Jazz Album Review: Richard Nelson and the Makrokosmos Orchestra — Excursions in Noir
By Steve Feeney
Composer/guitarist Richard Nelson’s followers can count on being surprised at how nimbly he can satisfy their appetites: he takes new directions while also satisfying their affection for thoughtfully conceived music that bridges jazz, classical, and other forms.
Dissolve, Richard Nelson and the Makrokosmos Orchestra (Adhyâropa Records).
Maine-based composer/guitarist Richard Nelson has gone in for big concept projects before, including his work with the legendary Aardvark Jazz Orchestra. Moving inside and outside of convention, he pulled off being lyrical and bold. His followers can count on being surprised at how nimbly he can satisfy their appetites: he takes new directions while also satisfying their affection for thoughtfully conceived music that bridges jazz, classical, and other forms.
Nelson co-leads The Makrokosmos Orchestra with saxophonist Tim O’Dell, whose compositions will be featured on a later release by the 14-member group. Dissolve is a sort of back-to-the-future effort: echoes of 1950s-era jazz orchestral efforts are apparent as the group indulges in the splashy theatrical approaches of Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, Henry Mancini, and others.
Mancini’s soundtrack for the classic 1958 film noir Touch of Evil almost immediately raced to my frontal cortex. As I listened to the title track, I half expected a sweaty Orson Welles to stumble out of the shadows as the brass and bongos (the latter manned by Rex Benincasa) set the moody, slightly south-of-the-border tone. But unexpected complications were introduced, such as a little bop-ish figure that intimated that counter-mysteries were awaiting around every dank and dusty corner.
And another sonic vista comes into earshot, one that is starker and more modern. It is evident that Nelson has absorbed a lot of what’s emanating from the outer reaches of the contemporary classical realm. The music becomes dreamy and maybe a little disconcertingly woozy. But, just when it looks as if the track has gone adrift, there’s an emergent rhythm and those sexy bongos return to underpin an expressive, post-bop tenor sax solo by Adam Kolker, who brings the other band members along to a familiar place — where large ensembles carefully mesh and blissfully disengage. Nelson ends the piece on a fillip of enigma.
In the album notes, Nelson insists the three pieces on the disc do not follow a strict order, but the second, entitled “Float,” seems to be set in its apt dramatic location: it goes about creating a reflective middle world led by a fluid solo from O’Dell on soprano sax. The sound design by keyboardist Arco Sandoval suggests that realms of consciousness are slowly reawakening.
When the full band enters, the proceedings charge up considerably. A Nelson guitar solo emerges in an unhurried but resolute manner above the thud of Rob Garcia’s drums. A pointed lyricism ensues. When O’Dell returns, a gentle reverie leads us into a rarefied closing moment of peace.
“Cohere,” the final work of the three-piece, 40-minute album brings the cinematic journey home. Sandoval’s electric piano coaxes the band into a melancholy mix of reeds and brass that leads into another bongo-spiced episode. The trumpet of Jacob Varmus, with Sandoval underneath, evokes the early electric period of Miles Davis. Then all the musicians join in — the full might of the band stokes waves of splendid counterpoint. But that gives way to a teasing aura of noir at the wrap-up. Cue Marlene Dietrich.
Steve Feeney is a Maine native and attended schools in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. He has a Master of Arts degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. He began reviewing music on a freelance basis for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in 1995. He was later asked to also review theater and dance. Recently, he has added BroadwayWorld.com as an outlet and is pleased to now contribute to Arts Fuse.