Ever since the seminal Charlie Parker With Strings (Mercury 1950), numerous artists have attempted to add symphonic strings to jazz ensembles. Some have succeeded, but many have failed to capture a proper balance, resulting in string arrangements that sound superfluous.
Bassist Ben Wolfe's fifth album, No Strangers Here, is one example of a successful merger of two worldsacoustic jazz quartet and classical string quartet. A compelling bassist, Wolfe came to prominence as a sideman for Harry Connick Jr., Wynton Marsalis and Diana Krall. He currently teaches at Julliard and is a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
Augmenting a jazz combo with strings is not a novel idea for Wolfe, whose previous album, My Kinda Beautiful (Planet Arts Records, 2004) featured a brass heavy jazz octet with an eight piece string section. An extended suite, "From Here I See," was commissioned by the Rubin Museum and revolved around a jazz quartet/string quartet combo. Another long-form composition, "Contradiction: Music for Sextet" was the result of a commission from Chamber Music America.
Wolfe's core quartet features saxophonist Marcus Strickland, pianist Luis Perdomo and drummer Greg Hutchinson, all rising stars on the New York scene who execute Wolfe's tightly arranged compositions with palpable commitment and panache. In addition, Wolfe regularly augments the quartet with a traditional string quartet, as well as a handful of special guests.
At their most vigorous, Wolfe's pieces recall the forward thinking hard-bop of a mid-60s Blue Note date. "The Minnick Rule" and "Circus" are labyrinthine swingers filled with hairpin rhythmic shifts and understated string accents that resound with dramatic flair. A nostalgic air often permeates the session; the subtly integrated strings reinforce Wolfe's romantic side by adding a layer of euphonious lyricism to his sumptuous writing, most notably on the title track and "Blue Envy."
The special guest appearances are well integrated. Terell Stafford's buttery trumpet soars on the spirited opening cut and offers supportive nuance on the wistful closer. Saxophonist Branford Marsalis and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts provide muscle to the escalating drama of the noirish "The Filth" while Marsalis' soprano waxes lyrical on the effervescent "Milo." Victor Goines enriches the lush "Blue Envy" with his poetic bass clarinet.
The album's string quartet tour-de-force, "Rosy & Zero," regales with expansive sonorities. Alternating austere chamber music inflected excursions with blistering post-bop interludes, the piece unfolds like a long lost, albeit highly successful, Third Stream experiment.
From bittersweet nostalgia to cinematic drama, No Strangers Here encapsulates an array of moods, textures and dynamics. Reminiscent of the string augmented ensembles of Max Roach and Charles Mingus, Wolfe's double quartet emboldens the jazz tradition with neo-classical overtones, yet never fails to swing. To quote Wynton Marsalis, "Ben Wolfe swings with authority."
Personnel: Ben Wolfe: bass; Marcus Strickland: tenor and soprano saxophone; Luis Perdomo: piano; Greg Hutchinson:
drums; Cyrus Beroukhim: violin; Jesse Mills: violin; Kenji Bunch: viola; Wolfram Koessell: cello; Branford
Marsalis: tenor and soprano saxophone (3, 5); Terell Stafford: trumpet (1, 10); Victor Goines: bass clarinet (7);
Jeff "Tain" Watts: drums (5).