Brian McCarthy's The Better Angels of Our Nature shares some common ground with Ted Nash whose Big Band collection Presidential Suite (Eight Variations on Freedom) (Motema Music, 2016) explored musical interpretations of great historical speeches including those of John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Lyndon B. Johnson. McCarthy's focus is inspirited by American Civil War and the political and socio-economic issues that are not as far behind us as we would like to think.
A well rounded saxophonist, composer and arranger, McCarthy's improvisational skills make this album feel as current as it deserves to be. As a performer he spans a range of jazz having performed and recorded with Clark Terry, played at The Blue Note and with Phish bassist Mike Gordon. A faculty member at the University of Vermont, he also serves as director of bands at Saint Michael's College. His debut This Just In (Self-produced, 2013) was a kaleidoscope of finely-crafted original compositions.
Of the nine tracks on The Better Angels of Our Nature, two are McCarthy originals but with context firmly rooted in the spirit of the era. The album opens with "The Bonnie Blue Flag," an adaptation of a traditional Irish song celebrating the southern lifestyle and featuring Andrew Gutauskas on baritone saxophone and drummer Zac Harmon. Harmon, pianist Justin Kauflin and McCarthy solo on "Battle Hymn of the Old Republic," originally a Union marching song, "John Brown's Body," about the famous abolitionist. McCarthy's composition, "Shiloh," an emotive piece reflecting the disillusion of young troops from both sides as they realize that war is never a cause for celebration. Bill Mobley on flugelhorn, Kauflin and tenor saxophonist Stantawn Kendrick are highlighted on the title trackthe second McCarthy compositionand one that takes on the dissection of three different facets of Abraham Lincoln's life.
McCarthy's liner notes reveal one of the more interesting backstories in the history of "I Wish I Was in Dixie's Land," more often known as "Dixie." Believed to have been written by either Daniel Emmett or an African-American minstrel band known as the Snowden Family Band, the song has long been associated with the subjugation of southern blacks. Historically, Emmett is more often credited with the writing, andas an Ohio nativewas reportedly appalled by the song's use as an repressive anthem, wishing he had never written the piece.
Despite the overall subject matter, the arrangements on The Better Angels of Our Nature tend to swing, with the exception of "Weeping, Sad and Lonely"a lament on the human cost of warand the traditional spiritual, "Oh Freedom." The ensemble is exceptionally skilled with standout improvisations from the leader, Kendrick and Kauflin. An unusual album in content and execution, The Better Angels of Our Nature is a valuable collection on multiple levels.
The Bonnie Blue Flag; Battle Hymn of the Old Republic; Shiloh; The Better Angels of Our Nature; Battle Cry of Freedom; Weeping, Sad and Lonely; I Wish I Was in Dixie's Land; Of Freedom; All Quiet Along the Potomac To-Night.
Brian McCarthy: alto and soprano saxophones; Bill Mobley: trumpet, flugelhorn; Daniel Ian Smith: tenor and soprano saxophones; Stantawn Kendrick: tenor saxophone; Cameron McManus: trombone; Andrew Gutauskas: baritone saxophone; Matt Aronoff: bass; Justin Kauflin: piano; Zach Harmon: drums.
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