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Jazz big band culture remains the lingua franca of American music academies as well as state-funded ensembles in Europe. Traditional repertoire and approaches aside, adventurism and rethinking are well underway within the large ensemble universe, as demonstrated by recently released maverick models. Among the fresh facets is an integration of social commentary, a timely touch.One of the most important large (or larger) 2020 ensemble records, both musically and socially, is bassist-composer Gregg August’s two-disc Dialogues on Race, Volume One (Iacuessa). Commissioned and premiered in 2009 — to coincide with Barack Obama’s rise to the White House — the work was revised and recorded last year, and newly released amidst the current maelstrom of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement’s bitter clash with President Trump. It showed up right on time, with its intriguing treatments of texts from important voices such as Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes, and three variations on Marilyn Nelson’s lament for Emmett Till and his mother, “Your Only Child,” including August’s elegiac solo bass rendition. August’s inspired suite — 12 pieces for 12 musicians (including saxophonists JD Allen and John Ellis and pianist Luis Perdomo) — showcases the leader’s innate, organic musical sophistication, feel for Latin flavors, chamber-ish new music elements, and ideas about how the little big band format can flex its conventional language. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tc_JEZc2saM Musical heights aside, the most painfully touching moment comes on “Mother Mamie’s Reflections,” with the sound of Mrs. Till’s own echoic voice, folded into a fabric of mournful droning low tones. Tears — for Till and the ongoing scourge of racism in America — naturally flow.Racial themes and advocacy, tethered to a big band context, come through with a particular potency on Holy Room: Live at Alte Oper (HR Big Band/Salon Africana),a live double album by literally African-American (of Ugandan/Rwandan parentage) vocalist Somi, in smart creative alliance with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band and arranger-keyboardist John Beasley. Inspired partly by melancholy over COVID limitations and the righteous indignation of BLM, Somi brings her informed hybrid of Afro-soul-jazz sensibilities — beautifully framed by Beasley’s bold, tautly rendered big band charts — to original songs such “The Gentry” and “Black Enough,” rereads of Sting’s “Alien” (as in an “African in New York”) and Fela’s “Lady Revisited.” Her voice is big, the band is big and supple, and their connection is magical. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCFxVi_bolg Ambitions and reference points run vast and multi-dimensional in The Rise Up: Stories of Strife, Struggle and Inspiration (Dünya), from composer-arranger Mehmet Ali Sanlikol and ensemble Whastsnext? with saxophonist Dave Liebman, who also commissioned the work. Sanlikol’s three-section, nine-song suite covers aspects of history, racism, religious strife and oppression, opening with “Rumi,” and running through “Sephardim” and finally “Sinan.” Spanning cultural turfs and musical patinas of Sufism, Sephardic Judaism and Islam, Sanlikol’s opus aims wide, impressively expanding big band expressive possibilities. Liebman’s voice — assured, sensitive and fiery to suit — serves a protagonist’s role on the musical journey, wending through varied tensions toward a peaceable resolution by album’s end. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSaKnZkOxxI Trombonist-composer Jacob Garchik, a veteran of big band culture, straight and otherwise, cooks up a delicious, slightly subversive alt-big band project with Clear Line (Yestereve), starting with the simple task of plucking the rhythm section out of the institutional equation. Instead, 13 gifted horn players do Garchik’s crafty musical bidding. The result: a fascinating ensemble sound, simultaneously familiar and alien. Debts to big band syntax and jazz harmony are paid, alongside post-minimalist structures, bracing sonic cascades and nods to the hyper-brassy sound of Mexican banda. Sans the traditional rhythm section, the tight all-horn ensemble waxes chamberesque by default. But improvisation and individual soloing are interwoven into the whole, keeping the music in the realm of jazz. Strict genre orientation is not encouraged, thanks to Garchik’s restless muse. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSAJPOmVhAQ Feature photo of Somi courtesy the artist.