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Ayn Inserto honors her late, great mentor in a new piece
"It's not uncommon for an artist to attend a school in pursuit of a specific mentor. For the composer Ayn Inserto, that school was New England Conservatory, the mentor, Bob Brookmeyer. Inserto had solid training behind her already - at Cal State Hayward, not far from her family's East Bay home, with the esteemed trombonist, bandleader, and educator Dave Eshelman. But she wanted to take her work to the next level, and for jazz composition, Brookmeyer - whose students have included Maria Schneider, John Hollenbeck, and Darcy James Argue - was the man.

Inserto was first drawn to Brookmeyer when, as a pianist in a big band during her freshman year, she played his "Ding Dong Ding." She was drawn to his music's linear drive, that it was completely modern, and yet swinging. "Also, at the time," she says, "he was one of the few greats that was actually teaching at a graduate program. The opportunity was surreal."

When the Ayn Inserto Jazz Orchestra crams into the tiny Lily Pad in Cambridge on Monday night, the show will probably include work from Inserto's latest CD, "Home Away From Home: Colours Jazz Orchestra Plays the Music of Ayn Inserto," recorded in 2013 with the Italian band of the title. But the centerpiece will be the Boston premiere of "Ze Teach and Me," dedicated to Brookmeyer. "The first movement is about Bob, and the second movement is me," says Inserto. "Ze Teach," she explains, was Brookmeyer's sign-off in e-mails. Inserto, now a professor of composition at Berklee, studied with Brookmeyer as she was earning her master's degree at NEC in 1999-2001. She continued studying with him informally until his death in 2011. Her 2006 debut CD, "Clairvoyance," featured Brookmeyer as a trombone soloist.

Inserto had applied to NEC as a piano performance major. But Allan Chase, then the conservatory's chair of jazz studies and now himself at Berklee, heard her lead a performance of one of her original compositions at an International Association of Jazz Educators conference in Anaheim, Calif. Recalls Chase: "I said, Wow! OK!"

What Chase heard that day wasn't "the standard textbook of how to arrange for a big band, but an original composition, with personality, originality, and ideas. It had a lot of spark." As an undergraduate, Inserto was already skillfully deploying modern harmonies most young composers struggle with in graduate school. Chase, now a member of Inserto's band, concluded that she "was a strong pianist, but an amazing composer."

Inserto's "spark" is fully evident on "Home Away From Home": the ecstatic, helter-skelter breaks for drums and horns and the weave of simultaneous trumpet and soprano sax solos on opener "You're Leaving? But I Just Got Here"; the melancholy tone-poem harmonies of "Wintry Mix"; an evocative deconstruction of the Joe Henderson classic "Recorda Me"; the playful funk of "Hang Around"; the lovely melody and languid waltz rhythm of "La Danza Infinita."

Inserto steers away from conventional jazz arrangements in which a series of soloists improvise over the same short tune. Instead, a soloist improvises over a continually unfolding narrative. The idea that an improvised solo should serve the piece as a whole was central to Brookmeyer's teaching. "He really didn't want you to just stick a solo in there," says Inserto. "The soloist is there to take us to the next part of the piece. Bob would ask, 'You put a soloist here, what's the purpose? What are you going to give the soloist to help him or her relate to the tune?' "

Chase gives a hint of what makes Inserto's pieces appealing for players and listeners alike: "They're hard, but not too hard." Rhythms and note patterns, he says, "lay well" on the instruments, but they're never predictable. "I'm by far the oldest member of the band," says Chase, 59. "And I'm totally on the edge of my seat playing the music. It's like flying an airplane into the Grand Canyon: You can do this, but don't make a wrong turn."

Inserto laughs as she says that she likes to "end with something simple β€” we put the band through enough torture." Thus the salsa romp "Subo" that ends "Home Away From Home." She also likes to cook, so there's always food at Inserto rehearsals. Inserto prefers a bit more dissonance in her work than Brookmeyer did in his pieces, but she wants her music to be accessible too. Brookmeyer, she says, always counseled: "You need to take your ear off and put it on the piano," and hear the piece with the objectivity of an audience. These days she sees herself drawing more, in pieces like "Hang Around," on the hip-hop, funk, and pop she grew up with. Brookmeyer, she says, "is always in my head, nagging me, but I also feel like I can trust myself more." - By Jon Garelick, Boston Globe, JUNE 25, 2015

*****

"The title of Boston composer/arranger Ayn Inserto's third album wasn't arbitrarily chosen. More to the point, Home Away From Home alludes to the recording's unique background. A number of years ago, Italian trombonist Massimo Morganti caught a performance at the Berklee Performance Center by the Ayn Inserto Jazz Orchestra featuring trombonist Bob Brookmeyer (Inserto's jazz composition teacher at the New England Conservatory) and tenor saxophonist George Garzone, both of whom contributed to her debut album, Clairvoyance, in 2006. Suitably impressed, Morganti arranged for her to travel to Italy for a series of workshops with his Colours Jazz Orchestra and, having established a strong rapport with the band, Inserto returned the following year for a number of performances featuring material now documented on her follow-up to 2009's Muse.

