The octet is an uncommon format for a jazz group. With a standard rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums, that leaves five spots left to fill, and that can make for a cluttered bandstand. Nevertheless, there are many great examples of the form. Charles Mingus put together an octet for 1959’s Mingus Ah Um—John Handy on alto and tenor saxes and clarinet, Booker Ervin on tenor sax, Shafi Hadi on alto and tenor sax, Willie Dennis and Jimmy Knepper on trombones, Horace Parlan on piano and Dannie Richmond on drums—and made some of the most polished, but still thrilling, music of his career. On 1967’s Tender Moments, pianist McCoy Tyner assembled an eight-piece band including Lee Morgan on trumpet, James Spaulding on alto sax, Bennie Maupin on tenor sax, Julian Priester on trombone, Bob Northern on French horn, Howard Johnson on tuba, Herbie Lewis on bass and Joe Chambers on drums; the resulting album featured lush arrangements, but still provided plenty of solo space, particularly for Morgan.
The original lineup of the David Murray Octet, as heard on 1980’s Ming and 1982’s Home, featured Murray on tenor sax and bass clarinet, Henry Threadgill on alto sax, Olu Dara on trumpet, Lawrence “Butch” Morris on cornet, and George Lewis on trombone, plus Anthony Davis on piano, Wilber Morris on bass and Steve McCall on drums. The more recent Dave Holland Octet, as heard on 2010’s Pathways, included Antonio Hart on alto sax and flute, Chris Potter on tenor and soprano sax, Gary Smulyan on baritone sax, Alex Sipiagin on trumpet and flügelhorn, and Robin Eubanks on trombone, joined by Steve Nelson on vibraphone and marimba, Holland on bass, and Nate Smith on drums—no piano. Both these groups made music in a conventionally, if somewhat adventurous, hard bop style, full of hard-swinging grooves and fierce horn solos. On the other hand, Pharoah Sanders put together an eight-piece group for 1970’s atmospheric, rhythm-heavy Summun, Bukmun, Umyun that included only three horns—himself on soprano saxophone, Gary Bartz on alto sax and Woody Shaw on trumpet—alongside pianist Lonnie Liston Smith, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Clifford Jarvis, with African percussion from Nathaniel Bettis and Anthony Wiles.
Composer and alto saxophonist Steve Lehman has taken a slightly different approach with his octet. His group includes Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Mark Shim on tenor sax, Tim Albright on trombone, Chris Dingman on vibraphone, Jose Davila on tuba, Drew Gress on bass, and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. Their first album, Travail, Transformation and Flow, was released in 2009 on Pi Recordings; the label has now issued another disc from the group, Mise en Abîme. (The title refers to an art technique in which an image contains a smaller copy of itself, in a way that implies infinite recursive repetition.) Lehman, who’s also a classical composer, employs techniques in his playing and his compositions that will be very familiar to fans of 21st Century modern(ist) jazz—melody lines are long and overlapping, and rhythms are more likely to head in the direction of chopped-up funk, approaching drum ‘n’ bass at times, than bluesy swing. But there are plenty of pastoral elements here, too, especially the way Davila’s tuba underpins Dingman’s atmospheric vibes. And while parallels can be drawn between some of the group’s drier, more abstract moments and the music of Anthony Braxton, there’s also a bright line to be traced between Mise en Abîme and some of the mid ’60s work of Jackie McLean, particularly his albums with trombonist Grachan Moncur III (on which vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson featured prominently). Everyone involved performs at breathtakingly high levels, particularly Finlayson and Sorey, and while the resulting music occasionally overvalues its complexity—Lehman’s striking resemblance to Dr. Venture will start to seem significant at times—it’s highly enjoyable. And of course, it’s destined to clean up on year-end critics’ lists. You can stream two tracks on Pi Recordings’ website.
Chicago-based bassist Jason Roebke‘s Octet, making its debut on High/Red/Center, on Delmark, doesn’t favor abstraction over bluster in nearly the same way Lehman’s group does. Like Holland and Lehman, though, his rhythmic base is vibes-bass-drums; he’s joined by Jason Adasiewicz and Mike Reed, respectively, and the front line features Josh Berman on cornet, Greg Ward on alto sax, Keefe Jackson on tenor sax, Jason Stein on bass clarinet and Jeb Bishop on trombone. This is a ferocious band, absolutely stacked with young players who number among the city’s finest, and they get plenty of room to showcase their blowing. The album begins with the nearly 10-minute title track, which has the feel of players who are striving to break the boundaries of hard bop, without getting entirely outside. The horns play a long, staccato melody as the rhythm section whips up a storm behind them, and the individual solos are brisk and energetic. Nothing else on the album is anywhere close to that long—most tracks run in the four- to six-minute range—and the abstract feel of that first track is frequently discarded in favor of almost big-band blare, as on the raucous “No Passengers,” which nevertheless features a growling, free solo from Stein. “Ballin'” is even more old-school; Bishop’s trombone gets a serious workout, as Reed drives the rhythm relentlessly forward. This album, filled with hard-blowing horns and punchy melodies (though they’re capable of cooling out, too, as ably demonstrated on “Slow” and “Shadow”), easily matches the energy level of the David Murray Octet‘s Ming, and is one of the most viscerally exciting releases of the year.