Inauguration: Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra Makes Its Debut
Monday night, amid a champagne-and-cake gala, the much-discussed Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra gave the performance that began its permanent Monday-night residency in the venerable U Street club. Organized and directed by trumpeter Joe Herrera and baritone saxophonist Brad Linde, the band is surprisingly eclectic, with R&B and concert musicians and military-band members joining jazz players seasoned and unseasoned on the bandstand. (Herrera works in just about every musical context, giving him wide recruiting ground.) One might think that those disparate backgrounds would result in a mess, but far from it: This group is something special.
The orchestra could be forgiven if its debut found it a little ragged, and indeed that at first seemed the case. The opener, "In A Pinch," had soloist Elijah Balbed (tenor saxophone) striking a few off-key notes as he wrestled with the changes; some other misses came from the ensemble. But these mistakes were surely about nerves, not preparation: The remainder of the two-set performance, containing big band arrangements by luminaries like Maria Schneider, Gil Evans, Bob Brookmeyer, and Count Basie (and executed with a surprisingly soft touch), was flawless.
Not a bad trick, considering that some songs, even from the legends' books, were fairly obscure and challenging. Of the two Ellington numbers, for example, one was the popular "In A Mellotone," but with an unusually embellished orchestration that included a long intro by pianist Amy Bormet and guitarist Rodney Richardson, with drummer Larry Ferguson accompanying on a swing-era hi hat. The Duke's other contribution was "Oclupaca," a combination blues/32-bar song from the under-rated Latin American Suite. This, too, had a unique arrangement; where altoist Johnny Hodges all but defined the Ellington band's sound, one of the BCJO's altos (Brent Birckhead) laid out entirely while the other (Sarah Hughes) switched to clarinet. Here is a group that wants both to celebrate and subvert the conventional big-band ideas and repertoire.
If the ensemble was spit-and-polish as well as adventurous, the soloists were even more so. With features taken by every band member save two (trumpeter Mark Chuvala, who instead concentrated on the difficult lead parts, and drummer Ferguson, who needed no solo to show off his hyper-accomplishment), it's useless to run through all of the high points, but two soloists deserve special mention. Trombonist Greg Boyer is a veteran of both Prince and George Clinton's bands, and has the speed and rhythm to prove it—as well as a powerful sound that could blow a hole through a brick wall. But that strength comes as much from his melodic constructions and charging riffs ("Bebop Charlie") as from his lungs, and it's magnified even more by his subtler touch with a plunger mute ("In a Mellotone"). This guy is a powerhouse for the ages.
Meanwhile, Amy Bormet's piano had a major part on nearly every tune, be it the theme statement on "Yardbird Suite" or the shining staccato solo on "From One to Another." It's hard to underestimate the band's four-part rhythm section, which includes bassist Regan Brough as well as Richardson, Ferguson, and Bormet, but the pianist is unquestionably the backbone.
If the orchestra can maintain the level of energy and commitment it provided in its debut—and it can no doubt run for quite a while on the adrenaline from last night—then it will be a band to watch, a gem for the District. Monday is admittedly a rough night to hit the clubs, but the orchestra is the best kind of excuse.