An associate professor of jazz composition at Berklee College of Music, the Singapore-born Inserto has won multiple awards and performed all over the world. Certainly traces of Brookmeyer's influence are evident in her work (Gil Evans's, too), but that's only natural. More important is the fact that Inserto has over the past decade developed her own voice and produced an impressive collection of original work. Rich in harmony and colour, her music holds up perfectly well alongside others in the same field, and the stylistic variety and imagination captured on Home Away From Home show her ability to work convincingly in different idioms.

The album features seven pieces, all previously unrecorded and of contrasting character. On the fifty-three-minute date, luscious settings solidly in the big band tradition (Down a Rabbit Hole, for instance) rub shoulders with both a swinging funk piece (Hang Around) and an album-closer that sounds as much calypso-flavoured as Latin-tinged (Subo). Inserto's writing and arranging can be audacious, as shown when the cheekily titled opener You're Leaving? But I Just Got Here begins with a dialogue between drum brushes and soprano saxophone before flowering into a vigorous ensemble arrangement featuring both full band playing and solos, including robust interweaving statements by the soprano saxist and trumpeter.

The band's at its luscious best during the ballad setting β€œLa Danza Infinita,” a beautiful example of Inserto's writing and the Colours Jazz Orchestra's ability to play with elegance and subtlety when the need arises. While it's an especially wonderful showcase for the woodwinds, the horns are as well-served by the piece, too. Also included is a re-imagining of Joe Henderson's Recorda Me, which finds the late artist's persona present in both the bold saxophone solo that appears midway through and the suave melodic resonance of the piece.

A few things separate the Colours Jazz Orchestra from others of its ilk. The drummer sometimes plays with a looser feel than one typically hears from a drummer in a big band context, and the tenor saxist likewise dishes out a wild solo or two of the kind favoured by someone like David Murray. But while it's easy to have one's attention fixate on the band's playing, let's not forget that, with all of the material having been composed by Inserto, Home Away From Home is still very much her date.
- textura.org Home Away from Home CD Review, May 2015.

*****

"Ayn Inserto's second recording with her jazz orchestra is grand and sophisticated to a degree as to immediately elevate her status alongside acknowledged influences, and well known, experienced chart makers like Maria Schneider, Bob Belden, and Mark Masters. This Boston based big band plays Inserto's original music, tempered to strict tolerances, read and interpreted precisely and joyously. Main soloist George Garzone is also a powerful figure in the way the music is shaped, but it is his distinct post-John Coltrane tone that establishes a high inspirational standard for all members of the band to follow.

Inserto directs and conducts her charges through eight original pieces individually dedicated to her teachers and influences, which include Dave Eshelman, Bob Brookmeyer, Frank Foster, Steve Lacy, Michael Brecker, personal friends, family, and bandmembers. This is complex music, clearly well rehearsed, compelling and commanding for any astute listener, and firmly placed in the modern mainstream neo-bop contemporary continuum.

Boston saxophonists like Rick Stone, Brian Landrus, Kelly Roberge, Sean Berry, and especially Allan Chase work in tandem with Garzone, while lead trumpeter Jeff Claassen fronts the brass section. A new star to discover is pianist Carmen Staaf, a wonderfully melodic and inventive keyboardist who fills nooks and crannies, and sets the pacing, color palate, and tone for the band nearly as much as Garzone. "Eshel Sketch" kicks off the set with an exuberance indicative of the entire date, a bouncy, happy, childlike piece based on Staaf's dainty, stated figures being cleverly traced by the horns. Stairstep bright lighting flicked repeatedly on and off identifies "A Little Brook," the depth of the composition shaded by a far reaching horizon that mirrors Brookmeyer's modern visage of color balance with little accents of splashed starbursts framed in an easy swing. "Vinifera" pays tribute to Foster, it is a piece commissioned by ASCAP and the now defunct International Association of Jazz Educators' as spiked tips of melody followed by quick counterpoint presents the most intricate construct, far from simple harmonics or dynamics, but lean and mean. Garzone's soprano on "Laced with Love" does not so much assimilate Steve Lacy, but urges the horn section in a mounting, lingering, and slow refrain that he punctuates in characteristic sharp tones, providing a lovely eulogy. Of course Garzone's tenor during "To Michael Brecker," as you would expect, takes into account the free floating no time concept of Coltrane married to Brecker's inexhaustive lyrical mindset. "Snowplace Like Home" (love the title) has Chase and Garzone hopping about on a jumpy repeat theme where their dual soprano saxes push the envelope harmonically, and the closer "Simple" is a basic melody reminiscent of Count Basie, short and sweet, with the exception of a purposefully sour note at the end of the pretty phrase.

