"Pietro The Gouty," the first track of this unique CD, gives some indication of the mercurial, multi-faceted nature of trumpeter/composer/arranger Justin Mullens' music. It opens with a crisp, up-tempo introduction, then settles into a medium swing groove, fed by the bracing sound of a rhythm guitar. A knotty, unconventional theme is introduced, and trombonist Paul Olenick takes a fine solo over what sounds like the changes of "Mean To Me." Mullens' trumpet solo abandons the changes, growing increasingly abstract, while the swing rhythm dissolves, and the rhythm section reasserts itself with an explosive funk beat. Finally, the band tears into the closing theme. Welcome to the music of Justin Mullens.
The Delphian Jazz Orchestra boasts almost conventional instrumentation: four trumpets, three trombones, five reeds. But there's no piano; the guitar is the sole chordal instrument. And singer Judith Berkson often functions as an instrumentalist. They play entirely Mullens' compositions. Mullens himself says, "the music drastically morphs styles that fall anywhere from the influences of Ellington and Monk to Stravinsky and Frank Zappa." The compositions are thick with dissonance, unconventional in structure. They often contain multiple themes, with tempo or metric changes built in. Brilliantly executed by this working band, the music is complex, fascinating, even innovative. But at times it also sounds cold or clinical, at least to these ears.
The saving grace of this album lies in the solos. The leader plays bristling, restless trumpet throughout. Tenor saxophonist Dave Barraza and drummer Danny Weiss forge a heated duet on "The Icecream Man." And Chris Cheek, whose alto sax sound is crystalline, shines on "The Apple And The Box." And special mention should be made of the excellent rhythm section, particularly drummer Weiss, who consistently lights a fire under the band.
Make no mistake, the music on this album is exploratory, and certainly admirable. Justin Mullens has some worthy ideas regarding the future of the big band. I just wish this CD had reached my heart as powerfully as it grabbed my intellect.
Track Listing: Pietro The Gouty, Daphne Laureola, The Viking, Beowulf Part 1: "Grendel", Beowulf Part 2: "The End For Hrunting", Beowulf Part 3: "Wiglaf And The Dragon", The Trifler, The Icecream Man, The Apple And The Box, A Set Of Triggers.
Personnel: Justin Mullens, trumpet, French horn; Larry Gillespie, Dave Smith, Erik Jekabson, trumpets, flugelhorns; Paul Olenick, Jacob Garchick, trombones; Max Seigel, bass trombone; Chris Cheek, alto sax; Ryan Shore, alto sax, clarinet, flute; Dave Barraza, tenor sax; Matt Glassmeyer, tenor sax, soprano sax; Matt Cowan, baritone sax; Peter Thompson, guitar; Masa Kamaguchi, bass; Danny Weiss, drums; Judith Berkson, vocals.