A brief preamble: while spending last Thanksgiving with my wife’s sister and her family in Palo Alto, CA, I had the radio tuned to KCSMFM in San Mateo (a 24hour Jazz station, naturally) whose weekday noontime feature is an album played in its entirety without interruption. On this particular day the album chosen was by a group I’d not heard before, the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra. After listening for a few moments I thought to myself, “I’ve gotta get a copy of this!” So I made some phone calls, sent some emails, and three months later the postman delivered the neatly wrapped disc to my doorstep. It was worth the wait. This is a marvelous album unsparingly awash in exhilarating music, Ellingtonian in its scope, structure, subtlety and shadings, and wonderfully performed by bassist Shelby’s intrepid ensemble of unsung but enormously talented San Franciscoarea musicians. Its centerpiece, the fourmovement Lights Suite, derives its name from Howard Korder’s early’90s play, The Lights, for whose San Francisco production Shelby wrote a new musical score. The suite is not only a labor of love but an exquisite work of art that signals the 35yearold Shelby’s emergence as a leading talent among bigband Jazz composers. Shelby also wrote the AfroLatin charmer “Maia,” which precedes the suite, and the tender ballad “Anais Petit,” which follows it. The album opens and closes on a sunny note with the ageless Jazz standards “Moten Swing” and “Dinah,” both arranged by Shelby. Returning to the suite, a polychromatic sketch of contemporary urban life as depicted in Korder’s play, it begins with a lyrical blues, “The Lights,” continues with the Dukish “Afro Mission,” accompanies a displaced newcomer on a lonesome but persuasive trip through the play’s unnamed city (“Portrait”) and ends with the playful rhythms of “Dance of the Mission Babies.” While soloists aren’t named in the CD booklet or tray, we’ve learned from another source that tenor Rob Barics is featured on “The Lights,” alto Gabe Eaton with pianist Matt Clark on "Portrait." Each of them is strikingly impressive, as are those who take their turns elsewhere on the album. The Lights Suite is one of the more admirable bigband albums we’ve heard in quite some time, and it’s a slamdunk that next year’s Top 10 list won’t be complete without it.
Contact:Noir Records, 268 Bush St., #3125, San Francisco, CA 94104; phone 4155449974. Web sites, www.noirrecords.com; www.msjo.org
Track Listing: Moten Swing; Maia; The Lights Suite (The Lights, Afro Mission, Portrait, Dance of the Mission Babies); Anais Petit; Dinah (51:26).
Personnel: Marcus Shelby, composer, arranger, leader, bass; Joel Ryan, Gavin Distasi, Mike Olmos, Danny Pass, trumpet; Danny Grewen, Terje Nygaard, Brutus Jeffries, trombone; Gabe Eaton, Theophilus