On Expectation & Experience, his tenth recording as a leader, Chicago-based woodwind specialist Shawn Maxwell is accompanied by almost thirty musiciansbut never by more than three on any of its seventeen tracks. Maxwell says the compositions were written during the global Covid-19 pandemic, and the musicians were mustered singly, most in their own homes. While each of the compositions has a "theme," none is readily apparent from its performance, and listeners should feel free to overlook that aspect and focus on the music itself.
Maxwell is supported along the way by an impressive roster of instruments, from trumpet, guitar, tenor sax, violin and harmonica to piano, bass, drums and vibraphone, with further reinforcement from tabla, marimba, cajon, tambourine and voices (John Stafford II and Keri Johnsrud on "No Peace without Justice"). "Virtual" string sections have been programmed on "Quiet House" and "Every Day Is Monday." As for Maxwell, his alto sax predominates, employed on all but four of the seventeen numbers, unaccompanied on "Empty Stage."
What is most important, of course, is the music itself and, while it is more often than not interesting, there is no perceptible rationale that ties it together. By and large, it is a series of ambivalent and disconnected themes whose purpose seems to be dissimilarity for its own sake. Jazz is certainly one component, as it helps give voice to Maxwell's thoughts about the unusual circumstances and events of 2020; even so, the impression is that jazz is more an afterthought than an essential part of an enterprise that relies heavily on keeping the listener off-balance by alternating sounds and sentiments. Some of the music but not muchswings; more often, it leans toward chamber jazz or what is commonly known as "world music" with a random trace of avant-garde.
Of the seventeen numbers, nine are less than three minutes long, which doesn't allow much space for improvisation. While there are some nice moments with tenor Alex Beltran on "The Great Divide," with harmonica virtuoso Howard Levy on "Alternative Facts" and a splendid alto solo on "No Peace," these are the exception, not the rule, even though everyone gives Maxwell's concepts his or her best. The prismatic approach could be effective in the sense that, although one may not appreciate everything on the album, chances are there is a snippet or two that every individual listener could take to heart. Bottom line: the Expectation transcends the Experience.
Expectation; J.C. Jones; Empty Shelf; Quiet House; The Great Divide; Feeling Remote;
Breathe; A Change of Climate; Alternative Facts; Every Day Is Monday; No Peace
Without Justice; The Show Can’t Go On; Empty Stage; Six Hundred; Lockdown; The New
Chad McCullough: trumpet; Mark Nelson, William Kurk, Matt Nelson: keyboards; Steven
Hashimoto, Jeremiah Hunt, Stacy McMichael: bass; Tom Sharpe, Greg Artry: drums; Gina
DeGregorio: marimba; Paul Abella: cajon, tambourine; John Stafford II, Keri Johnsrud: voice.