Nathan Parker Smith Large Ensemble – Not Dark Yet

Nathan Parker Smith Large Ensemble – Not Dark Yet

This was the first big band format jazz rock album to land on my desk this year, soon followed by the rather good Cheating The Polygraph by Gavin Harrison. Is there a revival going on? Probably not, but it is good I am writing concurrently about two albums from the same genre as it gives a sense of continuity for my ears, which never have the time to dwell on one particular album for long.

Nathan Parker Smith is a Californian living in Brooklyn who put together his eighteen-member Large Ensemble in 2009. This is their first studio album, and reading the publicity blurb, it seems Smith relies heavily on ensemble improvisation, which is quite amazing as it all comes across to my non-musician ears as composed and as tight as a nut. Famed for their raucous live performances, this band is a must see, although I doubt they will ever play this side of The Pond.

Not Dark Yet is the jazz equivalent of heavy prog, and the atonal sturm und drang of opener Mega has a similar effect on me as Thrak-era King Crimson’s more difficult moments. Whereas Gavin Harrison’s album drew influences from more conventional jazz rock, this beastie jumps straight into the Mike Westbrook, Chris McGregor and Keith Tippett school of left-field jazz orchestral arrangements, with added Crimsoid weight.

Highly complex arrangements are the key, and Interstellar Radiation Field takes several plays before one can begin to unravel it. The militaristic Dark Matter is near Zeuhl-like in its intensity, and this is not music you would play to soothe yourself after a stressful day, unless your way of doing that is punching walls!

The band take a breather with Fog Over East, a quiet but menacing initial clatter slowly building on waves of horns, establishing a sombre melody. The star of this piece is drummer Jared Schonig, who leads the ensemble through the murk as the piece gradually recedes. At a tad over five minutes this is the longest track on the record, and because of that the listener’s attention never wanders. The “less is more” lesson is applied here to great effect, although given the size of this band, that edict may have been taken on board through economic and strategic necessity.

The appearance of Kenji Shinagawa’s guitar on the two following tracks comes as a nice surprise, upping the “rock” element of the orchestra in the process. As a result the Crimson comparison is writ large in Creature Rebellion, but I would stress this is only a contextual comparison, as this is jazz rock, oh yes! Imagine a parallel world where Fripp was a mere sideman, and King Crimson was led by Ian Carr, and you might be about halfway into the sound of this wonderfully uplifting record. This is all moot anyway as the Nathan Parker Smith Large Ensemble has a very strong collective character all its own.

Everything comes together on Spin, a suitably disorienting piece of fantastic and full-on ensemble playing. In actual fact, there are no weak links on this record, and it would seem my end of year list will now have two jazz rock beasties in there.

01. Mega (1:05)
02. Interstellar Radiation Field (2:18)
03. Dark Matter (3:46)
04. Rhetoric Machine (3:29)
05. Fog Over East (5:05)
06. Creature Rebellion (4:21)
07. Solace (3:49)
08. Spin (4:26)
09. Build And Destroy (2:45)
10. Monsters (2:21)
11. Carrington Super Flare (3:24)

Total Time – 36:48

Kevin Russell, Chris Shade, Michael Thomas, Justin Flynn and Alden Banta – Woodwinds
Augie Haas, David Smith, Josh Deutsch and Matt Holman – Trumpets
Matthew McDonald, Nick Finzer, JC Sanford and James Rogers – Trombones
Landon Knoblock – Rhodes
Kenji Shinagawa – Guitar
Russ Flynn – Bass
Jared Schonig – Drums

Record Label: Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records
Catalogue#: BJUR 048
Year Of Release: 2014

Main Website: Nathan Parker Smith
Social Media: Facebook
Audio: Bandcamp