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One Track Mind: Richard Nelson Large Ensemble, "Strive" (2011)


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In most big bands, the guitarist functions as nothing more than a member of an expanded rhythm section—and for a while it seems like Richard Nelson (even though it's his band, and all) had fallen into the same role on his forthcoming album, Pursuit. Then comes “Strive," the final large-ensemble piece.

As the track begins, an angular initial stanza—sparked by violinist Jon Luoma's desultory exclamations—gives way to this billowing chamber-inspired combo of flute, viola and cello. Only then does “Strive" catch a swinging rhythm, as drummer Steve Grover and bassist Cassidy Holden assert themselves. From there, the tune begins to move in point and counterpoint, like a two-part conversation held at the same time, before Nelson emerges for a rare turn as a soloist on Pursuit.

I was struck by the way he brought together all of those seemingly disparate elements with his solo here. For all of his rangy brilliance on “Strive," Nelson's chief contribution elsewhere on Pursuit is as a composer and arranger. The brass eventually join in, almost like a Greek chorus, reminding Nelson—and us—of the tune's broader intentions. But not before a virtuoso moment for Nelson (the guitarist), who is by turns incisive and lyrical, but always inside a tangy groove.

Soon enough, we're being dazzled again by Nelson (the big thinker), as his ensemble begins a locomotive final section—highlighted by the acrobatic Grover, last heard playing like an engine on its last drop of oil. But not before Nelson has finally asserted himself, finally given voice to his own instrumental talents. Too, “Strive" works as a big nudge toward the smaller-scale joys still to come, as Nelson ends Pursuit with a pair of quintet compositions.

Pursuit, available on June 7 from Heliotrope Records, was recorded live at the University of Maine-Augusta, where Nelson serves as an associate professor. A collaborator with Sheila Jordan, Taylor Ho-Bynum and Geri Allen, he is also a long-time core member of the Boston-based Aardvark Jazz Orchestra. Nelson's 13-piece large ensemble includes flutist Bill Moseley, alto and soprano saxophonist Tim O'Dell, alto saxophonist Pamela Jenkins, tenor saxophonist Frank Mauceri, trumpeters John Foss and Don Stratton, trombonist Sebastian Jerosch, bass trombonist Anita Jerosch and cellist Moira Wolohan.

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