Jazz Commentary: Three More Recent Composer-Driven Jazz Releases — Stretching the Boundaries of the “Conventional”
By Steve Elman
These projects are more conventionally jazzish in their sounds than the four in the companion post, but that does not make their ambitions less worthwhile or less adventurous.
Not long ago in the Fuse, I offered an essay on music in “The Place Between” classical and jazz. It’s been gratifying to see that each new year seems to bring another crop of bold adventures in combining formal composition with improvised music. Seven recent releases illustrate what can happen when the only limits are the imagination of the composer and the passion of the performers. Part One dealt with four albums.
In this post, I’ll discuss three projects with instrumentation that is more or less conventional in the jazz world — two theme-driven suites for large ensembles and a big-band reinterpretation of classics from the 1920s, which the composer-arranger calls a suite. If these projects are more conventionally jazzish in their sounds than the four I discussed in the companion post, that does not make their ambitions less worthwhile or less adventurous.
To begin, a note on the idea of “suite.” Throughout classical literature, composers have resorted to this word when they had a variety of things to say musically that could be grouped around a single theme (the most famous, Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” is a collection of themes drawn from his ballet — no more and no less). In many cases, individual movements or pieces from many classical suites have taken on lives of their own. A unity of conception or rigor of form is not necessary for a suite to be a successful musical adventure. It is only important that the pieces in a suite enliven different aspects of the same theme and sit together comfortably, like members of a happy family around the ideal holiday table. In that regard, Mary Lou Williams’s “Zodiac Suite,” discussed in the previous post, is an outstanding example.
Home Is Here (Tapestry, 2022) is saxophonist-composer Felipe Salles’s third outing leading his Interconnections Ensemble, and this release proves that he is a Name to be Reckoned With. He doesn’t call this work a suite, but rather a “multi-movement original music work” dealing with immigration and naturalization in the US. Nonetheless, it deserves to be considered a suite, and like the other suites I’ve discussed, it does not need a program to be appreciated.
Salles elaborates on his ambitions in the very composition of the performing ensemble. All of the featured players are themselves immigrants, including trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis and saxophonists Melissa Aldana, Paquito D’Rivera, Jacques Schwarz-Bart, and Yosvany Terry. With talent like this, the execution at the front is never in doubt. But Salles makes things even better: he has assembled a 19-piece band that stands toe-to toe with his stars, including some lights from the Boston area, like the stellar trombonist Bob Pilkington. Everyone comes to play, and they are frequently thrilling to hear.
Salles is very confident in his materials, and this CD is filled with dynamic and exciting music. He voices his lines creatively, not thinking in terms of “sections” so much as “sonorities.” He puts vibraphone in the rhythm team, bringing in some beautiful colors just where they are needed. He also makes prominent use of flutes. I was repeatedly reminded of composer-arranger Gerald Wilson’s work as Home Is Here unfolded — not that Salles is in any way imitating an earlier master. The vocal quality of much of the writing, the innovative use of percussion, the muted brass, the vibes, the flutes, the unusual time signatures, the staccatos and rests — all of these are also found in Wilson’s work. But I think few other composer-arrangers since Wilson have used these tools as effectively and authoritatively as Salles does here.
If you are looking for something immediately striking, play “Two Worlds Together.” The tools I’ve mentioned are all here, in a gorgeously misterioso setting, reinforced by Magos Herrera’s wordless vocal and very simpatico solos from bass clarinetist Tyler Burchfield and vibist Luke Glavanovits. Then move on to the rich ensemble passages of “The Promise of Happiness,” with its fleet guitar solo from Chico Pinheiro. But hear all of Home Is Here, and be delighted.
In After / Life (Truth Revolution, 2023), saxophonist Brian McCarthy offers an album-long meditation on Nothingness evolving into Something. Only three of the pieces are grouped into a “suite” as such, but the first four lead logically into them. On top of that, one piece serves as a sensible coda, so McCarthy could have called the entire CD a suite without any diminution of its ambitions.
In one sense, this is straight-ahead mainstream jazz — themes, solos, themes — but McCarthy has bigger goals, rooting his inspiration for the music in the great sweep of cosmic evolution. This framework opens some mental doors to the music, and gives a listener who is unfamiliar with McCarthy’s work a way of thinking about it as he or she listens. However, each of the pieces could stand alone effectively (except for “Nebula,” which is really an introduction to “The Beginning,” and segues directly into it).
The program McCarthy provides is perhaps too big for the reality of this music, but that does not mean that the music is faulty in itself. McCarthy displays how well he knows his jazz literature and how well he orchestrates, making his Nonet sound much bigger than it really is. The execution of these challenging charts is spot-on. McCarthy gives each of the nine players at least one solo feature in the program, and all acquit themselves well, although I would have liked to have heard more from-the-gate snap in most of the solos. I also wanted to hear more from trumpeter / flugelhornist Bill Mobley, because his two brief spots (in “Kepler’s Law” and Movement III of the “After / Life Suite”) show real eloquence.
