Sunday, April 19, 2020

Standalone eminence: Trumpeter Jason Palmer and his band present lost masterpieces in another form

More than 50 years ago, I took advantage of temporary residency in the Boston area to visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for a chamber-music concert. It seemed  an unusually welcoming institution, redolent of Boston Brahmin culture, with a stunning collection of masterworks hanging on its walls. I remember the visual art better than the music a half-century later.

A famous unsolved art heist 30 years ago last month deprived the Gardner museum of some of its most august possessions —13 paintings by such masters as Degas, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. A fixture in Boston jazz, trumpeter Jason Palmer memorialized the theft in "The Concert: 12 Musings for Isabella," recorded last May at a New York hotel and issued now by Giant Step Arts..

Palmer enlists major young talents to help him present a dozen original compositions, each one based on now-lost Gardner holdings, whose empty frames hang to represent the loss to this day. Besides the leader, the players are saxophonist Mark Turner, vibraphonist Joel Ross, bassist Edward Perez, and drummer Kendrick Scott.
Rembrandt's "A Lady and Gentleman in Black"

The pieces are generously proportioned, with lots of solo room for the participants. None of them is a noodler or a time-server. There is some treading water, to my ears, in Ross' long vibes solo during Degas'
"Cortege aux Environs do Florence," but that's a rare stretch of tedium.

Unlike some jazz that has been generated by admiration for other art forms, the compositional heft never threatens to bury the improvisations. There seems to be a formal regard for the paintings, though I've only looked at a few online. The structures avoid reliance on obvious jazz patterns, and the solos don't sound confined by the writing, but clearly complement it.

The solos in Palmer's piece on "A Lady and Gentleman in Black" are quite free and have the three-dimensional fullness of the figures in Rembrandt's painting. Typical of the performances, there is little evident attempt to mimic the subject matter or to weave in cultural allusions specific to the artworks.

Palmer and his mates deserve credit for their commitment to the independence of 21st-century acoustic jazz, as the inspiration is elaborated through fresh musical means, not "art-appreciation" tribute. Turner deserves to be singled out, because here as elsewhere in recordings I'm familiar with, his phrasing and wealth of new ideas allow him to stand out from the abundance of distinguished tenor saxophonists who continue to pour forth.

Guided by Palmer's genius, the quintet takes pains to stand parallel to the artworks with its own kind of mastery. The temptation to honor the subject matter of a painting such as Rembrandt's "Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee" is resisted, for example, though the complex rhythmic pattern laid down by Scott's drums conveys the turbulence and unease of the Biblical anecdote. Ross' solo, this time compact and to the point, may be interpreted as Jesus' terse reassurances to the frightened disciples.

But no listener should feel buttonholed by Palmer's insistence on a particular interpretation of any of the paintings. The quintet's salute to masterpieces unlikely ever to be recovered deserves a place of honor all its own.

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