In recent years jazz musicians have been rekindling their old romance with the big bands -- in part because of their potential for making dramatic, fiery statements. The newest comer is Brass Tacks, a 10-piece brass band and rhythm section, which made its club debut at the Blue Note here Monday night. Brass Tacks has an unorthodox instrumentation. The first row is made up of a tuba and two unusual instruments called euphoniums -- one resembling a baby tuba, one looking like an oversized trumpet. They're so rare in a jazz band that leader-pianist Amy Duncan tells the audience what they are. There are two trumpets and two trombones, and no saxes or clarinets. What that means is that Brass Tacks can achieve a mellow, full-bodied depth from the euphoniums and the slow-moving, low-register tuba, while the
trombones and trumpets (especially Richard Vitale's trumpet in the back row) supply versatility and excitement.
The band is daring in its repertoire too, playing all original tunes written and arranged by Ms. Duncan. It's so difficult to hold an audience's attention with the program made up totally of unfamiliar tunes that most leaders don't take the risk Duncan does -- and succeeds.
Her music is swinging and sunny. Although the band has played only once before in public, the timing and ensemble playing have been honed in rehearsals. And Duncan knows how to build tension and resolve it. She began her first set with an arresting tune reminiscent of the idiosyncratic harmonies of Thelonious Monk -- and called, aptly enough, ``Monk Creeps In.'' It's the stuff of which good sound tracks for mystery films are made. Then some tinkling, bell-light notes by Duncan at the piano resolve d the tension at the end. From there the band launched into the uptempo ``Dedicated to Eighth Avenue,'' with the radiant feeling that was the hallmark of most of her tunes. Interestingly, most of them are also danceable, if you can step quickly enough -- definitely an innovative touch in a bebop-influenced repertoire.
Duncan took into account that a brass-filled group could make an overly belting noise. So only the bass was amplified. Mikes were banned for the other instruments. The constraint heightened the smoothness and control of this new group of young musicians, who gave the impression of having played together for a considerable time.
Trumpeter Richard Vitale shone on several solos. On the band's one venture into funk, called ``Dunc Funk,'' he screamed like a banshee in the hot, driving style of Dizzy Gillespie and Jon Faddis, while jazz drummer Steve Johns indulged in some heavy-handed drumming. So sometimes you can stomp to Duncan's music, too.
Well-known trumpeter Randy Brecker sat in, unrehearsed, for the Blue Note debut, and eased his fluid playing into the format.
A pianist and jazz journalist, Duncan was intrigued with the idea of leading a brass band. She made a tape with the band to try for a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Though she didn't get the grant, she has continued to write for the band over the last year. The group has landed on its toes sufficiently to charm an audience through a program of fresh work. Now they need a club to work and develop in steadily. So far it's a bit of Miles Davis here, a dash of Mel Lewis there, and a little dose of t he sunny attitude that made the swing era so agreeable. And there was a tentative nod to Latin influences, in a bossa nova tune that began tepidly and built to an exciting finale.