There is a hint of Joe Zawinul’s “In a Silent Way” in “Nebula,” and an even bigger hint in the theme of “Kepler’s Law.” Since Zawinul was a genuinely big thinker, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but we miss some of the enigma that Zawinul brought to a lot of his work. Also, the shadow of George Russell looms — including what seems like a direct quote from Russell’s “All About Rosie” in McCarthy’s “The Beginning,” a funk line that Russell would have approved of in Movement III of McCarthy’s “After / Life Suite,” and more than a little modality. In addition, the cosmic program of the CD has the same grand aspirations as Russell’s ambitions in The African Game, where the topic was the millennia of human evolution. But, again, something is missing. Compare the roller-coaster risks and thrills of The African Game. McCarthy’s work is too cautious; it was possibly not rehearsed well enough for the players to really convey the energy of a cosmos seething into life. In addition, the ensemble is a little too mid-range-heavy; we first hear soprano sax and bari as distinctive voices in Movement 1 of the “After / Life Suite,” more than 30 minutes into the CD. Could McCarthy have added tuba or had trombonist Cameron MacManus double on bass trombone? Could one of the reed players have doubled on flute? Would bass guitar have given the band greater richness?
Nonetheless, the whole shows promise. What McCarthy needs, I think, is a more disciplined program (or no program at all) and more committed playing. Do I want to hear After / Life again? Regrettably, no. Would I look forward to a more dynamic work from McCarthy in the future? Definitely, yes.
The most traditional of these three releases is a listenable and satisfying two-CD set of 10 tunes from the 1920s, The Gennett Suite (Patois, 2023). The arrangements for big band (recompositions, really) are by Brent Wallarab, a protégé of the late David Baker. Wallarab now holds a chair named for Baker at Indiana University. Most of the material here originally appeared on Indiana-based Gennett Records, from sessions led by King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, and Jelly Roll Morton. Reviving, rethinking, and reharmonizing these tunes is a more than worthy ambition, and giving attention to less-well-known items like “The Jazz Me Blues,” “Riverboat Shuffle,” and “Grandpa’s Spells” is praiseworthy. The CD package, from Indiana-based Patois Records, is stunning, with 36 pages of notes by Edward Hasse and David Brent Johnson and plenty of period photos. It also was simultaneously released on vinyl.
The performances here are impeccably played by a 17-piece band that probably drew on the student and faculty resources of IU. They are beautifully recorded, lovingly produced, and certainly fulfill the goals Wallarab and co-leader trumpeter Mark Buselli must have had when they went on the hustings needed to get funding for the recording.
However, I have some quibbles. The collection is just barely a suite, except in the sense that it brings together landmark material from the early days of jazz and speaks in a consistent musical language. Wallarab’s charts (with attractive soprano-sax leads in the reeds and a warm bottom in the brass from bass trombone) could have been written by Thad Jones circa 1975 (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Nonetheless, they are still part of the venerable school of big-band thought in which the trumpets, trombones, reeds, and rhythm are all thought of as “sections,” and individual voices rise from those sections to provide improvised solos. In the wake of the large-ensemble work of Gil Evans, George Russell, J.J. Johnson, Gunther Schuller, Carla Bley, and more recently Maria Schneider and Felipe Salles, I hoped for a more sound-color approach in which the composer-arranger would look to find more innovative, ear-grabbing ways to voice his ideas.
Gil Evans’s late-’50s arrangements of two tunes Wallarab arranges here are readily available for comparison — Morton’s “King Porter Stomp” and Beiderbecke’s “Davenport Blues.” Evans’s embrace of both tunes was surprising in its post-bop time; he rethought “Porter” again (hair-raisingly, with an electric rhythm section) in 1976. But even his ’50s arrangements sound fresh today. In contrast, Wallarab’s work is solidly 20th century. Wallarab relaxes the tension Evans exploits in “Porter” (maybe too much, in what must be a deliberate attempt to avoid a flag-waver) with a medium-tempo groove that sounds very Thad Jones-ish. “Davenport” is even more telling. Evans makes it a slow feature for one of his favorite trumpeters, Johnny Coles, and he calls for plenty of smears from the brass, which give the performance a loose, back-o’-town feel. Wallarab’s arrangement has a brighter tempo and a lovely clear flugelhorn solo from co-leader Buselli. Still, his is not a distinctive voice comparable to that of Johnny Coles. The ensemble’s execution in this tune is admirably tight, but the whole performance lacks that indefinable quality called “soul.”
Steve Elman’s more than four decades in New England public radio have included 10 years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host on WBUR in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, 13 years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and fill-in classical host on 99.5 WCRB.