If nothing else, the Focusyear Band 21’s Bosque represents assurance that the future of jazz is in good hands. But it’s a lot more than that; it’s an hour of good music, for one thing. It’s 10 original compositions created and played by eight young musicians from around the world called Focusyear Band 21. It’s the 2020-21 crop of students chosen to spend the better part of a year (the “Focusyear”) at the Basel Music Academy in Switzerland. The student musicians are coached regularly by some of the top jazz creators in the world, put on concerts in the community and – in a normal year – go on tour. And they make a record in the program’s own studio.
This year’s musicians included students from Germany, England, Spain, Ukraine, Argentina, Italy, the U.S., and Hungary. They’re all master level students or higher, and this bunch sounds like they really hit it off. Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel is the music director, and this year’s mentors were Kurt Rosenwinkel, Guillermo Klein, Malcolm Braff, Jorge Rossy, David Virelles, Lionel Loueke, Django Bates, Ethan Iverson, Ben van Gelder, Jeff Ballard, Linda May Han Oh, Ingrid Jensen, Luciana Souza, Marilyn Mazur and Miguel Zenon.
All of this music has a real international feel, not falling too closely to the blues or American bop. The wordless vocals that Tatjana Nova contributes to most tracks give it a Brazilian/Latin feel at times, not surprising with the presence of Luciana Souza on the panel of mentors. But overall it’s just recognizably large-group jazz, much of it with a European feel to it.
A lot of the credit for this ensemble’s cohesiveness goes to the rhythm section of Áron Tálas on drums, Ethan Cohn on bass and Lorenzo Vitolo on piano. The three of them make a tight trio throughout, and especially on the driving title track. Ditto the opener “Bonfire,” a five-minute stab of fusion-y post-bop. A lot of these compositions hang together really well, with composed sections where several of the musicians play the complex melodies together, interspersed with some adventurous improvisation. Some notable places where that occurs are in the orchestrally forceful “Crash Landing” (trumpet and alto in particular); “Ladina Oswald,” with a killer sax workout, followed by a mesmerizing flugelhorn solo; and “Mean Street,” with a three-part complex counterpoint section on alto, tenor and trumpet plus some impressive vibes from ninth member Jorge Rossy.
I listen to a lot of Nordic jazz, so I was curious to check out the track called “The Nordic Shuffle.” It’s a clever take on the genre. After an intro with an avant garde feel to it, full of fluttering pads, breathy exhalations through brass horns, and squeaking mouthpieces, it launches into a vaguely Arabesque melody led by one of the trumpeters, with Nova singing along wordlessly in lockstep; she then has a nice improvised section of vocal gymnastics sandwiched between instrumental solos. Another real highlight is the upbeat final track, a song “Joy” by Nova. Its arrangement perfectly captures a youthful sense of life and expanding possibilities.
A big thumbs-up to the Focusyear scholarship program and this crop of young musicians: Tatjana Nova, vocals; Joshua Schofield, alto saxophone, flute; Gianni Gagliardi, tenor saxophone; Sebastián Greschuk, trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone; Yakiv Tsvietinskyi, trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone; Lorenzo Vitolo, piano; Ethan Cohn, bass; Áron Tálas, drums, piano; Jorge Rossy, vibraphone. This album is available as download or CD from Neuklang Records.
(Neuklang Records, 2021)