There is no doubt that composer Christopher Zuar's debut recording Musings is an impressive achievement. The sheer overall sonic brilliance and obvious control of the instrumental forces at hand signal a talent to be reckoned with.
Not even thirty at the time of the recording, Zuar's music is surprisingly mature and well conceived. The issue, then, becomes one of finding or developing a recognizable voice in a field (jazz orchestra) which is dominated by a few voices which have become closely associated with this music.
Zuar's mentor is pianist/composer Mike Holober whose influences go back to, among others, Bob Brookmeyer, who seems to be the connecting thread to almost everyone who studies composition and arrangement. The most highly visible student of Brookmeyer is Maria Schneider, whose body of work virtually define jazz orchestra, especially when used to perform highly abstract, yet extremely personal, tone poems that are written for specific musicians, and where the line between the composed and solo spaces is almost imperceptible.
Holober himself faced this issue with his composition Hiding Out, which was performed by the Gotham Jazz Orchestra back in 2008. However, that a personal voice can be found in composition for jazz orchestra can be found in Ayn Inserto, also a student of Brookmeyer (see Home Away From Home).
The above comparisons are apt, but perhaps unfair given Zuar's youth. That said, there is much to appreciate on the album. Needless to say, the band is top notch, both as a orchestra and as soloists. One unique touch is the use of voice (Jo Lawry) as another instrument. Perhaps this is Holober's influence, since he used this technique on Balancing Act.
Each track except "Lonely Road," is nearly six minutes and longer, thus allowing for extended development. "Remembrance" has a very attractive melody, which is harmonized many times with an impressive wall of sound. Echoing J.S. Bach, "Chaconne" uses a descending line as the ground of the composition, which features some very nice piano by Frank Carlberg and again wonderful voicings for the winds. Intensity increases in "Vulnerable States," reflecting Zuar's mindset at the time of its composition. "So Close, Yet So Far Away" takes its time to develop. The music swells and ebbs, mixing solo sections with orchestral responses, ultimately enveloping the listener with bold strides. Another very attractive melody opens "Anthem," with the arrangement traveling widely.
The closing, and longest, track is Egberto Gismonti's "7 Aneis," in which the fine arrangement gives Lawry's vocals a very prominent place. Interestingly, this track clearly stands apart from the others in way that is hard to define; perhaps given the tune, Zuar felt freer to let gothe results are electrifying.
Given the high bar set coming out of the gate, Zuar is most definitely someone to watch.
Remembrance; Chaconne; Vulnerable States; Ha! (Joke's On You); So Close, Yet So Far Away; Anthem; Lonely Road; 7 Aneis.
Dave Pietro: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, piccolo, flute, alto flute; Ben Kono: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute, oboe, clarinet; Jason Rigby: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute, clarinet; Lucas Pino: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Brian Landrus: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Tony Kadleck: trumpet, flugelhorn; Jon Owens: trumpet flugelhorn; Mat Jodrell: trumpet, flugelhorn; Matt Holman: trumpet, flugelhorn; Tim Albright: trombone; Matt McDonald: trombone; Alan Ferber: trombone; Max Seigel: bass trombone; Pete McCann: electric guitar, acoustic guitar; Frank Carlberg: piano, Fender Rhodes; John Hebert: electric bass, acoustic bass; Mark Ferber: drums; Rogerio Boccato: percussion (4, 6, 8); Jo Lawry: vocals (3, 5, 6, 8).