin basses was the fodder for which deep sighs are created.
Willard created a hypnotic marimba/kalimba groove to underpin "And the Moon Be Still As Bright," volleying off the riffs of Ross-Ma’u and leading off a string of strong solos that cycled through Tordella, the dueting 'bones of Smith and O’ Donnell plus electronics, and ending on the Elvin Jones-like drum soliloquy from Weller, which provided the connective tissue into "Cuando la Lluvia," beginning with Johnson's dramatic flute essay and continuing with Meeuwsen's electronically enhanced trumpet solo, the outside energy of Tordella's alto and the slippery reverberations of Ross-Ma's guitar spot. The whole thing bounced off of the wah-wah chords of Willard, reminding me of Joe Zawinul's protean churn.
Kenyatta returned for a lithe spin on "8/89," which finally unleashed the monster bass section of Walker and Duvall, who soloed with deep, dark pizzicato while backing each other up with a bluesy turnbacks and in-the-pocket ostinato.
Night People represent a true creative labor of love. The countless hours of such a large number of busy musicians devoted to preparing this music are a genuine testament to the genius of Mr. Garrison, and the joyful noise they create is nothing short of astonishing.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.