Brooklyn-based guitarist / composer Chris Jentsch
writes with clear images in mind and invites the listener to see and hear them as he does. On his sixth and latest CD, Jentsch draws on a longstanding interest in historical events and trends to describe in musical terms Topics in American History
ranging from 1491 (the year before Europeans led by Christopher Columbus landed in the New World and changed the North American continent forever) to the harrowing decades of the Cold War and the Red Scare of the 1950s. America's "Manifest Destiny" is epitomized too, as are the "Lincoln-Douglas Debates" of 1858, the inspiring words engraved on the Statue of Liberty ("Tempest-Tost"), the rise of Baby Boomers ("Suburban Diaspora") and the conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln ("Meeting at Surratt's").
As with most thematic music, its import lies in the ear of the beholder. Setting themes aside, Jentsch's compositions are on the one hand ambitious, on the other ponderous. Tempos are generally unhurried to moderate, and there is an abundance of sound and fury (drummer Eric Halvorson
is especially busy) whose value rests in large measure on one's penchant for music whose emphatic gravity by and large displaces any tendency to swing. That's not to say the soloists aren't capable or trying their best, rather that the music for the most part doesn't lend itself to astute improvisation. It's hard to sound free and easy when the underlying mood is dirge-like.
According to Jentsch's brief notes following each selection, every one of his themes conveys a graphic message, but the same can be said with greater effect for compositions from Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" to George M. Cohan's "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Notwithstanding his best intentions, there is nothing here to awaken impressions of "Manifest Destiny," the "Lincoln-Douglas Debates" or "Meeting at Surratt's," to name only three of seven examples. Once that has been resolved, it is the music itself that matters, and Jentsch gets off to a rocky start on "1491," whose purpose is to convey the likeness of "a pristine Caribbean beach at the dawn of the influx of Europeans to the Americas," as the image is more dissonant than pacific. There are, however, some decent solos by trombonist Brian Drye
and flutist Michel Gentile
. Flute, clarinet (Michael McGinnis
) and saxophones (Jason Rigby
) are salient throughout, as are Halvorson and bassist Jim Whitney
, albeit largely in a supporting role. Rounding out Jentsch's No Net ensemble are trumpeter David Smith and pianist Jacob Sacks who also solo effectively when called upon.
Before concluding, a brief aside: there is little point in recording an album live in concert (as this one is said to be) if almost every trace of audience reaction (including applause at the end of each number) is to be summarily erased.
Some may find Jentsch's themes ardent and invigorating, others digressive and lackluster. The truth, as in many cases, probably lies somewhere in between. It is enough to note here that Jentsch and his colleagues obviously believe in his musical theses and do the best they can to underline their allure. Sentiments, good or ill, are readily entrusted to the perception of individual listeners.
Track Listing: 1491; Manifest Destiny; Lincoln-Douglas Debates; Tempest-Tost; Suburban Diaspora; Dominos; Meeting at Surratt’s.
Personnel: Chris Jentsch: electric guitar; Michel Gentile: flutes; Michael McGinnis: clarinets; Jason Rigby: saxophones; David Smith:
trumpet, flugelhorn; Brian Drye: trombone; Jacob Sacks: piano; Jim Whitney: acoustic bass; Eric Halvorson: drums,
percussion; J.C. Sanford: conductor.
Title: Topics in American History
| Year Released: 2018
| Record Label: Blue Schist