Charles Edward Ives (1874-1954), one of the first American composers of classical music to earn an international reputation, derived his inspiration from themes he had heard while growing up in Connecticut: hymns, traditional folk songs, marching bands (his father led one), patriotic songs, parlor ballads, Saturday night dances, and especially the melodies of the great Stephen Foster. Jazz composer / arranger / orchestrator / educator / saxophonist Jack Cooper
, who was introduced to Ives' music by his mother, Georgie Cooper, in the late 1960s and has remained one of its champions ever since, has undertaken the daunting task of reimagining that music within a contemporary big-band framework and succeeded beyond even the most auspicious expectations.
The enterprise didn't happen overnight; Cooper first adapted and orchestrated three of Ives' vocal works back in 1997, and was encouraged to move forward by James Sinclair, Manny Albam
and Bob Brookmeyer
, among others. And lest it be assumed that the end result is merely classical music enshrouded beneath a thin veneer of modern jazz, it should be pressed home from the outset that it is nothing of the sortCooper has taken eight of Ives' diverse essays, which were, bear in mind, radical for their time, and rearranged them into straight-ahead, swinging big-band themes of the highest order. To help carry out the task, he has assembled a group of the New York City area's most accomplished sidemen and prevailed upon the renowned trumpeter Terell Stafford
to solo on "Mists" and "The Cage."
As a result, Ives' innovative songs have seldom sounded more engaging, whether recast as blues, bossa nova, rondo, brass chorale, jazz waltz or easygoing swing. The opener, "Mists," whose diaphanous name fairly screams "ballad," is instead an ebullient cooker worthy of the Vanguard or Bill Holman orchestras at their best, with snappy solos to match by Stafford, tenor saxophonist Ivan Renta
, trombonist Luis Bonilla
and drummer Vince Cherico
. Cherico, guitarist Alex Wintz
and flugel Jim Seeley
ad lib perceptively on "The Last Reader," whose haunting melody ensnares the ear, as do Renta, trombonist John Mosca
and alto Billy Drewes
on the ardent "Children's Hour." "Tom Sails Away," a rondo whose components recall the title character's childhood memories, precedes "The Camp-Meeting," a warmhearted salute (with bossa) to Ives' love affair with the American brass band tradition. Wintz, flugel John Walsh and pianist Randy Ingram
are the soloists on "Tom," Ingram, trumpeter Scott Wendholt
and bassist Andy McKee
Two hymns are included, the second of which, "(Shall We Gather) at the River," is perhaps Ives' best-known melody, still played and sung in churches far and wide. The other is "Watchman!," reanimated as a buoyant jazz waltz embodying crisp statements by Wendholt, alto Andrew Halchak
and trombonist Rey David Alejandre. "River," whose ardent solos are by Bonilla and baritone Chris Karlic
, is a minor blues that leads to the muscular finale, "The Cage" (emphatic intro and timekeeping courtesy of Cherico), inspired by the impressions of a child who is watching a confined leopard at a zoo. Drewes, Stafford and tenor Peter Brainin
share solo honors.
Cooper has consummated his dream, Mists
is exemplary from beginning to end, and Charles Ives would no doubt be pleased to learn that the designation "jazz composer" has been added to his already impressive dossier.
Mists; The Last Reader; The Children’s Hour; Tom Sails Away; The Camp-Meeting; Watchman!; At the River; The Cage.
Jack Cooper: leader, arranger; Nick Marchione: trumpet; John Walsh: trumpet, flugelhorn; Jim Seeley: trumpet, flugelhorn; Scott Wendholt: trumpet; Billy Drewes: alto sax; Andrew Halchak: alto sax; Ivan Renta: tenor sax; Peter Brainin: tenor sax; Chris Karlic: baritone sax; John Mosca: trombone; Luis Bonilla: trombone; Rey David Alejandre: trombone; Frank Cohen: bass trombone (1, 2, 4-8); Douglas Purviance: bass trombone (3, 8); Randy Ingram: piano, Hammond B3 organ; Alex Wintz: guitar; Andy McKee: bass; Vince Cherico: drums. Guest soloist – Terell Stafford: trumpet (1, 8).