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Opening the Book of Gratitude

Composer Joe Garrison unveils new suite and band at 98 Bottles

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    Veronica Cruz
    Joe Garrison's Book of Gratitude ensemble, made up of 12 members, performed at 98 Bottles on Nov. 23.

    Creative music composer Joe Garrison has been experiencing a renaissance of sorts lately, re-emerging into the San Diego scene with luscious music that defies expectation. So when he announced the Nov. 23 concert at 98 Bottles featuring a new 12-piece ensemble performing an epic new six-part suite, I couldn't have been more pumped.

    Book of Gratitude is the name of the suite and the band -- a powerhouse chamber ensemble featuring prime soloists Kamau Kenyatta on soprano saxophone, Derek Cannon on trumpet, Brian O'Donnell on trombone, Lynn Willard on piano, David Castaneda on Latin percussion, Ian Tordella on clarinet, Kirk Johnson on flute, with the able assistance of Chris Duvall on double bass, Scott Paulson on oboe, Arianna Warren on bass clarinet, Michael Hayes on drums and Steve Solook on percussion.

    Garrison (who’s a dead ringer for Benjamin Franklin) cued the band to begin "Bodhisattva In Paris" with frontline swirls of shifting melodies from Johnson, Kenyatta and Warren over a light Latin groove. An unexpected but impressive conga solo from Castaneda preceded beautifully compact statements from Kenyatta and Cannon.

    "River of Light and Air" opened with Baroque woodwinds and incredible textural touches, like Paulson's oboe and Solook's glockenspiel. O'Donnell's trombone took center stage for a moment, yielding to Willard's stunning arabesques and lean muscle. Throughout, there were fascinating duos of contrasting elements, like flute and trombone.

    A long, extended and polyrhythmically dense conga solo served as the entrance into "Wichita," where lots of moving voices and counterpoint were salient features. There is something special about the way Garrison voices the harmonies in his music while still keeping enough open spaces for Kenyatta to break free with a honeyed wail. Tordella surfaced with a lithe clarinet solo, and the Cannon/O'Donnell feature that followed was majestic writing at its core.

    Willard closed the piece out with an elegant a cappella essay before shifting into the montuno introduction into "The Million Year Picnic," a piece that found the full ensemble mining harmonies richer than Mitt Romney's Cayman Island portfolio. The logic behind the unusual three-percussion lineup made perfect sense as the bed of clicks and clacks elevated the space for Kenyatta's precise blend of logic and passion. Cannon took the baton and ratcheted up the tension with blistering velocity and stabs into the upper register. A powerful bass ostinato and sinewy counterpoint led into slow, gorgeous moments of dissonance on "The Million Year Picnic," which had a McCoy Tyner feel and lush orchestral colors. Cannon's flugelhorn and Tordella's clarinet took off on a dual exploration, while Solook provided the fascinating visual of manning a shaker in one hand while playing the glockenspiel with the other.

    "Sanskaras" began as a low-end soliloquy, pulling themes from contrabass, bass-clarinet and trombones leading directly into an extended solo for Duvall, who finally got a chance to stretch with a guttural solo locked in a metric dovetail with the drums. Kenyatta upped the ante with fiery passion, while Solook and Hayes narrowed the focus to a rhythmic epilogue. Beautiful music, impeccable writing and breathtaking solos -- what more could you ask for?

     Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.