If you open the packaging for this album, you'll encounter a picture of Christopher Zuar that initially seems to touch on a theme of isolation. Shadows and light play against the wall behind him, but it's Zuar himself, sitting and staring into the distance over his piano, that really draws the eyes in. After looking at the photo for several moments, the pixels, forming a black and white visual cipher, finally choose to reveal the truth: This isn't a portrait of solitary existence so much as it is a visual representation of musing on what exists beyond the known. That's where Zuar is looking, and he makes some startlingly fresh discoveries by going there on this, his debut album.
Zuar hasn't even turned thirty yethe was only twenty-seven when this album was recorded in September of 2014but the knowledge, skill, and depth of feeling that appear in his writing belie his years. This music, artfully crafted and expertly rendered by a forward-thinking jazz orchestra, manages to harness and refract the sounds of struggle, hope, affirmation, humor, and youth. These are pieces shot through with pensive streaks and bold declamations, pointing to emotional balance and a sonic yin and yang at play in Zuar's pen.
Studies with notable pianist-composer-arrangers like Mike Holober, Frank Carlberg, and Jim McNeely inform Zuar's outlook, and his work clearly shows that he's stayed abreast of current sounds and trends relating to large ensembles in jazz. His varicolored writing taps into interesting instrument combinations, uses solid and vaporous materials for construction, and speaks to an understanding behind the music of everybody from J.S. Bach to Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer to Maria Schneider. But Zuar doesn't look to ape anybody's style or rely on any writing formulas. He's simply internalized the lessons learned, and now he's using them to push his own vision forward. So says these eight enticing offerings.
While the writing is the obvious star of this show, the players who pull life from the page and cast their own thoughts into the mix deserve to share top billing. Big band saxophone mainstay Dave Pietro helps Zuar in bridging the gap between youthful memories and future hopes during "Remembrance," Carlberg captures the ears during the trio-centric portion of the Baroque-inspired "Chaconne," Jo Lawry's fetching and riveting wordless vocals add volumes to the four songs that she graces with her presence, and Jason Rigby's tenor saxophone statement on "So Close, Yet So Far Away" perfectly illustrates the hunger and longing that exist in the psyche of the growing composer. The nineteen players involved with this project consistently deliver, regardless of whether they're set loose in a funky environment like "Ha! (Joke's On You)," a resolute realm like "Anthem," or a sobering setting like "Lonely Road." They manage to paint musings against air, giving life to the ever-compelling work of Christopher Zuar.
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).
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