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Mark Isham: Blue Sun

John Kelman By

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Mark Isham—Blue SunMark Isham
Blue Sun
Columbia Records
1995

Better-known, perhaps, for his work in the film arena as scorer for movies including 1986's The Hitcher, the 1992 reboot of Of Mice and Men and 1998's Blade, Mark Isham has, nevertheless, demonstrated his instrumental prowess as a trumpeter on albums including pianist Art Lande's Rubisa Patrol (ECM, 1976), singer/songwriter Van Morrison's Beautiful Vision (Warner Bros., 1982), David Sylvian's Brilliant Trees (Virgin, 1984), David Torn's Cloud About Mercury (ECM, 1987) and singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now (Reprise, 2000) But it's on two albums that Isham released in the mid-to-late-'90s where he not only demonstrated his strength as a player, but as a composer of music in the jazz sphere and as a bandleader capable of putting together a real roadworthy group. Both albums are worthy of Rediscovery, but for the sake of sheer surprise, 1995's Blue Sun (Columbia) wins by a nose.

While both Blue Sun and its 1999 followup, Miles Remembered: The Silent Way Project (Columbia), both paid tribute to the importance of trumpet icon Miles Davis, the second album was more aggressively electric, despite some softer, more atmospheric inclusions like Isham's arrangement of the Davis staple, Joe Zawinul's title track to In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969); and an ethereal look at Davis' classic song from his game-changing Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1958), "All Blues."

Still, Blue Sun is overall a more successful venture if for no other reason than Isham's compositional contributions rendering his subject clear while, at the same time, being devoted to a more original work of music. Miles Remembered does contain some Isham originals, but it's largely predicated on music culled from across Davis' career, ranging from Milestones (Columbia, 1958) through to Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970), On the Corner (Columbia, 1972) and Big Fun (Columbia, 1974); Blue Sun, on the other hand, is more reflective of Davis' influence through the prism of Isham's own writing and playing, with seven of Blue Sun's nine tracks penned by the trumpeter, and its two other tunes culled from the repertoires of Duke Ellington (a particularly poignant "In a Sentimental Mood") and the writing team of Jerome Moross, John Latouche and Jürg Morgenthaler ("Lazy Afternoon").

The only common element linking Blue Sun to Miles Remembered, alongside Isham's career-defining performances and compositional prowess, is the appearance of bassist Doug Lunn (Brand X, The Deviants) on both sessions. Other than that, the two albums couldn't be more different. Blue Sun is a keyboard-driven affair that, in addition to David Goldblatt's exceptional acoustic and electric piano work, also features Steve Tavaglione as a harmonic and improvisational foil for Isham and drummer Kurt Wortman, another longtime Isham collaborator who, in addition to copious session work, can be found on albums by diverse artists ranging from Art Lande (including Rubisa Patrol, a connection shared with Isham) and Van Morrison (including another Isham intersection, 1979's Into the Music (Warner Bros.)) to Bruce Springsteen and David Torn. The more electrified Miles Remembered, on the other hand, is more decidedly defined by its twin-guitar lineup (Steve Cardenas and Peter Maunu) that, along with Lunn and Isham, is driven to higher energy extremes by drummer Michael Barsimanto (Eddie Jobson, Brand X, Mark O'Connor).

It's great to hear Tavaglione in the largely more acoustic context of Blue Sun; a busy west coast saxophonist, Tavaglione's work has been found as often on fusion-heavy works by the likes of Scott Kinsey (Kinesthetics (Abstract Logix, 2006)), Jing Chi (3D (Tone Center, 2004)) and Weather Report tributes (Mysterious Voyages-A Tribute To Weather Report (ESC, 2005)) as it is soundtracks by Thomas Newman, Lalo Schifrin and, indeed, Mark Isham. Here, however, on tracks like the softly swinging, Phrygian-dominated album opener "Barcelona," Tavaglione demonstrates surprising credibility in a more eminently jazz context, delivering a solo built on a muscular tone, a particularly potent altissimo and a strong sense of compositional focus. Goldblatt, on the other hand, contributes his own feature that's a similar surprise when compared, like Tavaglione, to his more fusion-focused work with Tribal Tech, Alphonse Mouzon and Frank Gambale.

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