When appraising a new recording by Roberto Magris
, Rule No. 1 is always to expect the unexpected. On eighteen previous albums, the Italian-born pianist has produced tributes to Lee Morgan
, Elmo Hope
and Cannonball Adderley
, welcomed guest artists Herb Geller
, Sam Reed
and Ira Sullivan
, and led groups ranging from trio to septet, all for Kansas City's JMood Records. In that spirit, Magris' newest two-disc set, Suite!,
isn't a suite at all; that is to say, it cannot be defined as "a series of movements usually in the same key but contrasting in rhythm and mood." Rather, it is a sequence of disparate compositions and arrangements by a handful of writers, one of which is a Magris theme named "Suite!"
Having said that, the music is generally sunny and engaging, even though Magris sometimes overstresses his idealism to make a point. He leads a quintet this time around with the voice of P.J. Aubree Collins added on half a dozen of the more "utopian" essays. Front-liners Eric Jacobson
(trumpet) and Mark Colby
(tenor saxophone) are splendid, as is bassist Eric Hochberg
. Drummer Greg Artry
keeps admirable time but is in some instances a touch too assertive, thus impinging on the soloists. On the other hand, Artry's astute drumming is indispensable on Disc 1's buoyant closing number, Magris' "Circles of Existence." Magris flies solo on four of Disc 2's nine selections: an inventive reconstruction of George Gershwin's "Summertime," his own ballad, "Love Creation," the Jay Livingston / Ray Evans standard "Never Let Me Go," and John Lennon's heartwarming "Imagine."
Perhaps as a nod to his predisposition, Magris chose to open Disc 1 with the dour and doctrinaire "In the Wake of Poseidon," whereas the high-spirited "Sunset Breeze" (with ardent solos by Jacobson, Colby, Magris and Artry) might have served as a more auspicious curtain-raiser. Collins recites the message on "Poseidon," as she does on "A Message for a World to Come" and "Circles of Existence." The easygoing "Suite!" is a highlight, as, surprisingly, is the venerable Nat King Cole
chart-topper, "Too Young to Go Steady." Magris moves to Fender Rhodes on "Steady," as he does on Disc 2's "Perfect Peace," "You're My Everything," "One with the Sun," "Chicago Nights" and "The Island of Nowhere." Collins sings on "One with the Sun," but the mix is so uneven she was better off speaking. Aside from that, there is an abundance of first-rate, hard-swinging jazz on that number as well as on the instrumentals"You're My Everything," "Chicago Nights"and the lion's share of "One with the Sun" and "The Island of Nowhere."
In the end, the album's diversity can be adjudged a strength or weakness, depending on one's point of view. There is, on the one hand, the "message," which may not please everyone; and, on the other, the jazz component, superb whenever and wherever it appears, with resourceful improvising by all hands. One thing is certain: Magris follows his own star and keeps the focus on expertise and variety, pressing his purpose with flair and leaving any verdict, pro or con, in the capable hands of his audience.