By Jazz Thread Guy
December 2016

Cornetist Kirk Knuffke is featured, but the entire band is what makes the music great
"Ubi Zaa" is the eleventh release on the SteepleChase label by the New Jungle Orchestra, led by Danish guitarist Pierre Dørge. This time around, the band's material was written to feature American cornetist Kirk Knuffke and the music was recorded live in September of 2015.

Comprised of just nine members, the ensemble is very much on the small side for an "orchestra," but proves to be just the right number to draw on all the best aspects of both small and large ensemble jazz. At times the four horns making up the front line can sound like a much larger ensemble, and the effect is amplified by Anders Banke who plays tenor sax, clarinet, and bass clarinet throughout the album (and plays all of them startlingly well). At other times, the band sounds surprisingly intimate and it is easy to hear a flowing exchange of ideas between the entire band, as you would expect from a smaller ensemble.

The material is intelligently written and approached to highlight the range of the band and the pieces almost all have sections of extreme contrast. Sometimes the change is gradual, like on the long "Ai Peidi Della Scalla," which flows smoothly from one section to the next (through at least four or five distinct sections), but on other tracks the shift is dramatic and bold, like on "The Enigmatic Reality of Time" which begins as a chaotic group improvisation but turns on a dime, into quiet, understated tone poem, highlighting Banke's ethereal sound on the bass clarinet. Knuffke stands out on almost every tune, blending a cleverly logical, but adventurous melodic approach with his incredible tone for great results. Despite the album's focus on his playing, it never feels at the expense of the rest of the band.

The music and the execution of the band seems to be inspired by Mingus; the compositions themselves seem to be loosely defined and focused more on shape, color, and the overall contour of the music, than precise notation and arrangement. The music is dominated by dance-like melodies, but almost never without vibrant dissonances in the horn voicings. Dørge's otherworldly guitar tone also adds a unique element to the band, and though his guitar is seldom in the direct foreground of the music, he seems to be guiding the rest of the band through the music. The orchestra shows they are certainly not afraid of free improvisation (in fact, they excel at it,) but the music is not limited by the ensemble's affinity for freedom. In fact, one of the most memorable tunes is the folk hymn-like "Jeg Har en Angst" which mostly features the horns sans rhythm section and sounds almost like a blues-influenced classical choral written for a wind quartet.

There aren't many weak-spots here. Each track is a complete piece that shows the potential of the band, as well as the band's restraint. The music often features Knuffke and he rises to the occasion magnificently with excellent playing that seems to provoke and inspire the rest of the ensemble. The other members of the group all have chances to shine individually, but ultimately, it's the teamwork of the entire orchestra that makes the music not just successful, but really exceptional. It's definitely one of the strongest jazz releases of 2016.