John Vanore & Abstract Truth
 
  Contagious Words, the third release from John Vanore and Abstract Truth, marks the continued development from one of the most distinctive ensembles in jazz today. The veteran Vanore, who cut his chops playing with Woody Herman in the 1970’s and has gone on to be one of Philadelphia’s first call trumpeters, founded the little big band – named in honor of the great Oliver Nelson --in the early eighties to display his considerable talents as a composer/arranger. Influenced by Nelson (whose tutelage at a jazz camp was a decisive factor in Vanore becoming a professional player), Dennis Sandole (with whom the trumpeter studied extensively) and Gil Evans, the group evinces an impressive sound with a dynamic range that is capable of both stirring sensitivity and vibrant power.

Vanore, who founded the 12 piece ensemble in 1981 – releasing its debut recording Blue Route in 1990 and the recently reissued Curiosity the following year -- retained a full trumpet section for the “fire power” of a classic big band, combining French horn with the two trombone low brass section for additional tonal color, while utilizing alto and tenor saxophones both in the role of a small group’s front line and (especially while doubling on flutes) as ensemble voices. With guitar at the fulcrum of the rhythm section to complement the orchestral voicings and line writing of the his original compositions and arrangements, Vanore and Abstract Truth create a sound that is fresh and contemporary, while at the same time maintaining a sophisticated sound in the tradition of Duke Ellington, Thad Jones, and the like.

The leader’s formidable twin talents as both an instrumentalist and composer are immediately evident on his opening “Envy,” the first of what he hopes to be a series of pieces exploring the Seven Deadly Sins. Vanore, who says in his liner notes “it’s all about storytelling,” begins his tale of this dirge like excursion (reminiscent of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman”) revealing his own rich toned mellifluous trumpet sound on his enviable melody. Special guest pianist Ron Thomas , solos first demonstrating the harmonic acuity and sensitivity that has long made him something of a legendary performer in Philadelphia music circles. Following the ensemble’s orchestral interlude, with saxophonists Michael Mee and Bob Howell’s flutes, Vanore solos with rhythmically charged richness and that marks him as a true original with his own personal voice. With the full bodied acoustic bass of Craig Thomas and the incendiary drumming of Dan Monaghan complementing Greg Kettinger’s ethereal guitar the trio launches the full sound of the horn sections into a melodic zone of restrained otherworldly beauty.

The aptly titled “Substructure” finds George Barnett’s French horn and the trombones of Fred Scott and Larry Toft augmented by Jim Daniels’ bass trombone in the low brass section deepening the sound of the band on this exciting piece that is anchored by Craig Thomas’s powerful bass. With the full trumpet section roaring in a contrapuntal conversation with orchestra the track takes off into the stratosphere prior to the bassist’s extended unaccompanied virtuoso outing that brings it down to the ground in earthy contrast. Trombones and drums follow, building a dramatic dynamic tension that finds exhilarating relief in the return of the trumpets counterpoint, building to a fiery finish.

Trumpeter Kevin Rodger’s haunting arrangement of the beautiful evergreen “You Go To My Head” is a feature for the lyrical alto saxophone of Michael Mee, whose stirring interpretation of the classic melody floats airily over the legato cushion on the ensemble, then soars mightily when the band switches gears into pulsating cadenced swing time before returning to the arrangement’s opening mood, with Howell’s flute introducing the alto’s reprise of the melodic line.

“Restless” marks a striking mood swing in the program, with Howell’s unaccompanied tenor opening the track with a strident polyphonous declaration reminiscent of early Pharoah Sanders), before being joined by Monaghan’s drums in a raucous conversation that culminates in the full band’s intervention, trumpet’s wailing away on a narrative line. Howell reveals his more traditional roots on a hard bopping solo over walking bass and Ellingtonian riffing horns, before Monaghan’s martial interlude reintroduces the edgy melody and the piece ends on an exclamatory note.

Vanore’s “Dreams” is a further indication of the bandleader’s consummate skills as a narrative composer. With Howell’s bass clarinet and Kettinger’s guitar setting the piece’s somewhat ominous ambient tone over Thomas’s creeping bassline, Mee begins the melodic tale on soprano saxophone, Monaghan’s drums portentously guiding the band’s journey. Kettinger then steps into the spotlight playing with gritty restraint over the ensemble’s somnambulistic sound before Vanore takes over, his trumpet speaking loud and clear with a voice that is full of confident optimism, marking him as a force with which to be reckoned on his instrument, as well as a composer on this harmonically rich and melodically intriguing track.

“Neopolis” by Kevin Rodgers is a soulful outing providing, in the words of Vanore, “a view into the contemporary landscape of a new city,” with Craig Thomas’ electric bass and Monaghan’s backbeat supplying the funky foundation on top of which Kettinger’s guitar and Ron Thomas’ Fender Rhodes lay down a modernist harmonic environment for the fluid improvisations of Vanore’s trumpet and Howell’s soprano saxophone. The powerfully pulsating brass completes the electrifying atmosphere of a metropolitan milieu.

On “Recess” Vanore has some fun, returning to his big band roots with a classic sounding arrangement brought up to date with Thomas’ driving electric bass and Kettinger’s guitar contrasting with the straight ahead brass, with Vanore taking the opening solo. Ron Thomas rejoins the festivities on piano, taking things all the way out - all by himself - before the swinging begins again with Larry Toft on trombone, who then goes with a Thomas and Toft brief walk on the wild side, before the band ends the romp with a mildly cacophonous free for all.

The concluding “Felony crosses over to the “dark side.” With Thomas back on Fender Rhodes this menacing melody in the tradition of Miles’ “Bitches Brew” breaks new ground with Kettinger’s rocking electric guitar and Mee’s snaking soprano soloing uninhibitedly over Vanore’s powerfully unsettling arrangement.

Unlike any group playing today, John Vanore and Abstract Truth explore the full potential of a band that focuses equally on ensemble sound and solo improvisations. Contagious Words is an emphatic proclamation that this is a momentous group with much to say.