A uniquely Philadelphian ten-piece band, the Fresh Cut Orchestra is co-led by trumpeter Josh Lawrence, bassist Jason Fraticelli and drummer Anwar Marshall. They return to Ropeadope Records on August 26, 2016 with Mind Behind Closed Eyes, a highly varied collection of pieces from the three composers. The album also marks the recorded début of Fraticelli on cuatro, a Puerto Rican stringed instrument similar to the Cuban tres. The album was recorded entirely live - all the electronic processing done in-the-moment in Ableton, and where Fraticelli plays cuatro, guitarist Tim Conley switches to bass.
The cuatro is one of the first sounds of the record, opening the aptly titled bolero miniature “My Summer in Puerto Rico,” which gives way to Fraticelli’s title track, propelled by a breakbeat from Marshall and live electronics from Conley. As Lawrence says, “We wanted people to be surprised by every track, to not know what would come next.”
The centerpiece of the album is Lawrence’s 10-minute opus, “Augmented Reality.” Originally conceived as a feature for guitarist and laptop artist Conley, it evolved “like a sea monster emerging from the water,” the trumpeter says. “I had never worked with live electronics before FCO, and I wanted to write something completely different from what I normally do.”
Latin influences return, this time in the form of Lawrence’s tune “Frederico,” a whimsical “what-if” merging traditional Cuban danzón with the harmonies of Chopin.
FCO roots itself in Philly’s rhythmic tradition. Jazz visionaries such as Art Blakey and Miles Davis would often scout the city for its musicians. As Marshall states, “I believe Philly musicians have a certain conception of rhythm that we all agree upon, a rhythmic dialogue that we all understand. That language is very hard swinging, but it's timing is laid back and relaxed.” Lawrence concurs, “There’s nothing like drummers from Philly! And us trumpet players are best friends with drummers, because we have to be!” In Marshall’s two tunes, “Indecision” and “New Expectations,” the continuum of Philly pulse can be heard completely.
The core trio of Lawrence, Fraticelli and Marshall were initially put together by Lenny Seidman of the Painted Bride Arts Center, home of the longest running jazz series in the city. Seidman decided to pick three emerging composer-performers from the area to form a larger ensemble. The three co-leaders clicked as a trio who love playing bebop, and they found a special democratic balance. “Josh brings a sophistication and practicality to the band, and I’m always super excited,” says Fraticelli. “We balance each other out in making decisions. Anwar is a completely supportive spirit - any idea you come up with, he understands.”
Fraticelli describes the band as a group of overlapping relationships. “Josh suggested we have four horns, and pulled from his experiences in many of Philly’s jazz programs. Saxophonists Mike Cemprola and Mark Allen are best friends, but at the time I didn’t know them.” Trombonist Brent White was familiar to all three co-leaders, as they had all passed through various Philly big bands. Fraticelli enlisted his best friend Tim Conley, then living in LA, and fleshed out the rhythm section with pianist Brian Marsella - known for his work with Cyro Baptista - and Cuban percussionist Francois Zayas, who has been a fixture in the city for over a decade. “We’ve been very fortunate for the commissions we’ve received from the Painted Bride and the Kimmel Center,” Fraticelli says. “We’ve been very lucky and we’ve made the most of these opportunities in the best way possible. It creates art that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. It’s great for the local music scene and great for the city.”
Where the FCO’s first album, From The Vine, was more of a narrative effort centered around Fraticelli’s “Mother’s Suite,” Mind Behind Closed Eyes is more open to the listener's interpretation and more evenly split among the three compositional voices. As the title suggests, the emphasis is letting one's imagination run free while listening to the record with eyes closed. As Lawrence says, “For this album, we want people to come up with their own stories for the music.”
Fresh Cut Orchestra will perform two release concerts in support of Mind Behind Closed Eyes: August 27 at their birthplace, The Painted Bride Arts Center in Philadelphia, PA; and August 29 at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center, NYC.
This project is supported (in part) through a grant from the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Composers Forum.
From The Vine press release
Philadelphia houses one of today’s most dynamic yet under-appreciated jazz scenes. Luckily the Fresh Cut Orchestra offers a remedy: For an introduction to the next generation of talent in a city that produced figures like John Coltrane and Christian McBride and the Eubanks family, tune into this burgeoning large ensemble. It’s led by three improvisers and composers on the rise—trumpeter Josh Lawrence, bassist Jason Fraticelli and drummer Anwar Marshall—and all of its 10 members are local leaders.
