At its most basic, Crystal Sea features pianist Danilo Perez leading a quartet with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Lewis Nash, supported by percussionist Luis Quintero. Cassandra Wilson radiates vocals through two standards, "Lazy Afternoon" and "(All of a Sudden) My Heart Sings." Beyond these two standards, Claus Ogerman, who arranged and conducted the orchestra, contributes the melancholic closer ("Another Autumn") plus, according to his arranger's notes, five other pieces "based on classical themes I've known all my life and have always wanted to adapt and record" by Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Massenet, Manuel de Falla, and Hugo Distler.
But you almost never have Crystal Sea at its most basic. As a consequence, it offers little jazz piano. Perez's quartet is the primary color, but only one color in Ogerman's expansive orchestral palette. Perez sits out long passages in several tunes, and is almost conspicuously absent while Wilson sings. As a result, Crystal Sea sounds more like an Ogerman orchestral album with piano than it does a Perez piano album with orchestra.
Each song captures moments of precious beauty. But most also lack that fire or passion with which most great music burns. For example, Ogerman moves "Lazy Afternoon" so lugubriously that the rhythmic stillness begins to feel as stifling and oppressive as one hundred degrees in the shade heat.
The best moments on Crystal Sea create Jobim-like tapestries woven soft and whole into Afro-Cuban, pop, jazz, and classical cloth. Perez first flies through "The Purple Condor," his piano twinkling like a little Latin leprechaun, then digs into more serious chords at both ends of his piano. In "The Saga of Rita Joe," percussion gets washed away by strings that swirl and tower like a tornado to set the pianist's dramatic opening piano scene. Like Ogerman's complementary arrangement, Perez's piano sounds dark and mysterious, yet somehow floats lightly through this "Saga's" many movements.
"When it came to working with Claus, it was another kind of adventure where I was called upon to touch the lyrical side of my playing," Perez explains. "Claus is a master of colors. As the musical director, he provided me with both a story and a landscape, and then told me, 'I want you to paint.'" But it's hard to determine if they painted their Crystal Sea in watercolor, or in watered-down color.
Personnel: Danilo Perez: piano; Cassandra Wilson: vocals; Christian McBride: bass; Lewis Nash: drums; Luis Quintero: percussion; Bruce Dukov: concert master; Claus Ogerman: orchestral arrangements and conductor.