Inserto is impressive as a writer of modern jazz, her band is more than up to the task, and there's a real feeling of camaraderie cementing the band as a true working mule team. Especially if you are not familiar with her name and sound, keep Ayn Inserto's Muse in serious consideration for a distinguished place in your collection. It is an excellent representation of what's happening in her virile, imaginative mind, and comes highly recommended."
- Michael G. Nastos, allmusic.com Muse CD Review, February 2009.

*****

"There's an energetic creative force on the horizon named Ayn Inserto, and based on this debut album, she's Maria Schneider on steroids. Boston-based Inserto, an assistant professor at Berklee, arranged all nine tracks and composed six. George Garzone, who is a guest tenorist, wrote the remaining three. The other guest soloist is trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, who happens to be Inserto's mentor. That connection alone gives credence to the album.

What you'll hear may be confusing. In Inserto's contemporary mindset, there seems little need for bar lines or, in many instances, tonal centers. Her strength is in creating dense colors and textures, as on Clairvoyance. Sticking with a conventional, 17-piece band, she devises huge, avant-garde canvases filled with clusters (she loves minor seconds). Brookmeyer is laid-back, never deviating from his sophisticated tones, creating a fascinating contrast to Inserto's dissonant backing, particularly on ?hadow Dancing. Garzone, on the other hand, tends to become as anarchic as the band, as on Hey, Open Up. Pianist Kyle Aho takes a very poetic solo on Early Sunday Morning, and there is outstanding rhythmic support from bassist Jeremy Allen and drummer Richie Barshay on 'Lazy Saturday Afternoon.'"
- Harvey Siders, Jazz Times Clairvoyance CD Review, September 2007

*****

"Ayn Inserto is a young, beautiful and very talented composer who has just made a dramatic entrance into the world of big band jazz, offering a new voice on this debut album. Her music is new and unconventional, striking a different chord than what one usually expects from a big band project. Inserto assembled her sixteen-piece Boston-based orchestra with some of the best local talent. A student of legendary trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, who likens Inserto to Maria Schneider, she recorded this album with her mentor and reed man George Garzone as special guests. Except for three tracks penned by Garzone, the balance consists of original compositions and arrangements provided by the leader.

What is clearly evident here, right from the opening The Mingus That I Knew, is that you will not be treated to a typical big band sound. The charts are sophisticated, with intricate lines and texture characterized by direction-changing moods and tempo. The composer crafted the entire album around her two guests, who provide a slew of tasteful solos.

The opening tune features an impressive performance by Garzone, who continues his assault on tenor and soprano on his own Hey Open Up, Just Blow and the finale, The Chooch, a wild and humorous piece containing the only vocals (also provided by the saxophonist). Bob Brookmeyer shows his stuff on Inserto's Shadow Dancing With a Hint of Gold and Early Sunday Morning, and then shares the spotlight with Garzone on Lazy Saturday Afternoon and the title cut.

I have to be perfectly honest and state that it took me a couple of listens to truly appreciate the fresh new sound that differentiates this album. I suspect that we will be hearing more from Inserto in the future, and rightly so. Ayn Inserto's sophisticated charts and clever arrangements on Clairvoyance serve to harness that energy to create a unique big band sound without the heavy orchestration."
- Edward Blanco, allaboutjazz.com , Review of Clairvoyance

*****

"A New Star on the Horizon - The big band tradition is alive and well. Ayn Inserto is someone to watch. She writes well and the fact that she attracts great musicians on her CD speaks for itself. Good sound too." - John Greenspan, Host of Good Morning Jazz KSFR 90.7 FM Santa Fe, New Mexico, www.ksfr.org

*****

"Ayn Inserto is one the most gifted young composers I have had the pleasure of teaching in many years. She has a "universal" musical language that translates successfully to public and musician alike, but also has a very robust and aggressive side. Her music is crafted beautifully, reminding me -- of course-- of my most famous student, Maria Schneider. There it stops -- Ayn has her own voice her own way and, indeed, is now influencing my newer students at the New England Conservatory. I have chosen to be her mentor because she is a rare bird -- they do not happen very often so I hope and to help her along what promises to be a shining path and a bright future." - Bob Brookmeyer

*****

"Ayn Inserto's music is intricate yet economical, harmonically intriguing, and displays a vast and alluring textural palette. The work remains personal while showing great versatility." - Ben Monder

*****

"Ayn Inserto is in the forefront of a new generation of jazz composers who are accomplished, ambitious and truly personal." - Fred Hersch

*****

"Ayn Inserto's music has a lot of passion and surprise, yet, she never loses the context of the music and has a lot of structure. She develops motives and keeps a continuity that makes everything make sense. She has a lot of colors in her palette and uses them to have a real natural flow in her music." - Jerry Bergonzi

*****

"Metro, the CSUH (Cal State Hayward) ensemble's most recent album, is a typically challenging amalgam of original compositions by [Dave] Eshelman and others (including three by the ensemble's gifted pianist, Ayn Inserto) that brings to mind thoughts of traversing a high wire without a net." - Jack Bowers, allaboutjazz.com

*****

"Not only can she cook on the stove, but she can cook on the bandstand! Check her out." - George Garzone