At the height of their popularity, the great big bands each had a distinct personality. Ellington was elegant but purring, with a brass section as malleable as Silly Putty. Basie was driven by a precise rhythm section and featured blues-expert soloists. Goodman ran a high-wire act of fluid virtuosity. Mistaking one band for the other: impossible.
By 1950, the big bands were fading some, and by 1975 they were few in number. And with diversity went their sense of clear identity. Big bands of the post-bop era can be powerful, brilliant, and wildly talented, but their identities are surely harder to discern. And so, I’ll confess, I couldn’t identify the OJM Big Band (the Portuguese Orchestra de Jazz de Matosinhos) if it came up to me on the street, asked me for money, then gave me a big fat kiss on the mouth. Not that they aren’t terrific players working with inventive arrangers, but I defy to know the band while blindfolded.
Which brings us to Our Secret World, an effort pairing the OJM with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. Rosenwinkel, who has been a leading New York jazz guitarist for some time, was invited to provide tunes to the OJM for arrangement. The result is this unusual project, with the composer in front of a very versatile big band, placing his bracing post-bop guitar in a somewhat unnatural foreground.
First things first — this recording is an elaborate showcase for the leader. Rosenwinkel is effectively the only soloist on Out Secret World, unrelieved and near-constant. His array of sounds, from gentle to more searing, are set over a series of inventive arrangements that span from traditional big band sounds to more transgressive classical stuff. Do the arrangements always make sense with the leader’s tunes? It’s a mixed bag.
One of the most intriguing arrangements is on the ballad, “The Cloister”. This is a tender tune, but one not without some strange intervals and angles. Rosenwinkel’s rising guitar lines are mirrored and harmonized by rising horn lines that add considerable drama to this tune. In places, the arranger has created jabbing counter-lines that bristle enough to sound a bit like the writing of David Murray in his prime. In other places, the tune settles into quieter cushions of impressionism that swirl with intriguing dissonance. When Rosenwinkel emerges from this, nearly five minutes in, for his solo, it’s a slow build back to the crazy angles of the first part of the tune. It’s a sprawling setting for the guitar’s compelling sound.
Also very appealing is “Zhivago”, a gently rollicking tune in triple meter that has a bit of the sound of the Pat Metheny Band about it. There is also a compelling section featuring the guitar and horns with rhythm section. Several tunes achieve this appealing lope. The groove is floating rather than rocking or swinging, here and on “Dream of the Old”, where Rosenwinkel adds just a trace of wordless singing to the mix to help the air lift things off the ground.
Some of the performances, however, are exciting but not especially interesting. “Turns” has a wheel-within-a-wheel theme and a surging power groove, but the improvisations merely tumble along, with a tenor sax solo seeming overwhelmed by the rest of the action. “Use of Light” starts quiet and slowly builds as Rosenwinkel noodles over the band, but it serves to point out the main flaw of Our Secret World: the leader is the only soloist on all but one tune. “Light” amounts to a Concerto for Kurtie, and it’s just an awful lot of electric guitar — ten full minutes — over brassy splashes. “Path of the Heart” is a 13-minute exercise of a similar kind, though the arrangement is both fussier and more subtle, with flute and bass clarinet each tracing the guitar’s edge in different ways. The ending, with a backbeat suddenly in evidence and a slow build-up on its mind, works up some froth at last, but it’s a long time — and an endless guitar solo — in coming.
Ultimately, the OJM seems like an ambitious orchestra with inventive arrangers, but it is an odd choice for a pairing with a jazz guitarist like Kurt Rosenwinkel. In his small groups, Rosenwinkel is surrounded by players who can trade ideas with him and in real time, as well as craft pliant beds for his compositional ideas. That, of course, is what jazz players do. The OJM doesn’t really play all that much “jazz” here — it doesn’t swing a ton, it doesn’t improvise with power or interest, and hasn’t found some other way to connect to the jazz tradition or contemporary music.
The OJM has come up with several intriguing takes on Rosenwinkel’s music, however, and fans of the guitarist will not want to miss this kind of intriguing expansion of his concept. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that Our Secret World is a bit of an indulgence for the guitarist. Not a vanity project, certainly, but exactly the kind of “Wow, I’d like to play with a big band!” notion that isn’t fully integrated or realized.
In jazz, it’s usually the recording with a working band that really knows itself well that captures the magic. This one-off project is more like a casual encounter. It’s fun stuff, but nobody is in it for keeps.