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Vinny Golia Large Ensemble
Overview: 1996–2006
Nine Winds NWCD/DVD 0300

Vinny Golia Sextet
Abstractions and Retrocausalities
Nine Winds NWCD 0309

Woodwind player-composer Vinny Golia has an autodidact’s audacity. A sculptor who long ago gave up shaping solid materials in favor of shaping sounds, he’s trusted his ears and instincts over formal training to carve out a style that draws on whatever he needs, regardless of academic rules. This is perhaps most evident in his music for large ensemble, which plunders classical, jazz, and ethnic sources without regard for genre boundaries, and which is the subject of the weighty 2 CD/2 DVD set, Overview: 1996–2006. A similar freedom of means enlivens Golia’s small ensemble music, too. Abstractions and Retrocausalities features a new sextet that injects a noisy rock attitude into the acoustic new music/free jazz amalgamation for one of Golia’s most exciting small ensemble releases.

Golia’s large ensemble music has always been especially important to him. He documented his very first large ensemble concert in 1982 on a 3LP set entitled simply Compositions for Large Ensemble. Although there were no strings in the ensemble then – it was a more traditional “big band” in instrumentation – it established a template for his large ensemble music that he still uses today. The scale is grand, with improvised transitions linking compositions that synthesize jazz and classical influences into continuous performances of symphonic sweep. As his ideas developed over the years, he enlarged the band, expanded its palette with the addition of strings, and added a co-conductor. The second conductor helps the ensemble handle increasingly intricate scores that give fuller reign to Golia’s teeming imagination. But Golia and his conductors have a unique working relationship, which allows him to make spontaneous decisions about cuing soloists, accompanying riffs, and transitions. Consequently, the music grew not only more complex, but also more flexible; a neat trick. At least a half dozen more large ensemble discs, most of them multiple CD sets, have followed the first release, documenting an orchestral music that has grown more ambitious, refined, and assured over 40 years.

The individual sets and full concert captured on Overview each have an immense scale, diversity of mood, and variety of orchestration that Mahler or Bruckner or Mingus might envy. The large excerpt from the first set of a 1996 concert in Portland, Oregon (the second set was released on an earlier CD, Portland 1996), for instance, opens with “Escalante,” which begins in a somber mood that lightens into a Latin tinged second part. An improvised transition from cellist Peggy Lee leads into “Critical Mystery,” a long, harmonically stretched late-Romantic melody that evolves into a great lumbering percussion-propelled groove for a Golia bass saxophone solo. The set subsides into “Robert’s North of Watford Rule,” a long line for strings with support from low brass punctuated by the percussionists, and then storms to a conclusion with “Carnivore,” a charging elephant of a composition scored for the entire massive ensemble.

The musical logistics of these behemoth sets are daunting, and the DVDs give you the clearest idea of how composer-performer Golia and his co-conductor work to fit all the pieces together. On the full 2006 concert from the Redcat Theatre in Los Angeles that fills Overview’s two DVDs, one can watch Golia cue in sectional support behind soloists, signal co-conductor Marc Lowenstein (Stephanie Henry conducts the earlier sessions) when it’s time to begin a composition after a solo or transition, and generally look after the spontaneous aspects of the performance. It’s a fascinating collaboration that maintains the music’s balance between spontaneity and predetermined structure. For instance on the second DVD, you can see Golia cue in the flute behind Bill Plake’s tenor solo, cue in Michael Vlatkovich’s trombone solo, then direct the flutes to riff behind him. On the next tune, “One of Them Is Two of Them,” Golia again gets the flutes working behind Steve Adams’ sopranino solo (one of the concert’s highlights); then join Adams on baritone for one of the most exciting improvised passages of the night.

It should be noted that the video, shot by a single back-of-the-hall camera that zooms in and out on soloists, is the visual equivalent of a soundboard tape, accurate but not quite up to the level of a full production.

