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Shapes: The Big Picture

Woodrow Wilkins By

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It's only February, and already the hot jazz CDs are in circulation. Typically, it's August or September before I hear an album that just blows me away. Within the first week of this month, I got a pair of two-disc sets that set a high standard that will be tough to beat. The first was the Caribbean Jazz Project's Here and Now - Live in Concert. However, the topic now is Shapes' The Big Picture.

Produced by Yellowjackets bassist Jimmy Haslip and featuring a varied supporting cast, this second Shapes outing is a split along stylistic lines. "Reel One'" contains an eclectic mix of engaging, groove-oriented material. "Reel Two'" showcases the band's mainstream jazz side, featuring swinging originals and inventive takes on familiar jazz standards. Both represent a dramatic, adventurous cinema of music.

Reel One opens with the dynamic groove "Arc of Twilight,'" followed by yet another inventive adaptation of Coltrane's "Naima.'"

Roger Burn, the catalyst behind Shapes, is the band's principal composer, arranger and multi-intrumentalist. Throughout the audio motion picture, the audience is treated to Burn's vibes and piano work, the Stevie Wonder-influenced chromatic harmonica performance of Tollak Ollestad, the guitars of Matthew Von Doran and Mike Higgins, the drums of Dave Derge, and the acoustic bass of Dean Taba and Larry Steen. A number of other musicians, including Haslip and his Yellowjackets band mate and co-founder Russell Ferrante, join the group in variable lineups for the fifteen scenes that make up The Big Picture.

There just isn't enough room to comment on every song, but that isn't necessary. The exceptional prologue of the first two numbers, followed by the Brazilian-flavored title song, is worth the price of admission. "The Big Picture'" features Ollestad and Suzuki in somewhat of a tour-de-force, the former doubling on background vocals and the latter offering flutes and clarinets. And just when you think it's safe to go get more popcorn, the group cranks it up on "Gabriela,'" an upbeat melody that brings an Afro-Caribbean feel to the musical flick. And so it goes, with the churning salsa-jazz "Eat the Heat,'" the blues-funk aroma of "Lobster,'" and a remake of the Yellowjackets' "Automa,'" among many others.

It won't happen, but an album such as this is worthy of an Oscar nomination for Best Soundtrack even if it isn't associated with an actual picture. It even comes complete with a black-and-white cover that shows the façade of a drive-in theater, with several classic cars. The Big Picture, much like Shapes, is difficult to define in terms of musical categories. It is contemporary jazz, but it's more.

Much, much more.

Track Listing: CD1: Arc of Twilight, Naima, The Big Picture, Gabriela, Eat the Heat, Lobster, Measure Once, Sotto Voce. CD2: Softly As in a Morning Sunrise, Love for Sale, In the Outdoors, I Didn't Know What Time It Was, Automat, I Still Remember, What Now?

Personnel: Tollak Ollestad--chromatic harmonica, keys, background vocals; roger Burn--keys, vibraphone; Larry Steen, Dean Taba--bass, Jimmy Haslip; various others...

Title: The Big Picture | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Burnin' Down the House Records

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