The Fresh Cut Orchestra’s debut release, From the Vine, features all original music, and it has a far-reaching, panoptic quality. The album dips into various soundscapes and grooves, deftly migrating from ephemeral to slicing, which bespeaks the bandleaders’ range of experiences: Lawrence has performed with Erykah Badu, Boyz II Men and Orrin Evans; Fraticelli with Matisyahu, Taylor McFerrin and Mark Guiliana; and Marshall with Evans, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Dave Douglas.
“Our vibe was just spot on from the beginning,” Lawrence says of the ensemble, which arose out of a commission in 2012 and has worked steadily around Philadelphia ever since. “Everybody in this group is a leader of some project, and we all play in each other’s bands, so there’s a lot of camaraderie onstage. And that’s been translating to the audience. A lot of the music we’ve written is pretty complex, but everybody in the group is so top game that it happens pretty easily. In this situation it’s almost ESP-like, because we’ve been working together in so many formats.”
Across nine tracks, the swarming and immersive From the Vine—due Feb. 17 on Ropeadope Records—fills your ears with a variety of textures. Most of the album is devoted to Fraticelli’s The Mothers’ Suite, a rich, seven-tune work that he calls “the result of an emotional roller coaster.” The bassist’s mother-in-law died tragically and unexpectedly shortly before the birth of his first child. “The suite investigates the losing of a life, but it also has a section devoted to a reawakening. It’s a celebration of the awesome spirit of my wife’s mother, and it also deals with the experience of being alongside my wife as she becomes a mother,” Fraticelli says.
In the opening tune, “Birth of a Child, Birth of a Mom,” shimmering ambience gives way to beaming, declarative melodies. A loose, Latin-rock feel on “Mother’s Love” underpins Mike Cemprola’s soaring and barbed tenor saxophone solo. The crunchy, guitar-driven fusion of “Migration of the Spirit” is like Mahavishnu Orchestra with a contemporary groove.
The album ends with one tune by Lawrence and one by Marshall. The trumpeter’s “Uptown Romance” pulls gently toward the blues, with pliant three-horn harmonies that have the bohemian swagger of a 1980s Spike Lee flick. On the closer, the drummer’s “Sanguine,” inquisitive Fender Rhodes chords from Brian Marsella seem to pull the layers off Marshall’s electronically programmed beats. It all evokes London’s experimental drum ‘n’ bass scene from the 1990s, or some of Thundercat’s recent work.
Philadelphia’s heritage involves a combination of hard-bop luminaries, soul music milestones, funk and much else. The brothers Kevin, Duane and Robin Eubanks—all genre-defying musicians—got their start there, as did Christian McBride. Take a look at McBride’s work in the Philadelphia Experiment, where he built vibrant grooves alongside jazz pianist Uri Caine and hip-hop drummer Questlove‚ and you’ll start to get a sense of where the Fresh Cut Orchestra is coming from.
“We have a sort of musical gumbo here that a lot of other places don’t have. You’re constantly rubbing elbows with the R&B cats, the Latin cats, and all different types of jazz cats,” Marshall says. “In other cities you can sort of stay in a certain niche and work with only a handful of people, but in Philly, in order to survive as a musician, you’ve got to be able to play some groovier music.”
Indeed, the Fresh Cut Orchestra comfortably spans a wide range of aesthetics, specifically because it is pulls from Philly’s next generation. (It makes sense for this record to be released on Ropeadope, a small but adventurous company that trades in fashion as well as music, and houses a diverse stable of artists like Snarky Puppy, Mark de Clive-Love and Bill Dickens.)
But in a city with such strongly rooted musical traditions, a certain common identity does bind. “When I moved to New York, I always had work up there, because I was kind of an outsider, and I had a firm identity. I just sounded different from other musicians,” Lawrence says. “It took me stepping away from Philly to realize that the city was what had formed me into what I was.”
The band’s brief history over the past two years shows that not only is Philadelphia rich with talent: The city’s cultural institutions are willing to help sustain an ambitious and cutting-edge jazz project like this.
The Fresh Cut Orchestra started with a commission from Lenny Simon of the fabled Painted Bride Art Center. He brought the three bandleaders together, and gave them funding to produce an original work for large ensemble. “The Painted Bride contacted us about putting together this music, and we all agreed pretty much from the get go about who we wanted to bring in to complete the band,” Marshall says. “Then once we got everyone together, the cohesion just happened super easily. From the first time we sat down with the guys, I said, ‘Oh yeah, this is going to be a blast.’”