David Berger, an avowed admirer of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, writes, as Ellington and Strayhorn often did, music with a purpose, evocative themes that paint graphic sound pictures designed to summon a visceral response from his audience. And so it is with Berger's latest album, Marlowe, which consists of two suites"Windows on the World," solemnizing the World Trade Center disaster of September 11, 2001, and its aftermath; and "Marlowe," consuming more than 38 of the album's nearly 62 minutes while probing the dark, mysterious and often violent world of Raymond Chandler's hard-bitten fictional private eye, Philip Marlowe.
Whatever his motive, Berger's picturesque compositions are consistently Ellingtonian in spirit and scope, deriving their emotional power from his expert use of color, tempo and dynamics. As Dan Morgenstern accurately observes in his cogent liner essay, "There is a marvelous variety of moods and textures here, and not a note that doesn't contribute to the whole." Marlowe was originally conceived as a dance piece, and one can readily apprehend the balletic elements throughout, as Berger's resilient Sultans of Swing scrupulously weave their way through the tough-as-nails gumshoe's gritty underworld of lawlessness and immorality.
What Morgenstern doesn't point out is that almost every movement of "Marlowe"there are a dozen in all, divided into two roughly equal partsends in mid-note, which can be somewhat unnerving when one is absorbed by the narrative and not anticipating such an abrupt pause. It's less disconcerting the second time around. The Sultans, formed by Berger in 1996, do their level best to enhance his music, working smoothly as an ensemble and unveiling a number of resourceful soloists, including saxophonists Jerry Dodgion and Mark Hynes, trumpeters Steven Bernstein and Brian Pareschi, trombonist Pat Hallaran, clarinetist Dan Block, bass clarinetist Jay Brandford and pianist Isaac ben Ayala, who rounds out an impressive rhythm section with bassist Dennis Irwin and drummer Jimmy Madison. There is one vocal, by Aria Hendricks on "Heroes," the fourth movement of "Windows on the World."
Berger composes music that communicates effectively on a number of levels, and Marlowe is a sturdy vehicle for his remarkable talents. It's not your garden-variety big band session, but those whose minds are fully engaged will find an abundance of entrancing music therein to absorb and appreciate.
Windows on the World -- Windows on the World; Jihad: The Price of Oil; Wanted DOA: Osama, Yo Mama; Heroes; Prayer for Peace. Marlowe, Part 1 -- The Bait; On the Scent; Too Much Information; Stakeout in the Rain; El Barrio; Back on the Scent. Marlowe, Part 2 -- Where Am I?; Molasses in January; I Got It; Central Avenue Processional; I Ain't Got It; The Big Push (61:52).
David Berger, composer, arranger, conductor; Jerry Dodgion, Matt Hong, Dan Block, Mark Hynes, Jay Brandford, reeds; Bob Millikan, Brian Pareschi, Irv Grossman, Steven Bernstein, trumpet; Ryan Keberle, Pat Hallaran, Marshall Gilkes, trombone; George Flynn ("Marlowe" only), bass trombone; Doug Wamble ("Marlowe" suite only), guitar; Isaac ben Ayala, piano; Dennis Irwin, bass; Jimmy Madison, drums; Aria Hendricks, vocal (on "Heroes").
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