Thursday, December 5, 2013

Thinking large, in and around the jazz tradition, with Ehrlich and Shneider

So much has been done with large ensembles in jazz since the "big bands" faded (or yielded their books and styles to repertory orchestras) that the format has by now spread out into the broad plain of post-modernist modes of expression. Some of what's reflected along that wide horizon are mirage visions, but there are surely a few oases beckoning under the sun.

Elements of the allure include a loosened notion of "swing," a kaleidoscopic reshuffling of the traditional reeds-trumpets-saxes "choir" division, and a stretching of structure, leaving the 32-bar song form and the blues behind while alluding to the sensibility of both. Tempo shifts, sometimes introducing a new theme, sometimes kicking the same theme into a higher gear, recall the legacy of Charles Mingus.

Marty Ehrlich as an instrumentalist has had a fruitful career on the edge, abjuring the confines of "style," and his compositional gift has followed suit. I've often found his personal virtuosity a bit cloistered in effect, despite its open-ended intentions and expressive reach.

In the bold set of contrasting works assembled on "A Trumpet in the Morning" (New World Records), the flexible, mix-and-match Marty Ehrlich Large Ensemble has its way with six Ehrlich compositions.

Marty Ehrlich the instrumentalist is "tacet" on "Trumpet."
The title piece puts an elaborate instrumental backdrop behind J.D. Parran's recitation of an ambitious poetic rhapsody by Arthur Brown, a Parran friend who died in 1982. Saxophonist Parran is also the featured soloist. Ehrlich has crafted an ingenious long-form score that honors Brown's poem more than it deserves, but if it's granted that inspiration seems to have flowed from the verse model into Ehrlich's pen, grudging admiration must be extended to the text.

Ehrlich's multi-instrumentalist shtick is on the shelf here, as he leaves the playing to others, including such stars as the florid, funky trombonist Ray Anderson and, in "M Variations (Melody for Madeleine)," the redoubtable pianist Uri Caine.

The seven-movement "Rundowns and Turnbacks" makes the most cogent use of Ehrlich's protean palette, and will appeal to jazz fans whose taste ranges from the earliest styles up to the present day. The sorts of showcases Ehrlich provides for soloists tend to surprise delightfully by how he places them. That knack encourages the sort of inventiveness that reflects glory on the composition itself.

Shneider knows how to say it, but what is he saying?
When we turn to the Joshua Shneider Love Speaks Orchestra (also the CD title, on BJU Records),  we are in a slightly more conventional region. The band features two soloists, vocalist Lucy Woodward and guitarist Dave Stryker, whose contributions help tie the program together. Ten originals (plus Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill's "Lost in the Stars") evince a compositional gift quite adept at setting in motion a flow of piquant harmonies and long-breathed phrases.

Sometimes Shneider's easy fecundity results in music that seems diffident, however. That is, the music isn't hard to absorb, but sounds a little aimless, too unassertive, hard to engage with. This impression is underlined, perhaps unfairly, by the weak showing made by Woodward's vocals. She affects a blowzy, conversational style of the sort you're sure is the result of careful study.  She hardly benefits from melodies as undistinguished as "When Love Speaks" and the pop-reliant "The Hurting Kind," yet it's clear such vocal lines suit her manner well.

Shneider's Latin-pulse pieces tend to present the firmest profile. Some pieces really get pulled forward by a showcase solo, as happens in "Blue to You" with Dan Pratt's tenor-sax statements. Other ear-catching soloists include baritone saxophonist Frank Basile and trumpeter Alex Norris, in addition to the (almost) old master Stryker. Stand-out tracks: "Big Whup," "Lost in the Stars" (for the arrangement, not the vocal) and "Love's Leap." The band plays well, setting up as attractively as possible a compositional display somewhat lacking in impact.

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