Don't let the album's title fool you. Guitarist/composer Chris Jentsch
's Topics In American History
isn't a disguised syllabus for a college seminar. Jentsch's liner notes reveal an abiding interest in American history, but his modus operandi is to use pivotal aspects of the nation's past as springboards for creative, immersive music. Although using just a nine-piece band, Jentsch's compositions feel designed for a larger unit, and they certainly do justice to the sweeping tableau of America's richand sometimes fraughtlegacy.
Jentsch isn't new to working with larger ensembles. His prior release, Fractured Pop
(Fleur de Son, 2017) was a quartet record exploring Jentsch's influences in jazz and rock, but prior to that he released Brooklyn Suite
(Fleur de Son, 2008), a large-scale project for a 16- piece band. The following year Cycles Suite
(Fleur de Son, 2009) continued his efforts with a more substantial ensemble. Even though his nonet (or "No Net," as he playfully dubs it) on Topics In American History
is a less sprawling group, its pieces bear the complexity and patiently unfolding logic of the most expressionistic big band projects, especially in the vein of Maria Schneider
's recent compositions.
The record starts from the very beginning of the American story: "1491" is set at the moment before Columbus's arrival, and the band sketches a tranquil beauty guided by a flowing ostinato groove. The work provides room for solos by trombonist Brian Drye
, flutist Michel Gentile
, and flugelhornist David Smith
, with Jentsch's distorted guitar injecting menace into the otherwise benign, relaxed piece. Portentous changes come with pieces like "Manifest Destiny" and "Tempest-Tost," which explore the complexities of continental expansion and immigration using the band's many textures to tease out the multifaceted dynamics of these historical questions.
Despite the ready-made opportunity to do so, Jentsch generally refrains from didacticism. There is an ingratiating, even wistful aspect to "Manifest Destiny," revealed as the piece's floating melody takes shape. The underside to America's treatment of indigenous peoples or recently arrived "others" is hinted at obliquely rather than placed front and centeralthough Jentsch's tenacious solo on "Tempest-Tost" does convey more than a little unsettled emotion. The jaunty, spirited "Lincoln-Douglas Debates" makes excellent use of soloists Drye and Smith as their "debate" evolves. The upbeat piece avoids dwelling on the reality that this most famous political encounter signaled the impending collapse of the Union over the slavery question. Even a piece like "Meeting at Surratt's," evoking hotel proprietor Mary Surratt's alleged role in the plot to assassinate Lincoln, has a forlorn, plaintive character with a strong emotional core. Jentsch's use of the band is especially effective here, with terrific harmonies and an especially moving tenor solo from saxophonist Jason Rigby
Jentsch continues to build his compositional resume with this excellent hour-long suite of music. It's American musicand music about
Americathat reveals what is possible with an expertly utilized medium-sized ensemble.
1491; Manifest Destiny; Lincoln-Douglas Debates; Tempest-Tost; Suburban Diaspora; Dominos; Meeting at Surratt’s.
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.