With the 2011 release of Flashpoint, the debut album by the David White Jazz Orchestra, the trombone-blowing leader and his 16 compatriots served notice on the jazz world of an ensemble that, while steeped in big-band traditions, takes the music in exciting new directions rife with vibrant voicings and rhythmic variety.
“[T]here is an infectious energy that may be the new signature sound in the development of the more contemporary jazz orchestra,” Brent Black stated in his review of Flashpoint for the Critical Jazz web site.
“White clearly knows his jazz history and strikes a perfect balance by incorporating his musical influences while defining his own progressive style,“ Karl Ackermann commented at allaboutjazz.com.
And Aaron Cohen wrote in Down Beat that White “guides his 17-member orchestra through a program of compositions that seamlessly move from extended blues strut (‘I’ll See You in Court’) one moment to soft-focus serenity (‘First Lullaby’) the next.”
Six new compositions from White’s pen now appear on The Chase, second CD on White’s Mister Shepherd Records label. He again performs them with his powerhouse New York City orchestra, which is made of musicians who, in Ackerman’s words, are “polished and first-rate.” Although White formed the big band in 2007, some of its members have been associated with him musically since their high school days in Buffalo two decades ago.
The Chase opens with the fast-burning “Mister Shepherd’s Misadventures” featuring solos by tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon and trumpeter Miki Hirose. “It has distinct sections, but the soloists are playing over all three of the sections,” the composer says. “It has momentum built into the form. The solos start off with just the drummer [White’s old Buffalo buddy Ryan Cavan] and the soloist for the first chorus of each solo before adding the rest of the rhythm section. I feel that gives it an extra lift.”
“Mister Shepherd” in title and in the name of the record label refers to the nickname White’s grandfather gave him. “I don’t think he ever called me David my entire life,” White reflects. “He came up with Mister Shepherd because David in the Bible was a shepherd.”
“Misadventures” refers to several White has experienced, most notably the time in 2004 when he was physically attacked by a student while working as a teacher in the New York public school system. After recuperating from a serious knee injury that tore both the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and meniscus, he returned to the classroom briefly before transferring to an office job. He is presently in charge of standardized testing at a charter school in Brooklyn.
The uptempo, swinging, but not exactly straight-ahead “And the People Could Fly” follows, with solos by pianist Nick Consol and trumpeter Pablo Masis. Drummer Cavan also solos, before the groove shifts to a gospel shout, then fades. The song title was inspired by Virginia Hamilton’s book The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales and the music, in part, by Charles Mingus’s “Moanin’.” White uses layering throughout the composition’s four interlocking melodies. And unlike many big-band arrangers who seldom cross instruments from the trumpet, trombone, and saxophone sections, White imaginatively blends instruments from each, as in the opening of “And the People Could Fly” when he voices a tenor saxophone on top of the orchestra’s three trombones.
“There’s a whole palette of orchestral colors within the big band that are not always tapped into,” he explains. “When you take all the various colors and color combinations that are possible, it’s like having a giant box of Crayolas where you can color and draw anything that you can imagine. Contrary to popular opinion, the big band has a rich palette for orchestration. A symphony orchestra has a standard instrumentation, but you wouldn’t expect a symphony orchestra to sound a particular way. It’s really up to the composer and the orchestrator use those colors in a unique way, and I don’t want people to know what to expect when they hear my music.”
“The Sweetest Bite of Cherry” opens with an unaccompanied duet by trombonist Rick Parker and tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon before the rest of the orchestra enters briefly. Sam Taylor then takes off on tenor, soloing over grooves that shift back and forth between fast 4/4 and relaxed quarter time.
White’s robust trombone finally gets the solo spotlight on “Persistence,” a song he says was inspired by minimalist composer Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. (White’s band is short only by one.) Saxophonist Andrew Gould takes over with a searing alto solo, after which Cavan solos over the band’s stop time. The tune employs a 164-bar structure, which is like 186 measures with the last two lopped off so that each chorus flows into the next without resolution.
Gould, whose credits also include work with the Jon Faddis and Wallace Roney big bands, is again featured on “The Shakedown,” a funky 24-bar composition in AAB form. Dan Reitz, another of the leader’s old Buffalo cohorts, following him on trombone.
The Chase closes with the “Blues for Sally Draper,” a medium-tempo 12-bar blues named for the character played by actress Kiernan Shipka on AMC’s Mad Men, White’s favorite television show. Again reminiscent of Mingus, the song centers around Phil Rowan’s walking bass lines as trombonist Parker and alto saxophonist Omar DanielsGould solo while the rest of the band gradually builds tension, moving from minimum to maximum. “It’s like they’re playing over a canvas,” White says of the two soloists, “but the canvas keeps changing and they have to react.”
Born in Buffalo on January 16, 1979, David White played recorder in the fifth grade, which piqued his interest in music and led him to briefly take up trumpet in the sixth grade before settling on trombone. He played in both the jazz band and concert band in junior high school and was playing professionally by the time he was 14 with a big band at Buffalo’s historic Colored Musicians Club led by baritone saxophonist Macy Favors.
“Macy was an important father figure since I had a single mother and my grandfather had passed,” White says. “You need an adult figure in your life, especially as a young male teenager, to keep you on the straight and narrow. Music was always something that added discipline in my life. There’s the discipline of practicing. There’s the discipline of being in bands, which is more responsibility than a lot of 14-year-olds would have had. And being around older people you learn to conduct yourself as someone who is deserving of respect. I think it made me more serious-minded than I would have been otherwise.”
“It let me get a lot of my trial and error out of the way at an early age,” he adds. “It was tuning my ear to blending with other musicians to playing in a trombone section to balancing the trombone section with the rest of the band.”
White remembers Kenny Burrell and Rufus Reid making guest appearances with Favors’s band while he was a member. He also played jazz during that period in Erie County’s All-County Jazz Ensemble, which also included Cavan and Reitz.
After high school, White spent a year at the University of Buffalo, where he studied with noted classical trombonist Richard Myers, before transferring to the Purchase College Conservatory of Music, from which he would earn Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in music. At Purchase he studied with onetime Woody Herman trombonist Jim Pugh and played in the school’s big band, small jazz groups, Latin jazz band, trombone choir, symphony orchestra, brass band, and wind ensemble.
“If there was a trombone in it, I played in it,” he explains. “I wanted to have the widest possible experience.”
White moved to the New York City area in 2003 and currently resides in Queens. He led his own quintet for seven years and has also played with Charli Persip’s big band and currently with Valery Ponomarev’s big band. Since its inception in 2007, the David White Jazz Orchestra has performed at such New York venues as Symphony Space, Garage Restaurant and Café, Tea Lounge, Somethin’ Jazz Club, Saint Peter’s Church, and the Full Gospel Assembly of Queens. The orchestra’s membership has been, the leader says, “way more stable than I ever anticipated” over the past seven years.
The trombonist cites J.J. Johnson (“the father of us all”), Ray Anderson (“the anti-J.J.”), Slide Hampton, Curtis Fuller, and Grachan Moncur III as influences on his playing and Maria Schneider, Steve Reich, Gerald Wilson, and Thad Jones as being among the composer-arrangers who have most inspired him.
As evidenced by 2011’s Flashpoint and now The Chase, David White has become a jazz force to be reckoned with. He’s a wonderfully innovative composer, the leader of a dynamic orchestra filled with brilliant soloists and section players, and a darn good trombone blower to boot.