Rather than call it a big band
or orchestra, trombonist John Yao calls his ensemble his 17-piece
instrument. This configuration’s first recording, Flip-Flop
(See Tao Records, 2015) is indeed a big band release.
The 17 pieces are Yao, a five-piece saxophone section, four-piece
trumpet and flugelhorn section, four-piece trombone section and
three-piece rhythm section. The saxes are John O’Gallagher, alto,
soprano and flute; Alejandro Aviles, alto and flute; Rich Perry, tenor;
Jon Irabagon, tenor and clarinet; and Frank Basile, baritone and bass
clarinet. The trumpets and flugels are John Walsh, Jason Wiseman, David
Smith and Andy Gravish. The trombones are Luis Bonilla, Matt McDonald,
Kajiwara Tokunori and Jennifer Wharton. And the rhythm players are Jesse
Stacken, Bob Sabin and Vince Cherico.
The title song gets the action going from the first beat. It’s all in,
with the horns and rhythm section, each providing high-energy thrills. A
brief piano phrases interjects, then the full band goes full throttle.
Eventually, there’s a gear shift for Perry to take point. He builds,
signaling the other musicians to come back in, then hands it over to
O’Gallagher. The alto screams at times, comparable to one of Kenny
Garrett’s stretching out moments. Things become frantic when multiple
saxes join in, overlapping one another. The song downshifts to something
more placid, with one of the saxes accompanied only by piano, bass and
drums. But that only lasts so long as the intensity builds again, and
the other horns get involved. The bass gets a moment in the spotlight
before the stellar finale.
“Slow … Children at Play” warms up slowly with overlapping saxophone
phrases, then the trombones and trumpets join in. Once the melody kicks
in, the song takes on a bright, leisurely mood. One can visualize
driving near a neighborhood playground, taking in the sight of
youngsters enjoying themselves. Solos by Perry and Bonilla shake things
up. A call and response between the horns and the drums sets up the
The other tracks have similar modes, with the full band working in units
toward a common goal, the soloists and rhythm section doing their parts.
No one gets lost in the shuffle. Flip-Flop is an up-close look
at Yao’s songwriting, leadership and musicianship. It’s Yao’s second
release, first as conductor and composer of a large ensemble.
Yao, a native of Chicago who now
works out of New York, has performed as a substitute with the Vanguard
Jazz Orchestra and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. For the last three
years, Yao and his 17-piece instrument have performed all over New York
City, including dates at the Tea Lounge, Shapeshifter Lab, Gantry State
Park and Queens Botanical Garden.