Composer Joe Garrison has, with singular determination, created a jazz orchestra/big band that somehow manages to avoid cliche like the plague; celebrate the individual and reflect his incredibly verdant imagination all at once.
Garrison’s ensemble, Night People, is a carefully balanced blend of star-soloists and textural role-players and his charts allow them all the opportunity to shine. The fifteen-piece band features two drummers (Richard Sellers and Charlie Weller), two bassists (Antar Martin and Doug Walker), two trombones (Matt Hall and Kevin Esposito), two trumpets (Derek Cannon and Doug Meeuwsen), five woodwinds (Ariana Warren, Kamau Kenyatta, Kirk Johnson, Connor Hughes, and Ian Tordella), Lynn Willard on piano and Tonga Ross-Ma’u on guitar. What makes this band so special is the way Garrison arranges all of these voices into gorgeous slabs of harmony that blend consonance and dissonance over intricately rhythmic platforms.
On March 11, Night People took the stage (or overtook it) at City College for one of the best Jazz Live (sponsored by KSDS Jazz 88) performances I’ve experienced in many years. Warren introduced the evening a cappella, with bass clarinet textures richer than Warren Buffet’s portfolio, eventually joined by Willard’s keyboard, then the dueling flugelhorns of Cannon and Meeuwsen, followed by short vignettes above the orchestral melange by Hughes, Kenyatta, Hall and Tordella with Johnson closing strong on the final section.
“Le Nouveau,” in five, had Hall, Cannon and Kenyatta weaving through the dense tapestry before yielding to Willard, who dazzled with a piano solo steeped in logic and power. Over a Miles-ian dual drum funk beat and dark laconic bass grooves, “Under Shade,” pitted Hall and Kenyatta, then Esposito and Tordella before Cannon took flight with wide vibrato and squiggly invention. “Cuando la Lluvia,” gave young altoist Hughes an excellent feature, followed by Ross-Ma’u’s slippery, Metheny-esque improvisation and another trumpet duel.
My favorite moment, though, came on the cinematic “8/89,” which began with an explosive piano solo, then dropped down low to a glorious dual bass exchange from Walker and Martin; a drum showcase from Weller, then Sellers; a serpentine soprano saxophone exploration from Kenyatta, culminating in an ecstatic horn testimony to close it out.
Joe Garrison and Night People are for real.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.