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Christopher Zuar Orchestra: Exuberance

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Christopher Zuar Orchestra: Exuberance
Exuberance is part of a "long-form tonal conversation" between two award-winning artists in complementary fields, composer Christopher Zuar and animator Anne Beal. Zuar, a Long Island New Yorker, describes the work as "a journey of personal growth," which began in 2017 when he and Beal met as fellows at the MacDowell Colony in the woods of New Hampshire. He explains that the album is a "collaborative project that charts the last seven years of our lives."

"In Winter Blooms," the opening track, grew out of their first encounter, during a snowstorm. Entering his cabin after a short walk down the hill, she found him improvising at the piano, watching the snow, and recognized immediately that he was trying to represent the snowfall musically. She has a form of synesthesia which allows her, as she puts it, to "experience color and texture" when she hears sounds. He asked her what she saw in his music. Over the intervening years, she has sketched beside him as he has composed at the piano (pencil and paper in hand), creating the thousands of paintings she incorporates into her animated counterpart to his sonic work. The artists have learned to work together and separately, comparing notes along the way.

As part of the project, they traveled to Hendersonville, Beal's home turf in Western North Carolina, experiencing the culture and making field recordings of soundscapes in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. "Communion" and "Simple Machines" are fruits of this pilgrimage. Zuar's all-star New York-based ensemble employs the typical big band instrumentation of rhythm section plus eight brass and five woodwinds (with doubles including piccolo, alto flute, oboe and bass clarinet). For these two pieces he added what he refers to as an "Appalachian string band" (fiddle, hammered dulcimer, mandolin, frame drum, a bit of banjo). "Communion" was inspired by the sound of katydids—crickets known for their antiphonal call, "katydid, katy didn't." The actual bugs can be heard at the end of the cut. Beal grew up playing fiddle and dancing, steeped in the arts of Piedmont culture—contradance, old-time string bands, pottery, weaving. "Simple Machines" embodies a loom, with layers of overlapping four-bar phrases entwining the themes.

In listening sessions for Jazz Composers Present (2022, 2024), Zuar discussed the project and his compositional techniques. Phrasing in "Communion," for example, sounds quite natural despite an irregular underlying structure. He was able to explain the construction clearly to an audience of composer peers but stressed that his mathematical language and the visual complexity of the notation belie the true nature of his method, which is more intuitive and improvisational. He often has to step back after the moment of creation to examine what he has made and figure out how to parse it. The violin may sound quite free in "Communion," but the written part is laid "precariously" (his word) over unstable polymetric phrases. (YouTube, bottom of page, gives a taste.)

When asked whether members of the ensemble are given instructions relating to natural sources of a composition, Zuar's answer was a definite "no"; many heard the katydid sounds for the first time in dress rehearsal or performance. He does sometimes provide the musicians with general instructions, however, including the word "rage" as a prompt for Sara Caswell's breathtaking violin solo (ca. 5:11) in "Communion."

"Exuberance," the title cut and culminating track on the album, is also the only vocal piece. The tone is thick with—in Zuar's words—"elation, yearning, foot-on-the-gas forward motion, overflowing energy." He composed the active dancing melody and orchestration—including equally active accompanying parts—before giving it to Beal, who contributed the lyric. This sequence forces an approach which can be likened to vocalese; whatever the subject matter expressed, the lyricist must also match the implied speech rhythms and intonations of the melody. Beal did an admirable job, as does Emma Frank, whose voice is clear and sweet. Zuar conceived the composition as a "story" in which he gave Beal a chance to "write back" to him in words.

In concert performances of the album, Beal provides live video animation, participating as one of the musicians in the group, adding a spectacular visual dimension to the music, creating a prodigious synergy.

Track Listing

In Winter Blooms; Moments in Between; Communion; Simple Machines; Before Dawn; Certainty; Exuberance.

Personnel

Christopher Zuar
composer / conductor
Dave Pietro
saxophone, alto
Charles Pillow
saxophone
Jason Rigby
saxophone, tenor
Ben Kono
saxophone
Carl Maraghi
saxophone, baritone
Tony Kadleck
trumpet
Jon Owens
trumpet
Matt Holman
trumpet
Matt McDonald
trombone
Mark Patterson
trombone
Alan Ferber
trombone
Max Seigel
trombone
Pete McCann
guitar
Rogerio Boccato
percussion
Additional Instrumentation

Max ZT: hammered dulcimer (track 4); Joe Brent: mandolin (track 4); Keita Ogawa: percussion (track 4); Emma Frank: voice (track 7); Mike Holober: conductor; Dave Pietro: soprano saxophone, piccolo, flute, alto flute; Charles Pillow: flute, alto flute, oboe, clarinet; Jason Rigby: flute, clarinet; Ben Kono; alto flute, clarinet; Carl Maraghi: bass clarinet; Tony Kadleck: flugelhorn; Jon Owens: flugelhorn; Scott Wendholt: flugelhorn; Matt Holman: flugelhorn; Max Siegel: bass trombone; Pete McCann: banjo, mandolin, dobro; Glenn Zaleski: Fender Rhodes.

Album information

Title: Exuberance | Year Released: 2024 | Record Label: Tonal Conversations


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