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 — 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.”
A couple of provocative duo performances are on tap this week at the Lily Pad (617-955-7729, www.lilypadinman.com). On Friday night, composer and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and her husband, drummer Tom Rainey, celebrate the release of their free-improv set “And Other Desert Towns.” Then on Tuesday, singer Kristin Slipp and trumpeter Joe Moffett, as Twins of El Dorado, open for solo baritone saxophone-and-synthesizer man Jonah Parzen-Johnson. . . . Latter-day bluesy chanteuse Madeleine Peyroux plays Berklee Performance Center on Sunday (617-266-7455, www.berklee.edu). . . . On Wednesday, trumpeter Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra celebrates the release of its new “Hot Town” CD with reimaginings of pre-swing jazz from the likes of Fess Williams (and his Royal Flush Orchestra), Charlie Johnson, and Tiny Parham, as part of the MFA’s summer series in the Calderwood Courtyard (800-440-6975, www.mfa.org). . . . On July 26, singer Nnenna Freelon headlines the second annual Cambridge Jazz Festival on a bill that also includes drummer Ron Savage and his trio, pianist JoAnne Brackeen, percussionist-bandleader Eguie Castrillo, pianist Laszlo Gardony, and the Tóth Brothers. That’s at University Park Commons, Sydney Street, on the MIT campus, noon to 6 p.m., and it’s free (617-945-8052, www.cambridgejazzfestival.org).
Ayn Inserto Jazz Orchestra
At: Lily Pad, Cambridge,
Monday at 7 p.m.
Tickets: $10; 617-955-7729, www.lilypadinman.com
Jon Garelick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.