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Larry Willis: Sanctuary

Franz A. Matzner By

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Antediluvian of method or anachronistic of taste, dedicated purist or obdurate conservative, iconoclast or ludite, the debates surrounding Mapleshade owner, engineer, and producer Pierre Sprey will most likely never reach a definitive conclusion. Regardless of what label one chooses to apply, Mapleshade productions possess a distinct sound related directly to Sprey's dedicated traditional recording methods. Using a system of careful mike placement and recording directly to two-track analog, Sprey recreates the classic '50s era studio conditions, enabling jazz musicians to lay down their music in an unfettered situation closely analogous to live performance.

It may also be that Sprey's traditionalist methodology draws a certain type of artist to his Maryland studios, namely musicians like Larry Willis. In his capacity as musical director, Willis has consistently brought exceptional musicians to the label. As well, Willis has recorded often for the studio, and his latest release, Sanctuary reveals once again Willis' keyboard mastery, composing and arranging skills—and a propensity for spiritual, serious music.

Performed in a trio with string setting, pieces like "Good Friday" and "A Balm in Gilead" express Willis' religious convictions, exploring through balanced arrangement and delicately played compositions the healing force of Christianity and its deep connection with African American culture. In fact, many of Sanctuary 's tracks express a similarly contemplative mood while offering an examination of American musical and cultural history. For example: the solo piano piece "Were you There," based on a church hymn Willis encountered in a Harlem Baptist church, and the opening track, "The Maji"—which, as Willis' linear notes indicate, introduces a rhythm taken from an old Harlem dance performed during his childhood.

This is a very consistent album which establishes a softly searching tone. Steve Berrios provides steady, subtle rhythmic backing, his cymbal and tom tones sounding particularly melodious and warm. As well, Steve Novosel's clean bass lines pulse gently behind Joe Ford's lush sax sound and Ray Codrington's even-toned trumpet. Of course, throughout, Willis builds composed, almost somber moods with his judicious phrasing.

Sanctuary does not blast the listener with hard bop force or travel into the stratospheres of today's modernistic giants. Neither is it typical smooth jazz. Certainly, the warmth of the album suggests the conservative's nostalgic bent, but there is much more to the music than that. Willis, with the support of the Mapleshade studios, has produced a beautiful series of highly personal works which delve quietly into questions of peace, sorrow, and spiritual transformation.

Track Listing: The Maji; Sanctuary; Good Friday; Brother Ed; A Balm In Gilead; Thank you, lord; Were You There?; Fallen Hero.

Personnel: Larry Willis: Piano; Joe Ford: Saxes; Ray Codrington: Trumpet; Steve Novosel: Bass; Steve Berrios: Drums; Artie Sherman: Vocals; The Rick Schmidt Strings

Title: Sanctuary | Year Released: 2003 | Record Label: Mapleshade Recordings


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