Stan Kenton Alumni Band / Dave Lisik Orchestra / New Zealand School of Music Big Band
How does he fare? Quite well, actually. As with any thematic music, meaning is in the ear of the beholder, especially true when the source is nebulous, as it is in this case. However, using a twenty-five piece big band as his palette, Lisik manages to paint a credible albeit contemporary portrait of Bolden's life and times, his connection to the archaic origins of Jazz, and his gradual descent into madness (Bolden spent the last twenty-four years of his life in mental hospital). In doing so, Lisik leans heavily on the talents of trumpeter Tim Hagans, tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, trombonist Luis Bonilla and pianist Amy Rempel as paramount soloists, and on drummer Matt Wilson as the rhythm section's unyielding glue.
The song titles as well are meant to be suggestive, with each track save one based on a brief passage from Ondaatje's book. The exception is "Whistling in the Way of Bolden," whose random dissonance and contrapuntal escalation are designed to exemplify the phrase "ecstasy before death" (or "ecstacy," as it appears thrice in the booklet). As the album advances, the discord becomes more frequent and pronounced, as in the well-named "Horror of Noise," "Suicide of the Hands" or "Parade." While this may prove displeasing to some, it is in keeping with the album's purpose, which is to chronicle Bolden's slide into dementia. Besides Hagans, the soloists on "Noise" include tenors Art Edmaiston and Dustin Laurenzi and baritone Tom Link, who do so simultaneously in the best tradition of unfettered Jazz, as do Hagans, Bonilla and McCaslin on "Suicide." Bolden's depressing odyssey comes to an end in the two-part "Parade," in which the polarizing voices in his head cause him to stop playing in the middle of a parade and simply walk away, never to return. The song ends with an appropriate fade-out by pianist Rempel. The cheerless epilogue, "Bleach Out to Grey," is centered on the single known photograph of Bolden, whose negative (in Ondaatje's novel) is dissolved by the photographer in an acid bath.
Lisik deserves commendation for undertaking such a daunting enterprise, which he first envisioned as a doctoral dissertation in Canada (he has since moved to New Zealand to join the faculty at the New Zealand School of Music). Although one can't know how someone else would have handled the task, Lisik has completed it with flying colorsthanks in part to splendid support from Hagans, McCaslin, Bonilla, Wilson and the ensemble. It must be noted that the album won't suit everyone's taste; it is more cerebral than candid, and its jagged edges can stun the senses and fray the nerves. But Lisik is telling a story, parts of which are ambivalent musically, as they were in life. Weighed on its own terms, Coming Through Slaughter is a well-drawn and admirable work of art.
New Zealand School of Music Big Band
Run for Cover
Under the steady guidance of music director Rodger Fox, The New Zealand School of Music Big Band has come a long way, and Run for Cover, its second CD, is explicitly engaging from start to finish. To further amplify the enterprise, Fox has enlisted the services of three well-known American guest artistspianist Bill Cunliffe, tenor saxophonist Bob Sheppard and trumpeter Clay Jenkinsand three of his colleagues from the NZSM: guitarist Nick Granville, drummer Lance Philip and Alex Nyman, who plays EWI on Marcus Miller's funky title selection.
While every number is pleasing, the album's centerpiece is Cunliffe's bravura arrangement of the first movement from Serge Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 on which he solos with Philip, tenor Mike Isaacs and trombonist Dean Scott. Cunliffe composed and arranged the swaying "Havana," Jenkins the lyrical "K & T," on which his agile trumpet is in the forefront. Sheppard is showcased on Bill Liston's "All Things Old and New" (a.k.a. "Body and Soul"), Granville on Don Sebesky's lustrous "Alcazar," trumpeter Alex French on Benny Golson's "I Remember Clifford." There is one vocal, by Penelope Kibby, who sings passably on Horace Silver's urbane "Senor Blues."