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Concert Review: JC Sanford Orchestra at Tea Lounge

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JC Sanford Trombone
Courtesy of JC Sanford
Among the many hidden gems of the Downtown/Brooklyn music scene, few venues possess the resources to host big bands, the 15-to-21-piece behemoths that once made up the most popular portion of the jazz idiom. The Tea Lounge, a Park Slope clubhouse for coffee-swilling freelancers, has become just such a venue over the last year, playing host to Size Matters, a weekly series curated by JC Sanford, himself a big band leader, trombonist, and composer. Sanford’s orchestra performed at Tea Lounge Monday, March 28, 2011.

A native of Minnesota, Sanford honed his composing skills at The University of Northern Iowa and The New England Conservatory in Boston, where he studied with Bob Brookmeyer and earned a D.M.A. in jazz studies. He then spent five years with the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop, whose other participating composers have included Jamie Begian and Darcy James Argue. As this pedigree suggests, Sanford’s music is emphatically contemporary.

Immediately striking is Sanford’s orchestration. Eschewing the traditional big band setup, Sanford includes French horn, oboe, cello, violin, bass clarinet, and tuba in his orchestra. These inclusions drastically affect the color and volume of the ensemble; I’ve heard many bands try to employ woodwinds and strings only to drown them out with bombastic orchestrations, but Sanford’s writing is more sensitive than that. One memorable melody drew on bass trombone, French horn, muted trumpet violin and cello in unison to create a warm, subtle color I’d never heard in any ensemble, classical or jazz.

Sanford stands out as a conductor as well. Having watched many jazz ensemble leaders struggle to cue and conduct while simultaneously holding their instruments, it was refreshing to see Sanford devoted to directing his ensemble. Sanford’s notation, which appeared at times to be non-traditional, requiring out-of-time numbered cues and rubato phrases, suffered none of the transitional hiccups that can so often accompany such music, thanks to his clear, expressive conducting. It’s no wonder that bandleaders such as Alan Ferber and John Hollenbeck have put him in front of their own ensembles.

Highlights of Sanford’s sets at Tea Lounge included two of his “Brooklyn Vignettes,” pieces that portrayed the contrasting beauty and grit of the borough with haunting accuracy. “Sunset Park (vignette #2)” juxtaposed the playful simplicity of a vibraphone ostinato with dark cluster chords in the brass. Sanford’s musical reflections on his years in Brooklyn give his music a strong sense of terroir, a powerful effect for those in attendance Monday night.

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