Bobby Zankel revives Warriors of the Wonderful Sound for a residency at The Painted Bride and Clef Club
Bobby Zankel’s Warriors of the Wonderful Sound | Photo courtesy of the artist

When Bobby Zankel ended his decade-long run of monthly performances at Tritone in 2011 (mere months before the South Street club itself went to a better place), the future of the saxophonist’s adventurous Warriors of the Wonderful Sound big band was unclear. The following year brought the first reinvention of the band through a series of commissioned compositions from jazz greats Muhal Richard Abrams, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Steve Coleman.

A more radical reinvention came in 2013, when Zankel scaled down the band to a ten-piece and almost completely overhauled its membership. “The original band had run its course,” Zankel shrugs now. In its first two years the new Warriors maintained its vitality while making fewer appearances, though the more sporadic shows always made an impact: its unveiling at the 2013 Philadelphia United Jazz Festival; an inventive and surprising collaboration with hip-hop choreographer Raphael Xavier and Cuban-born percussionist François Zayas as part of the Kimmel Center’s inaugural Jazz Residency program; a tribute to “New Thing” pioneers Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Sun Ra in a powerhouse double-bill with the Sun Ra Arkestra at the Painted Bride.

This week, the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound will make a return to monthly gigs with the kick-off of a new first-Tuesday series that will feature a twist on its old residency in part inspired by its successful commissioning series, with each show featuring a special guest. This Tuesday’s performance at the Painted Bride will include veteran Philly pianist Dave Burrell, while the next few months, which will alternate between the Bride and the Clef Club, promise a stellar series of saxophonists: Rudresh Mahanthappa, Oliver Lake, and Jaleel Shaw.

While the music composed for the Warriors during that round of commissions was revelatory for the bandleader, Zankel says that the turnout for the ensuing concerts was even more exciting. “People were being turned away each night,” he recalls. “It reinforced my desire to do a monthly thing again, but not have it be Tritone II. Tuesday is probably the least busy night of the week, so I thought, ‘Let’s try an off night and see if we can develop it.’ I thought of the musicians first, and hopefully if you bring great musicians the people will follow. We’ll find out soon.”

In addition to the two venues, Zankel brought local jazz presenting organization Ars Nova Workshop on board to help promote the series, whose guest artists are perfectly in keeping with Ars Nova’s leading-edge aesthetic. “Ars Nova has become such a vibrant and healthy organization,” Zankel says. “So I wanted to engage them and their audience, because it’s a built-in audience for what we do.”

Unlike the Warriors’ previous collaborations with marquee artists, the guest musicians will not be asked to compose for the group, but simply to integrate their own individualistic voices into the band’s well-honed style. “It’s really about the Warriors,” Zankel explains, “and bringing in great people who would be open to try the musical environment that we create.”

As for the first guest, Zankel says that Burrell has been “a musical hero” for decades, but the two never shared the stage until very recently. Their first time playing together was in a band led by tap dancer and singer Germaine Ingram, which placed both in the unusual position – for them – of being sideman playing standards. They next crossed paths at the Painted Bride last year during Zankel’s “Still the New Thing” festival, when they paid tribute to legendary pianist (and former Zankel employer) Cecil Taylor with an all-star quintet. There were a number of thrilling moments during that performance, which makes another pairing between the two – not to mention the remainder of Zankel’s always-inspiring band – especially enticing.

Zankel is in the process of composing new music with each of his guests in mind. For the first show, the saxophonist has worked out a new arrangement of Burrell’s piece “Crucificado,” which he played often with his longtime bandleader, saxophonist Archie Shepp. “I put my thing on it,” Zankel says, “changed the rhythm, put a bunch of funny notes in there. We rehearsed last night with Dave and he was just tickled. I was so gratified watching him respond to the arrangement. It’s exciting for me to see a musician with that level of experience and caliber really taking on our music.”

Listeners who return for all four of the shows in the current series – which will then take a break for the summer before returning with another batch of invited artists in the fall – will have the privilege of seeing a new composition titled “All Lives Matter” unfold, with a new section of the suite being added each month. Zankel is also thinking of undertaking an arrangement of John Coltrane’s “India” to feature Indian-American saxophonist Mahanthappa.

Each of the musicians who’ll appear during the series are ones who Zankel feels a kinship with. Mahanthappa proved to be a keen collaborator during his time working with the band on his own commissioned piece; Lake, who is fresh off a gorgeous concert at the Rotunda featuring new music written for another inventive Philly ensemble, the Sonic Liberation 8, was a leader of the New York loft jazz scene around the time Zankel was living in the city and working with Cecil Taylor; and Philly native Jaleel Shaw attended workshops at the Clef Club given by Zankel when Shaw was a child prodigy, making his performance with the Warriors at the Clef Club a kind of homecoming.

Bobby Zankel and Warriors of the Wonderful Sound will perform with Dave Purrell at The Painted Bride on Tuesday, March 3rd. Tickets and more information on the show can be found here.

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