The economics of maintaining a big band jazz orchestra are notoriously difficult, as many of the greats discovered. There is also a danger that modern big bands simply become an exercise in nostalgia. Roy Hargrove’s Emergence (2009) was beautifully orchestrated, but didn’t really say much that was new. Likewise, the Bryan Ferry’s Jazz Age (2012), reviewed here last year, felt like a somewhat pointless attempt at recreating 1930’s Ellingtonia.
Alan Chan, a Hong Kong born resident of Los Angeles, takes a radically different approach on Shrimp Tale. Chan is a classically trained pianist, who went on to study jazz arranging at the University of Miami in the late 1990s. After completing his masters, he became a member of the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop in New York, under the expert guidance of director Jim McNeely.
The Alan Chan Jazz Orchestra was formed in 2011. They released an EP, Rancho Calaveras, in 2013, before releasing their first full-length CD, Shrimp Tale, in July of this year. The music is distinguished by its unexpected twists and turns – sudden changes of tempo or style. “I like their to be surprises in my pieces,” Chan admits, “places where the music doesn’t go where or how you’d expect.”
The opening track, Tsu Zu Ku (To Be Continued) is a good illustration of Chan’s compositional style. The piece is dedicated to the people of Japan, post-tsunami, and opens with a free-flowing arrangement, juxtaposing soprano and baritone saxophone, the arrangement intended to represent water. The tune builds to something of a crescendo, before gradually breaking down. As the horns fade, a mournful piano takes over, suggesting quiet reflection, before the main refrain returns, hinting at optimism as we look to the future.
The title track also demonstrates a playful approach, the opening groove-based theme giving way to a salsa, with guest trumpeter Wayne Bergeron (Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band) taking an impressive solo. The band then superimposes the two themes to good effect.
A Spirit’s Dream is more traditional from a compositional standpoint, but again, Chan brings his Asian influence and experience into the music, which was inspired by a painting by the Taiwanese artist, Liao Hung-Qing. Moving To A New Capital is perhaps the boldest of all, opening with an ancient Japanese melody, before changing dramatically to paint a picture of the crowded, traffic-filled streets of Beijing. The title of the track hints at political change, too – as the centre of regional power shifts from Japan to China, bringing with it the burden of overcrowding and pollution.
The myriad of influences that feed into the music keeps it fresh, for the most part, evolving constantly. The one experiment that did not work so well, in my opinion, was Monte Alban/Solita, two contrasting pieces based on the poems of Cape Cod artist and poet, Elaine Cohen, which are narrated by Lauren Marks. Whilst they demonstrate impressive ambition, the poetry will not be to everyone’s taste, and did not fit well with the tone of the remainder of the album.
Overall, Shrimp Tale is a fine debut; Chan’s style is quite unique in terms of both tone and compositional style, and it will be interesting to see how the orchestra evolves in the years ahead – assuming the economics work out!