Golia’s compositions often exist in a limbo between styles. The scales can tip in any direction – it is music of possibility, of freedom and individuality. For instance for the second set of the Redcat concert, Golia brings in an African percussion group. On “Elephants Pursued by Man in Flying Plane” he strews big, skyscraper Edgard Varese chords in among the djembis. “Thread for Fred,” heard on the second CD, which was recorded in Los Angeles in 2000, features melodies that echo Eric Dolphy or Anthony Braxton that balloon to enormous dimensions, inflated by Stravinskyian chords and muted trombone wah-wahs culled from Mingus or Ellington.

The soloists readily embrace Golia’s vocabulary and stylistic ambiguities. Golia seems to inspire loyalty among his band members and many of them, like bassist Ken Filiano, trumpeter John Fumo, trombonist Vlatkovich, keyboardist Wayne Peet, and woodwind player Kim Richmond, have been with the large ensemble for decades. They are all adept at walking the jazz-new music tightrope. Violinist Harry Scorzo on the first Redcat DVD version of “Very Meringue: The Return of Lynn Johnson” alternately conjures country fiddle and new Viennese school. Drummer Alex Cline does yeoman service with sections in tempo and as a “classical” percussionist on the CDs, while Ches Smith displays similar sensitivity on the DVDs. Although he doesn’t solo at all on CD2, Golia is always a force when he does, whether it’s his ghostly bass flute on “Second and Foremost,” the immense swell of his bass saxophone on “Reverse Olfactory Lip Curl” or his riveting duet with Steve Adams on “One of Them Is Two of Them.”

The sextet is a sleeker, faster moving ensemble, if for no other reason than its smaller size. Golia’s composing is no less ambitious, but for the small band, he favors speed and precision and a jazzier overall feel. Six instruments gives him plenty of arranging options: long lines interweave; notes stack into chords with different timbres, depending on the instrumentation; riffs pop up during solos; and the ensemble density varies as instruments drop in and out. With the new band, which includes drummer Andrew Lessman, electric bassist Jon Armstrong, and guitarist Alex Noice in the rhythm section, Golia goes for a lot of jazz-rock and jazz-funk beats. His horn mates, trumpeter Dan Rosenboom, and alto saxophonist Gavin Templeton give Golia’s lines the tight, aerodynamic execution they need to make the music bubble and flow.

It’s a band designed to cover a wide sonic landscape. Guitarist Noice runs the gamut from jazzy to abstract and electronic to hard-edged rock. On “Why Would a Whale Act Like This? (God Help Us All, Another SyFy Channel Original Movie),” he acts as a rhythmic noise generator. On “Full Moon (so that’s a piano),” he puts a nasty rock scorpion-sting into his sound. He’s a convincing jazz guitarist on portions of “Maboo’s Justice (are you mocking me now?).” His versatility is an important key to the music’s broad reach. Rosenboom is an effervescent, almost gleeful soloist, with an eager approach and sweet-hot tone, who cranks up the excitement and tension on “Abstroblue (greetings fellow stargazers!)” and delivers a finely crafted melodic solo on “Kamikakushi.” Templeton’s alto adds a bright vocal edge to the ensemble. “Locked In” shows off his tart sound and the daring harmonies and melodic twists of his soloing.

Golia himself is in excellent form, particularly his barreling baritone on “A Carload of Trouble” and “BTSO (big time secret organization),” ripping out long lines that tumble and feint, lingering over riffs, or chewing away at long tones. His contrabass sax on “Photo Shoot, One, Two” breaks in like a clap of thunder, and then retreats into clandestine moans and mummers. He’s clearly energized by his younger cohorts in the sextet.

And that’s what’s so admirable about these releases – the energy and engagement Golia continues to display. More than 40 years since he founded Nine Winds and began documenting his music, Golia still sounds enthusiastic and he still pushes himself as a composer, but he brings a veteran’s confidence and discipline to all his projects. Critics often say that new CDs by new players are an indication of more good things to come. After more than 40 years and dozens of albums, the same can be said of Golia’s two latest.
–Ed Hazell

Cuneiform Records

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