Composer / conductor Lalo Schifrin has chosen an interesting name for this ambitious work — a concerto grosso in six movements for big band and soloists — using Ludwig Zamenhof’s Esperanto as a metaphor from which to advance his belief that there is indeed a universal language, but that language is music, not esperanto or any other man–made tongue. If any proof of that were needed, Schifrin produces it in abundance with a series of remarkably colorful and readily accessible musical sketches that anyone, regardless of his or her background or knowledge, may easily comprehend and appreciate. Those who’ve learned to tap their feet or snap their fingers to various rhythms are especially blessed, as Schifrin’s music all but forces one to do so. To use the vernacular, it swings. Schifrin’s collaborators in this large–scale venture include Germany’s excellent WDR Big Band Cologne and a number of talented guest artists — violinist Jean–Luc Ponty, multi–instrumentalist James Morrison, clarinetist Don Byron, bandoneon maestro Nestor Marconi, percussionists Sidney Thiam and Trilok Gurtu, drummer Gregory Hutchinson and synthesizer specialist Simon Stockhausen. Together they weave an elaborate musical tapestry that embraces spellbinding themes and concepts from almost every corner of the world including traditional blues and gospel motifs, African– and Latin–based rhythms, a chorale, tango, rock and straight–ahead Jazz. Frank Chastenier’s rumbling piano introduces “Pulsations,” an extended blues in 12 / 8 with crackling solos by Morrison (trombone), Byron and Ponty. The suite’s second movement, “Resonances,” sways gently to an exotic tropical beat that accentuates Ponty’s lyrical violin, Byron’s fluid clarinet and Morrison’s screaming high–note trumpet; next up is the loose–limbed “Dance of the Harlequins,” which features Byron, Marconi’s bandoneon, Ponty’s violin, Morrison’s flugel and Gurtu’s nimble percussion clinic. “Millennium Blues” is an impressive showcase for Morrison who opens by playing throaty multiphonic trombone and follows with a driving ’bone solo before trading caustic ad–libs with himself on trumpet and trombone. Byron then takes another deeply–grooved chorus or three, as do Ponty and Marconi. Speaking of Marconi, his accordion–like bandoneon is front and center on “Tango Borealis” with Gurtu and Thiam making it a three–way discourse before the piece metamorphoses into a rock ballad with solos by Ponty, Morrison (flugel) and Byron. The final movement, “Invocations,” introduces Stockhausen’s ethereal synthesizer linked to Thiam’s African drums in a rhythmic dance that leads to a solemn chorale–like anthem that ends the concerto on a decisively traditional theme punctuated again by Morrison’s stratospheric trumpet. Language barriers? Esperanto transcends them all by speaking directly to humanity’s collective heart and soul.
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