Originally from Pittsburgh, Matt Lavelle has been working in New York since the early 1990s. He played and studied, for a few years from the mid 1980s,
with Hildred Humphries, a reed player (alto, tenor, clarinet) who had worked with such luminaries as Basie, Billie Holiday and Roy Eldridge. In 2015
Lavelle wrote a tribute to Humphries, published online at All About Jazz (
). In 2005 Lavelle began studies with Ornette Coleman which, amongst other things, led to his adding the alto clarinet to his original instrument, the
trumpet/cornet. In his piece on Humphries, Lavelle notes that “Unlike most of the young guys today, at 44 I have spent extensive time learning from
authentic masters of the Art” and this is very clearly evidenced in his playing. Some of Lavelle’s best work as a soloist and as an improviser in a small
group context can be heard on recordings such as the superb Sumari (Unseen Rain, 2014), where he is heard as part of a trio; or on a very
interesting duo album (Harmolodic Monk, Unseen Rain 2014) with vibraphone player and percussionist John Pietaro.
Here, on Solidarity the emphasis is on Lavelle’s writing for his big-band ‘12 Houses’ (I am not astrologer enough to recognise the full
significance of the name), which has a very interesting instrumental make-up. All the compositions on the album are, I believe, by Lavelle and I presume (I
have seen only an advance promotional copy of the CD, which carries no details) the orchestration/arrangements are his too. All the tracks are full of
striking timbres and textures (not many contemporary big bands include a banjoist, a bassoonist, a violinist and a cellist!), and all appear to mix scored
passages with free or ‘freeish’ improvisation. There are some general affinities with the big band writing of William Parker (with whom Lavelle has worked)
and Charlie Haden, but the fons et origo of this music is perhaps to be found in Charles Mingus. As with the music of Mingus, there are moments of
near-violence and, alternately, of great delicacy, of spirituality and of political anger; the mood swings from the threnodic and solemn to the joyful, and
there are echoes of the music of the Black churches, of thirties and forties swing, and much else.
For all the inevitable focus here on Lavelle’s writing and orchestration, there is some fine solo work from him too, most notably on ‘Cherry Swing’ (which
I take to be a tribute to Don Cherry), where he builds a long, coherent solo on the cornet, initially underpinned by some intelligent work at the drums by
Ryan Sawyer and then by fine playing from bassist François Grillot, the sections of Lavelle’s solo being separated by noisy ensemble passages or a quirky
intervention from Jack DeSalvo’s banjo. At least three of the other tracks reward repeated listening. The opener ‘Solidarity’ has something in common, in
terms of (implied) ideology, deep churning textures and the power of its impact, with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra; perhaps finest of all is
‘Brooklyn Mountain’, a sort of free concerto gross built on the interplay between the whole orchestra and a quartet of tenor sax, piano, bass and drums.
The relationship between the two (let’s call them ‘ripieno’ and ‘concertino’, as if we were considering a baroque piece) is more antagonistic than
cooperative, the heavier sound-weight of the band stimulating the concertino quartet to more and more aggressive and turbulent improvisation; the track
which closes the CD, ‘Faith’ begins with some slow and gentle piano musings, then gradually the band assembles around the wordless vocal of Anaïs Maviel,
as momentum and volume build and a degree of ‘wildness’ replaces the introspection of the track’s opening; handclapping all-round initiates a lengthy,
rampagingly ‘testifying’ section, in which the band sounds like an instrumental version of a particularly ‘possessed’ gospel choir, supporting (and
sometimes submerging) the ecstatic vocalisation of Maviel, before the volume and intensity fade away and we are returned to the solo piano of the track’s
Lavelle’s scores (and the way they incorporate free improvisation) all have a clear structure, making for a thoroughly rewarding album which, for all its
freedom, very much builds on the jazz tradition. Apart from Lavelle and the other musicians already mentioned, alto sax player Charles Waters, is amongst
those whose work deserves a specific mention.