New Life Jazz Orchestra
No one will ever accuse Kendrick Oliver of setting his sights low. The leader of the Boston-bred New Life Jazz Orchestra once summed up his ensemble's mission thusly: "To swing like Count Basie and have the impact of Mahalia Jackson."
At Blues Alley on Sunday night, that aim was particularly apparent. Dubbed "Jazz Goes to Church," the opening set benefited from the presence of two special guests -- pianist Cyrus Chestnut and singer Kevin Mahogany. Chestnut moved from swing to spirituals and back again with great verve and soul, juxtaposing racing sprints with resounding gospel chords, kneaded trills and bluesy pentatonic riffs. Mahogany, who boasts a rich baritone, covered a lot of ground, too, though he never sounded more expressive than when quietly interpreting "His Eye Is on the Sparrow."
What stood out for most of the evening, though, were the arrangements, crafted by Oliver and saxophonist Jason Anderson, plus the ensemble's impressive talent pool. Vocalist Monica Lynk displayed not just finely honed technique and octave-leaping range but the ability to make even a well-worn lyric resonate with deep emotion.
The charts devised by Oliver and Anderson infused old melodies with robust harmonies and vibrant contrasts as the focus abruptly shifted from one ensemble section to another. "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" and "Wade in the Water" were punctuated by several delightfully evocative original pieces, among them the Basie-inspired "Kid From Nazareth." Energizing the performances were Anderson, trombonist Jeff Bush, bassist Michael Hawkins, drummer Charles Haynes and other gifted band members.
-- Mike Joyce
Who better to perform the first-ever full-blown rock concert at Strathmore Hall than Icelandic art rock troupe Sigur Ros? The band's otherworldly orchestrations were a perfect match for the colossal concert hall's sleek, modern design (like something out of "Star Wars," only with acoustic-friendly wood paneling). Even the folks controlling the thermostat contributed to the ambiance by re-creating Iceland's frosty temperatures.
Despite the chill, a seated audience of 1,900 still managed to keep mum and mind their manners. Pity the poor souls who set off false alarms of applause during a silent passage in the middle of the 90-minute-plus performance. (Grouchy fans-in-the-know swiftly shushed them.)
So while nobody yelled "Free Bird," nobody yelled for "Svefn-G-Englar," either. But the respectful silence didn't discourage Sigur Ros from surging through said tune from the breakthrough 1999 album "Agaetis Byrjun." This number and others from 2002's curiously titled "( )" sounded exquisite thanks to the hall's superior acoustics.
Test-driving selections from its new album, "Takk" (which arrives in stores today), Sigur Ros sounded more like a rock band than some alien orchestra from Planet Reykjavik. And while Jon Thor Birgisson's elfin vocalizations may have enchanted back in '99, the intrigue of his cuckoo-cooing has worn off over the course of six years, often exposing an indulgent sentimentality.
Fellow Icelandic quartet Anima provided string backup, in addition to its own opening set. The quartet's music twinkled like a New Age music box, unfolding at the pace of Ravel's "Bolero" -- sounds that would fit nicely on those relaxation CDs next to the organic lip balms at Whole Foods.
-- Chris Richards