Jazz CD Review: The Mark Masters Ensemble — Product of a Powerhouse

The latest big band album from Mark Masters beautifully displays his eclectic tastes and deep knowledge of jazz history.

Mark Masters Ensemble, Our Métier (Capri Records)

By Michael Ullman

Sixty-year-old composer, arranger, and bandleader Mark Masters must be something of a powerhouse. He is the president of the non-profit American Jazz Institute, which is based in Pasadena, and has been recording with a big band of west coasters since the ’80s. Born in Gary, Indiana, he is a Californian. He has eclectic tastes and a deep knowledge of jazz history. I first heard of him in the mid-’90s when he made a series of big band records dedicated to some of my favorite musicians and pieces: The Jimmy Knepper Songbook, The Clifford Brown Project, and Porgy and Bess: Redefined. He has released a disc featuring Steely Dan music, another of mostly Stan Kenton tunes, and a third with the great alto player Lee Konitz. This may seem to be an eccentric line-up, but cognoscenti know that Knepper, for instance, was a great composer as well as trombonist (with Mingus and others).

Masters brings musicians together and then somehow leaves them to be themselves. Masters’ newest disc is Our Métier, which in English would be called Our Trade. It’s a delightfully self-deprecating title for an eclectic and beautifully accomplished big band recording that is made up, for once, of Masters’ originals (and a pair of freely improvised small band cuts). The musicians include the octogenarian reedman, one of my favorites, Gary Foster and the (typically) avant-garde saxophonist Oliver Lake, who has made dozens of his own albums as well as with the World Saxophone Quartet. Foster has been recording since the ’60s: I particularly admire the work he did with pianist Clare Fischer, including 1969’s Thesaurus, a big band disc, and with Warne Marsh. This is a tantalizing pairing: a Lennie Tristano influenced alto bumps up against a spiky avant-gardist. The drummer is Andrew Cyrille — long known for his work with Cecil Taylor, but he’s a bandleader as well. (I’d recommend his new disc Lebroba, with Wadada Leo Smith and Bill Frisell and, for older examples of his self-led music, Andrew Cyrille: Compete Recordings on Black Saint and Soul Note.)

The new recording begins with “Borne Toward the Stars,” which Masters says was inspired by Malcolm Lowry’s celebrated novel Under the Volcano. The piece begins quietly and out of tempo with a phrase on vibes — answered by a hip boppish line. The composition comes off as a kind of tentative conversation, interweaving swinging passages with amusingly varied interruptions. The most startling of these interludes comes from Lake, whose angular, high-pitched notes, with the occasional growl, illustrate jut how compatible free jazz improvisation is with Masters’ vision. When Lake returns for an extended solo he plays the blues in his distinctive adventurous style. Masters’ vision contains this kind of experimental flair with ease. He notes about this track that Our Métier is representative of  “what I believe in how to make music..an organic melody..sometimes form and sometimes not….atonal orchestral statements…honest, original voices improvising.”

Masters contrives to have his honest musical voices make unexpected sounds. The sweetly swinging “51 West 51st Street” begins with a breathy, wordless vocal by Anna Mjöll. She states the counter-melody — in an overdubbed duet with herself  — accompanied by Bob Carr’s bass clarinet in unison. The latter plays the little jump melody until Cyrille enters and the brass section takes over by imposing a conversation of its own. But that introduction (which is repeated, this time with the brass and vocalist together) sets the the stage for the arrival of sounds I’ve not heard before. (I don’t want to betray the shock.) That’s not the end of the surprises: Bob Woodbury takes a trombone solo deep in the lower reaches, which is followed by a bright, boppish solo by trumpeter Tim Hagans.

Masters loves the blues — his own versions of the venerable form. “Lift” features, once again, the soft-textured, hip-ish expressive voice  (overdubbed at times) of Anna Mjöll. This time she enters over a walking bass improvising boppish lines. Then, in the second chorus, she is overdubbed so that she is transformed into a hip vocal choir. The next head shaker is the staccato entrance of Lake, his notes drawn from the entire range of the alto, including some low grumblings. The avant-garde meets the blues.We hear these passages over a walking bass with occasional bars from the vibes. “Luminescence” is another blues that starts with a lazy line on trombone and then on trumpet. The trombone returns to converse with the bass. When the band comes in the bass clarinet, voice, and vibes are prominent. If we had any doubts before they are gone: the piece is a recognizable version of the blues. Tenor saxophonist Mark Turner takes the main solo.

The disc also serves up the light bounce of “Ingvild’s Dance” and, perhaps the most unexpected choice — given that this is a composer’s date — two free improvisations. One features Foster, Turner Smith, and Cyrille, the other is populated by Hagans, Lake, Cyrille, Smith, and trombonist Woodley. This is not only a sure sign of Masters’ generosity but, most likely, his lively curiosity. He just had to include these spontaneous conversations along with his own richly conceived compositions.

Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. (He plays piano badly.)

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