During the course of their collaboration on Across the Crystal Sea, pianist Danilo Perez and arranger Claus German defy convention as much as they utilize it to their own ends. Like the colors in the cover painting at first seem like pastels, but upon close inspection reveal deeper tones, the contrast of the orchestration with a jazz ensemble led by the veteran pianist is symbiotic yet rife with surprise.
To merely describe this album as a trio plus strings will no doubt generate more than a little trepidation, even when mentioning the themes upon which the compositions are based come from classical composers. The fact is the two units involved on the project, though recorded separately, unite as one in the Tommy LiPuma-produced (and Al Schmitt-engineered) CD.
The appearance of vocalist Cassandra Wilson on two tracks, while not truly the highlight of the album, is fully integrated into the mood as well. Defining "(All of a Sudden) My Heart Sings" as a middle- of-the-road treacle is a simplistic interpretation of the concept this album might suggest, but a sensual quality eventually arises from the performance. "Lazy Afternoon" finds Wilson's voice likewise utilized as an instrument, so that it's notable the only clearly enunciated lyric she sings is the title phrase; elsewhere the rich presence of her voice appears to arise from the listener's heart, then goes into the head.
The perfectly languorous mood created in that cut is the first gentle crescendo that appears on the disc. Perez, currently a stalwart of Wayne Shorter's group and the trio including Lewis Nash on drums and Christian McBride on bass, play with perfect poise around which Ogerman's string arrangements wave and waft in similar slow motion. There's more than one echo of Jobim on the title song. Not because of the presence of percussionist Luis Quintero, but because the orchestration sways tenderly, in synchronous time with the small combo.
The sparse precise sound of piano, bass and drums is a perfect counterpoint and complement to the orchestra on pieces inspired by Massenet ("The Saga of Rita Joe"), Rachmaninoff ("If I Forget You") and Sibelius ("Rays and Shadows"). The noir atmosphere of a jazz club near closing time, intermingles with a tropical air as lush waves of strings thin and thicken in reciprocal rhythm.
There's little sense of any tension building whatsoever during the course of the eight tracks until "Another Autumn" seems to float to a close...only to reappear in a bright denouement that is the antithesis of the melancholy, usually associated with the fall season in all its metaphorical meaning. Thus, Across the Crystal Sea becomes both circular and cyclical, a rather remarkable piece of work created by two artists with their own distinct musical visions who find those traits they share to formulate a concept that is wholly unique on its own terms.
Across the Crystal Sea; Rays and Shadows; Lazy Afternoon; The Purple Condor; If I Forget You; (All of a Sudden) My Heart Sings; The Saga of Rita Joe; Another Autumn.
Danilo Pérez: piano; Cassandra Wilson: vocals (3, 6); Christian McBride: bass; Lewis Nash: drums; Luis Quintero: percussion; Claus Ogerman: conductor, orchestra arranger.