Monday, January 11, 2010

Some 'Assembly' required

We were happy to see that “Edge of the Mind,” the debut album from Schumacher Sanford Sound Assembly is comfortably ensconced in the Number 7 position of CD Baby's Top 10 Jazz Albums of 2009, keeping company with new releases by Mark Whitfield and Jeff "Tain" Watts, among others. And we're even happier to see video clips from the 17-piece, New York-based jazz orchestra's decade-ending show at the Bowery Poetry Club, where Newburyport composer (and Pentucket jazz program director) David Schumacher and his New England Conservatory colleague JC Sanford whipped out their latest stuff. Schumacher debuted "Kaleidoscope" and "Opportunity," two pieces based on Einstein's Three Rules of Work: "Out of clutter find simplicity. From discord find harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity." Fascinating stuff, watching crazy-hot musicians sort through and resolve the seeming chaos that opens the new work. Sanford adapted his three-piece score for the classic film Ben Hur for the performance. The three clips from his score for the 1925 silent film make you wonder if the film is even necessary — and, frustratingly, leave you hungry for more.

We would have like to see more detail about the reasons "Edge of the Mind: made the Top 10. "Blending big band structures with extended forms and heavy improvisation," while an accurate description of the sound, does not begin to explain it. Here's what we had to say, elsewhere, when "Edge of the Mind" it came out last May: Strong compositions with challenging, eye-opening charts and plenty of direction-changing breakaways for crazy-hot musicians. You see it in “Slide Therapy,” a Sanford composition, whose opening musical gambit is an intriguing dialogue between slide guitar and trombone. Or, when five .songs into what has been a tight, all-instrumental album, the band lays down a vocal track, a torchy tone-poem putting the spotlight on 2009 Grammy-nominated vocalist Kate McGarry. Or how, in one of the most unusual and bold explorations, Sanford uses three Buddhist mantras to create a rhythmic figure for “Rhythm of the Mind.”

The work, then and now, is about exploration, not defining a particular sound and nailing it over and over. It’s about a palette of colors, about textures and tones, sometimes wildly divergent. It’s about challenging listeners and the musicians in this increasingly rare behemoth, the jazz orchestra. It’s about movement, though not necessarily forward, but listing to the left, to the right. And while perhaps disorienting at first, it allows the composers to simultaneously disarm and dazzle as they find compositional balance.

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