Saturday, September 26, 2020

Mark Masters Ensemble pays tribute to a songwriter's songwriter, Alec Wilder

Admired for  understated elegance and seductive pathos, the songs of Alec Wilder can be treated imaginatively without a sung word. That's what "Night Talk: The Alec Wilder Songbook" (Capri Records) exemplifies, thanks to the responsive arrangements for jazz octet by Mark Masters and the showcase solos of baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan.

The Mark Masters Ensemble also includes Don Shelton and Jerry Pinter, reeds; Bob Summers, trumpet; Dave Woodley, trombone; Ed Czach, piano; Putter Smith, bass, and Kendall Kay, drums. The set of nine tunes ends with Wilder's best-known song, "I'll Be Around." Setting this love ballad at a fast tempo makes clear Masters' declaration of independence from convention.

The smooth integration of Smulyan's agile, deep-toned instrument  and the ensemble is immediately sealed on the opening track, "You're Free." Masters never fails to give both the band and the featured soloist essential material to indicate that no one is restricted to accompaniment functions alone.

There's always careful attention to Wilder's supple phrasing. In Masters' arrangements, the tunes always

seem to breathe with a relaxed pulse. "Don't Deny" is a good example of how the cleverness of the setting is never allowed to swamp the melody. 

The band moves with the easy swing of the master interpreters of the Great American Songbook. "Moon and Sand" is a dreamily paced samba exercise; Smulyan's soft-focused tone leads the way, which doesn't keep him from kicking up his heels in the solo.

Solo outings for other players move the spotlight off Smulyan occasionally. I especially enjoyed Woodley's soaring trombone in the song "Ellen," which ends in appropriate bass-and-brushes murmurs before the out-chorus. In "Baggage Room Blues," there's practically a round-robin format to expand the conversation. Short solos are especially effective in the peppy "Lovers and Losers."

  With extensions of his legacy as well thought out and executed as this one, the music of Alec Wilder will be around for a good long time.


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