Scott Petito leads powerhouse sextet to two area performances

Top, clockwise L-R: Omar Hakim, Rachel Z, Joe Locke, Mino Cinelu, Scott Petito and Jay Collins.

Like so many of his peers of the fusion generation, the well-known bassist, producer, and NRS studio owner Scott Petito is also a jazz composer and bandleader. In that capacity, he brings Modern Times to Colony in Woodstock on Friday, September 3 and to the Falcon in Marlboro the following night, a weekend tour of two of the area’s most active stages. A sextet of accredited jazz, fusion, and global pop heavyweights, Modern Times will focus on Petito’s original material, including generous selections from his imminent full-length Many Worlds, a follow up to 2018’s excellent Rainbow Gravity. 

As a leader, Petito tends to keep heady company. His new album features performances by some Rushmore figures in the fusion tradition — drummer to everyone Seve Gadd and trumpeter Randy Brecker to name two — and a core group of players that is really no less impressive: Weather Report and Sting drummer Omar Hakim and his wife, the Steps Ahead keyboardist Rachel Z Hakim, the elite vibraphonist Mike Mainieri (who will be replaced in the live lineup by the elite vibraphonist Joe Locke), Yellowjackets reed player Bob Minzter (replaced in the live lineup by the super-versatile Levon-stable saxophone ace Jay Collins), and percussionist Mino Cinelu.

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But this is Petito’s circus and Petito’s tunes. “Jazz composer” is a notion that has always carried a whiff of paradox or oxymoron. The soul of jazz, of course, is spontaneous composition — in other words, improvisation. And we’re not just talking solos. Ensemble improvisation — the unscripted negotiation of groove, harmony, arrangement, and, in the more extreme cases, of song form itself — is as much a part of the tradition as the blazing solo.

In much avant-garde jazz, “composition” is hardly even the right word for the sui generis and completely unrepeatable “blocks of time with a title” that show up as individual tracks on a record, the forms and durations of which are sometimes determined by after-the-fact editing and the mining of a long improvisation for its choicest bits. Anyone who would truly love Bitches Brew and On the Corner-era Miles, for example, is going to have to learn how to get past that feeling of waiting for the song to begin. 

Other times, experimental jazz composers call on the compositional techniques developed by 20th century classical composers to integrate chance and accident into the composition process or to provide skeletal form and a basic set of “instructions” to improvised music, systems popularized by Cage, Boulez, Stockhausen, and many others. For a locally relevant example, in his Blueprints project, the great experimental jazz drummer and composer Bobby Previte projects notated melodic snippets on a large screen for his ensemble (and the hipper among his audience) to read as he conducts the group through guided improvisations generated from the seeds of these thematic fragments.

But jazz of course also has its great traditional composers/arrangers, with Ellington/Strayhorn straddled permanently atop that particular mountain, and countless great tune writers whose melodies are sometimes the genre’s only concession to the emotional needs of popular audiences. From Petitto’s own fusion generation, some players, like John Scofield, are content to be great small-footprint songwriters and have never felt the impulse to don the powdered wig. Others, like Pat Metheny or Fred Hersch, have “gone there” repeatedly, Pat most recently with the entirely composed Road to the Sun, a bid for the modern classical guitar repertoire written for guitar virtuoso Jason Vieaux and for the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet.

Point being, composition in jazz tends to be a complex balancing act. One on level, the tunes are the vehicles for the solos, providing a form, a hook, and a groundwork of thematic material for the improvisors and little else. On another level, with its tradition of harmonic sophistication, jazz is always just one gesture removed from classical. The question is: at what point of compositional ambition and development does the music become no-longer-jazz?

The best analogy for jazz composition may in fact come from basketball, where the autonomy of the individual, the interaction of the ensemble, and the dynamic of set plays versus group improvisations mirror the basic situation in jazz music, with the obvious difference that in jazz, no rival ensemble is attempting to prevent your group from achieving its goal (attention Mr. Previte, I have an idea).

So, since the man himself afforded me a pre-release sneak peek at Many Worlds, where does Scott Petito’s new material fall along this composition/improvisation spectrum? Well, when your drummer is Omar Hakim, no matter how improvised the material might be, it will always feel tight, crisp, and punctual. If “heads” (the jazz term for a composed melody) are one of the ways in which jazz keeps an audience engaged, the buoyant grooves of fusion are another, and Petito’s new material is unfailingly groovy. Even when things get densely colored and atmospheric, as they do on the lovely, Wayne Shorter-esque composition “The Alchemist,” Hakim’s half-time groove and funk inflections will keep the lower torso happy while Petito’s elegant melody and the composed counterpoint keep the brain nourished and challenged.

On “Dabwala for Rita,” Petito visits the Bossa Nova well that has sustained jazz composers for generations. “Close to Home,” a tribute to the late Pat Metheny Group keyboardist Lyle Mays is a highly composed ballad that, like so much of Mays’ music, deals in the colors and atmospheres of impressionism and non-conventional forms. One of the of most interesting tracks here is “A Great and Sudden Change,” a gorgeous, largely composed track featuring two basses, Petito on the piccolo bass and Brad Mehldau Trio bassist Larry Grenadier on the upright. With choreographed moments (riffs even!) alternating fluidly with empathic group improvisation and solos, “A Great and Sudden Change,” typifies the artistry of Petito’s approach to jazz composition, plenty of it is written; plenty of it is improvised, and the lines between can be quite blurred.

Modern Times appears at 8 p.m. Friday, September 3 at Colony’s outdoor stage, 22 Rock City Road, Woodstock, NY. See www.colonywoodstock.com for more information. 

Modern Times will appear at 7 p.m. Saturday, September 4 at on The Falcon’s main stage, 1348 Route 9W, Marlboro, NY. See www.liveatthefalcon.com for more information.

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