Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra Harriet Tubman Noir Records
Marcus Shelby, a bandleader who's not known for thinking small, has recorded his most ambitious work to date: a colorful and wide-ranging oratorio for jazz orchestra and vocal ensemble centered around the remarkable life of Harriet Tubman who rose from slavery to become one of the guiding forces behind the Underground Railroad in the years before the Civil War and would later risk her life to serve as nurse, scout and spy for the Union during that long and bloody conflict.
Using Kate Clifford Larson's book Harriet Tubman: Bound for the Promised Land as the inspiration for his music, Shelby found the perfect "Harriet Tubman" in the evocative voice of Faye Carol who invests every phrase with heartfelt awareness and emotion. The two-CD set is divided into as many "acts," the first depicting Tubman's early life and escape from bondage, the second her extraordinary leadership as an anti-slavery advocate and heroic roles as a member of the Union Army and outspoken champion of voting rights for women and blacks.
Music, Shelby writes, was an indispensable part of Tubman's life (she even used it in coded messages to aid runaway slaves), and he uses a wide range of musical designs and styles to exemplify her story and the era in which she lived. It's not all vocal; Shelby's splendid 15-piece orchestra plays a key role in every movement, and Shelby is careful to leave ample room for improvisation. Carol is one of four singers; the others are Kenny Washington, Jeannine Anderson and Joseph Mace, each of whom adds substantial weight to the discourse. One or more of the singers is heard on seven of the eleven "episodes" that comprise the oratorio.
Even while telling such a dramatic story in song, Shelby seldom strays from its jazz mainspring, implanting urbane rhythmic and harmonic components into every "scene." Trumpeters Mike Olmos and Darren Johnston, alto saxophonists Gabe Eaton and Marcus Stephens, tenor / clarinetist Rob Baries, bass trombonist Marc Bolin and pianist Adam Shulman are among the more frequently heard soloists. Shulman, Shelby and drummer Jeff Marrs make up the orchestra's savvy rhythm section.
This is music with an explicit message, and its endorsement rests in part on one's admiration for what Shelby and his colleagues have to say. Reinforcing Shelby's theme, however, is an abundance of exemplary big-band jazz, more than enough to elicit one's approval and assure his / her satisfaction.
9th+Lincoln is a forward-leaning seventeen-piece big band from Denver, CO, led by Tyler Gilmore who wrote five of the nine selections on the ensemble's unnamed debut album and co-wrote the brief "Interlude 1" with guitarist Dave Devine. While the band's makeup is fairly orthodox (five saxophones, four trumpets, four trombones and rhythm including vibes and guitar but no piano), Gilmore's chartsand those by saxophonist Wil Swindler ("Music for Prose," "Interlude 2," rock star Bjork's "Aeroplane")are clearly on the cutting edge, basically ensemble pieces that are sometimes dark and brooding with occasional flashes of fire and brimstone.
That's not an appraisal, merely an observation, and a cue that 9th+Lincoln's music may not suit everyone's taste, as it does command one's undivided attention. Gilmore lists among his compositional mentors John Hollenbeck, Maria Schneider, Mike Holober, Alf Clausen, Cuong Vu and Paul Chihara, a roster that should help listeners ascertain what to expect. Yes, the music can be dissonant at times, and there are brief passages that may test one's resolve, but others that are quite lovely and charming. This is especially true at the midpoint, Swindler's "Music for Prose" and Gilmore's "The Wasp," the first featuring Swindler's alto, tenor Dominic Lalli and trumpeter Kevin Whalen, the second tenor Peter Sommer.
The ensemble doesn't really cut loose and swing with abandon until the final track, Gilmore's "Sketching Restraint," a nimble showcase for trumpet ace Brad Goode who's now at the University of Colorado after stops in Chicago and Cincinnati. Goode is heard again with Devine on Gilmore's "Your Cent." Devine and Lalli are the soloists on "Giving Full Account," Whalen and Swindler on "Aeroplane," Devine and Sommer on "And You'll . . ." The "interludes" are strange but mercifully brief with "special effects" by Devine and vibraphonist Greg Harris.
For modernists and others with open minds, an ample banquet of well-cooked musical cuisine. Those who admire the composer / arrangers listed above should find it very much to their liking.