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Charles Pillow Ensemble: Chamber Jazz

Jack Bowers By

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Charles Pillow Ensemble: Chamber Jazz
Chamber Jazz, alto saxophonist Charles Pillow's eighth recording as leader of his ensemble, is a generally sedate but remarkably engaging series of tone poems that combine contemporary jazz with elements of classical music to produce a hybrid that underlines what is most harmonious and charming in each genre. Chamber Jazz is what it says, and chamber jazz is what it is. For comparison's sake, think of the ensemble as the Modern Jazz Quartet times five. True, there is no John Lewis or Milt Jackson on hand, but Gary Versace (on piano and accordion) and guitarist Vic Juris are more than admirable replacements.

As for Pillow, he not only composed four of the album's eight selections (the first two and last two) and arranged all of them, he also plays flute, alto flute, clarinet, oboe and English horn in addition to alto and soprano saxophones. To realize his purpose, Pillow has assembled a twenty-piece orchestra whose string section (three violins, two violas, two cellos) undergirds an axial unit that includes, besides Pillow, Versace and Juris, trumpeter Scott Wendholt, trombonist Alan Ferber, French hornist Charles Komer, tubaist Marcus Rojas, clarinetist Todd Groves (who trebles on flute and bass clarinet), bassists Jeff Campbell and Jay Anderson, percussionist Rogerio Boccato and drummers Mark Ferber and Rich Thompson.

Although he has been based in New York City since 1987, Pillow is a native of Baton Rouge, LA, and so it is entirely appropriate that the session should open with his hauntingly lovely "While in Pass Manchac," named for an area near New Orleans between Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas. Pillow solos with trumpeter Wendholt on that one, and with Versace on the gossamer "Charlotte and Evan," dedicated to Pillow's daughter and son. Billie Holiday's wistful "Don't Explain," a silken showpiece for Juris, is next. On a somber note, the recording may have been one of Juris' last gigs before his untimely passing in December 2019 at age sixty-six. There's some mellow Latin rhythm on Hermeto Pascoal's "Bebe" (with solos by Versace on accordion, Pillow on clarinet), more placid rumination on Tony Williams' "Pee Wee" (with solos by Pillow, on alto flute, and Juris). Rojas' rumbling tuba ushers in Thelonious Monk's playful, seldom-heard "Oska T," which leads to Pillow's warm-hearted "Abschied, Ray" (written for his father) and a second salute to an area of Louisiana, the picturesque "Atchafalaya Fiction." Wendholt and Ferber solo smartly on "Oska T," Versace on "Ray," Ferber and Versace on "Fiction."

This is lovely music, lovingly performed by Pillow and his ensemble. No, it likely won't entice you to clap your hands, tap your toes or hurry into a dance—but it may cause you to listen with your heart and appreciate a warm and impressive performance simply for what it is. If it does, Pillow will have assuredly eclipsed his goal with room to spare.

Track Listing

While in Pass Manchac; Charlotte and Evan; Don’t Explain; Bebe; Pee Wee; Oska T; Abschied, Ray; Atchafalaya Fiction.

Personnel

Charles Pillow: saxophone; Scott Wendholt: trumpet; Alan Ferber: trombone; Chris Komer: french horn; Marcus Rojas: tuba; Todd Groves: clarinet; Vic Juris: guitar; Gary Versace: organ, Hammond B3; Jeff Campbell: bass; Jay Anderson: bass; Mark Ferber: drums; Rich Thompson: drums; Rogerio Boccato: percussion.

Album information

Title: Chamber Jazz | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Summit Records

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