Octogenarian saxophonist Charlie Mariano has spent a lifetime blurring boundaries. One of the few remaining witnesses of the bebop era, he has spent the early part of his career in that arena. In the mid-'60s he began experimenting with fusion, recording arguably his best work in that genre with bassist Eberhard Weber's groundbreaking Colours band in the '70s. Throughout he has had a passion for music of other cultures, spending time in India learning the nadhaswaram, a South Indian wind instrument. His immersion in Indian culture is well-documented on the '83 ECM recording Jyothi. In recent years, however, he has become more associated with the mainstream, although his broader interests never seem to be far away. With Not Quite a Ballad he marks another achievement'a recording with a concert orchestra'and the result combines the expected with an element of pure surprise.
Along with the Wurtzburger Philharmonic, under the direction of conductor Jonathan Seers, Mariano is supported by New on the Corner, a trio consisting of pianist Bernard Pichl, double-bassist Rudi Engel and drummer Bill Elgart. While both the orchestra and the trio deliver everything that is expected of them and more, this is really Mariano's show and he is understandably front and centre for its majority.
An adaptation of Albinoni's "Adagio" is a fitting introduction, reflecting Mariano's Italian roots. Another classical reworking, that of the aria "Vesti la Giubba" from Leoncavallo's I, Pagliacci , demonstrates how Mariano can deliver an interpretation that is dramatic without being melodramatic. His rich tone and invention permeate both pieces. The orchestration is lush without being cloying; sentimental without being syrupy.
Four pieces for Mariano with New on the Corner alone highlight Mariano's sense of adventure, even within a mainstream context. The title track is aptly named; the melody would lend itself to being a ballad if it weren't for the more medium-tempo swing of the rhythm section. Mariano's tone is strong and expressive; age seems to be doing nothing to diminish his power.
The highlight of the album is clearly Indian composer Ramamani's "Yagapriya," where the orchestra comfortably navigates the microtonal nature of Indian music. The first half is a free improvisation, or tampura, by Mariano over the orchestra's changing "bordun" form; the second, in 7/4 time, is structured around a single scale, but Peter Fulda's orchestration again creates a broad sense of drama that is exhilarating without being overstated.
The marriage of jazz soloists and orchestras can be risky. The inherent structure required of the orchestra can detract from the spirited improvisational nature of the soloist. Thankfully, in this case, Mariano and orchestrator Fulda understand the intentions and requirements of both soloist and orchestra, creating an amalgam which successfully brings out the strengths of both. Not Quite a Ballad is another high point in Mariano's career; a recording that shows that, even though he is in his 80s, he is as vital and exhuberant as ever.
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