Of all the various combo sizes that exist in jazz history, the nonet seems to be the most uncommon. Indeed the only one that comes to mind is the short-lived and subliminally dynamic nonet led by Miles Davis in the late 1940s. Rising tenor star Lucas Pino—who is in demand around NYC today almost as much as Mr. Davis was during the birth of the cool—attempts to fill the gap for nonets with his own group; the No Net Nonet. Pino and the group have resided at Smalls for the last two years, giving them ample time to hone their craft and compositions. Even with all that time, the No Net Nonet’s debut, eponymous LP, leaves listeners with a mixed opinion on the viability of the nonet in 21st century jazz
The gift of the nonet’s size is that it has the potential to comfortably straddle the worlds of both small combo and big band/orchestral jazz and integrate them in more dynamic ways. The larger horn section allows for groups to play in unison or weave contrasting melodic statements vis-à-vis groups like the Ellington or Basie orchestras while at the same time allowing for the improvisational structure and freedom that comes from the post-bebop combo continuum. This is what Mr. Pino and the No Net Nonet bravely and diligently attempt, yet struggle to fully realize throughout the LP. They try to function as both big band and combo, yet one foot often lingers too long in the “combo” mentality and arrangement sensibility to carry out true orchestration.
One of the record’s most intriguing features is that the overall quality increases as one continues to listen. The first half of the LP, featuring energetic, frantic, and lackluster compositions like “The Fox” and “Orange” sounds like a group unsure of its musical identity, while most of the music post-“Bankenstein” sounds like the group finally fit into its own groove and sonic signature. If there are any tunes that lack aural uniqueness, these are the first three of the LP’s eleven tunes. The lacking comes partly from the arrangement, partly from Pino’s own, often derivative, playing style. Pino’s solos on “The Fox,” “Orange,” and “Bankenstein” are especially repetitive and sound too eerily close to Sonny Rollins or Coltrane to leave room for any indications of an original voice.
Curiously enough, these three aforementioned compositions also suffer the most in their arrangement. Here, the five piece horn section—made up of tenor, alto, and baritone sax alongside trombone and an alternative trumpet and flugelhorn—play the same basic, unimaginative melodies with occasional voicing flair. There is no attempt at derivation or cross-melodic contrast; it’s just harsh, bop-influenced unison playing with five horns instead of two. Even with the more interesting arrangements on numbers like “Where You Need To Be,” the tempo, rhythmic play, and overall timbre are too consistent with the rest of the LP. This album often suffers from a case of song blending; only with the most attentive of listening can one tell when one song has actually stopped and the next begins.
This is not to say that No Net Nonet has no net worth. It does, It just takes some time to get there. The musicians’ crowning achievement comes from the subdued and sublime reinvention of the cool, “Homage A’mitch.” The group channels the vibrant-yet-relaxed tone of Davis’s nonet while providing the album’s most dynamic and engaging orchestrations. In the ever-evolving and shifting head, Andrew Gutauskas’ baritone sax and Nick Finzer’s trombone give a springy, anchoring counterpoint to the main horns/guitar melody before the arrangement transfers to a graceful unison of guitar and piano before again transitioning back on a snuck in Latin rhythm. This is where we hear Pino’s latent talents as an arranger and bandleader shine through. The sheen only gets brighter as the tenor man, channeling but not copying Wayne Shorter, leads the band through a Jazz Messenger’s style call-and-response between his solo and the arrangement before Rafal Sarnecki’s elegantly phrased solo. Sarnecki evokes both the tone and meticulously thoughtful craft of Jim Hall in his solo on “Homage” and throughout his other major contributions to the LP. On the most Ellingtonesque number of the lot, the lush and romantic “Sunday Play,” Sarnecki pairs up with Pino to deliver the head’s primary melodies. Over Glenn Zaleski’s subdued piano runs, Pino and Sarnecki’s tenor sax/guitar duo contrasts subliminally with the horn section’s countermelodies in classic Ellington/Strayhorn form; the rich harmonies and sweet nostalgia of “Chelsea Bridge” and “Moon Mists” pervades the indigo mood of the piece.
The main problem for the nonet is that they do poorly on the more up tempo compositions like “The Fox” or “Bankenstein.” Pino’s arrangements coalesce better when left on a cool simmer rather than full boil. This is certainly proven with “Homage” and “Sunday” but Pino also gives listeners treats like “Strange Breakfast” and “Morning Walk.” While “Breakfast’s” first half suggests the kind of definite staying power Pino could have leading a smaller combo, it again shows that he has the raw potential to be a pretty good orchestrator. Founded on Zaleski’s “Central Park West” harmonic building blocks, Pino creates melodic passages that breathe and that allow each phrasing to sink comfortably into the listener’s ear. Elsewhere, the mid-tempo “Morning Walk” pits the horns against each other in the head; hearing the trumpet and higher saxes dance with the baritone and trombone provides simply delicious ear candy. Sweetened by the sound, Mat Jordell finally brings his trumpet out for a leisurely, dynamically planned strolling solo that, as is the nature of the nonet, morphs into an achingly beautiful union with Sarnecki.
The No Net Nonet is one of the most confusingly frustrating and gracefully beautiful jazz records of recent memory. When Pino and his nonet fail to deliver a performance that failure falls harder than an acme anvil. But when they’re in the metaphorical swing of things, one is hard pressed to find more lush and evocative jazz being cut to wax today. Perhaps a little less “Orange” in their music and a little more “Boplicity” will make it so that the No Net Nonet can continue to carve out a place for their kind in the modern landscape of jazz.