Guitarist Chris Jentsch
's newest project is a suite that treats various periods of American history to a somewhat skeptical, alternative viewpoint. It doesn't attempt to tell a chronological story but instead hopscotches through topics like the Civil War, Westward Expansion, the Cold War and post-World War II suburban sprawl with a constant sense of unease and caution.
Jentsch uses a nine-piece group here, giving him room to play with brass and reed voicings as well as feature his own searing jazz-rock guitar. "1491" begins with exotic flute and percussion evoking a Caribbean beach before Christopher Columbus' arrival and rolls into atmospheric creeping jazz led by Brian Drye
's trombone and Michel Gentile
's flute with Jentsch's buzzing electric sound adding a jagged edge. "Manifest Destiny" seems to take a near-comic view towards its subject, beginning with saxophones and flute ponderously bumping into each other before Jacob Sacks
' piano leads the entire group into a gradual melodic progression that moves with the relentless trudge of a pioneer wagon train but also carries a slight air of sadness. The piece incorporates rich solos on clarinet by Michael McGinnis
and bass by Jim Whitney
and a piano and soprano sax duet by Sacks and Jason Rigby
. Towards the end the music develops a Western prairie feel as Jentsch's heavy guitar rolls in and pushes everything to a loud climax.
"Lincoln-Douglas Debates" is a tipsy, slow-rolling line with short, frisky solos for trumpet and trombone and a clanging, boisterous vibe. "Tempest-Tost" refers to the inscription on the Statue of Liberty and, by inference, European immigration. It features Jentsch burning through a ominous, unwinding fog of horns, piano and drums. "Suburban Diaspora" continues "Manifest Destiny"'s creeping forward motion in a cooler and more compact form over a stiff rock beat. Jentsch threads his way through a lighter-toned ensemble. Then Sacks and the brass section take over, inserting notes of panic and fear into a warm, friendly melody, before flute and guitar end the piece with a gentle, folk-rock coda.
"Dominos" refers to the old 1950s' fears of Communist aggression and the ensuing era of McCarthyism. This time the dread is heard right up front as Sacks' sinister piano trills lead into a high-pitched, tense horn ensemble and Jentsch's guitar picks and warps nervously through a cool jazz rhythm that sounds like an old Henry Mancini
crime show soundtrack. "Meeting At Surratt's" is an older Jentsch composition revisited for this suite. It refers to the boarding house where the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln was hatched and it continues the suite's overall feeling of slow, inexorable motion, this time with a pronounced Western movie theme vibe. It also incorporates a swaggering tenor solo by Rigby, some subtle reggae beats and Jentsch's low, buzzing guitar cresting over the entire band at the end.
The music of this suite conveys a certain inevitably about the way things happened in our history but always with a hesitant, wary element that seems to ask "Was this a good idea?" Every musician's playing contributes to the subdued, understated power of Jentsch's message. This is an impressive and thoughtful musical statement.
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