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The New World Jazz Composers Octet: Transitions

Greg Simmons By

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The best of jazz generally ensures that there is a leader, a composition, or at least an agreed upon theme that holds the work together, and herein lies the conundrum of The New World Jazz Composers Octet's Transitions.

Musical egalitarianism is one of the hallmarks of jazz—the notion that everyone has an opportunity to make their personal statement, and that compositions should leave spaces for those statements, has been at the core of the craft since Duke Ellington started writing songs with the strengths of his particular soloists in mind. But there was always Duke to bind the music together with a singular vision.

Transitions is trying to cover an awful lot of ground for one album. In addition to nine full length tracks by six different composers, there are seven short improvisational vignettes by individuals or smaller sub-groups, taking egalitarianism to the extreme. The effect is a little like a cable news split-screen commentator graphic, where eight talking heads fit on air at the same time. There are so many messages and opinions that any one of them is in danger of becoming marginalized, and the larger subject becomes blurred as the heads compete for attention.

This album is full of good quality writing and playing, but it tends to get bogged down in ensuring that everyone has their full opportunity to expound. There are places where the arranging is very strong, such as Ted Pease's "And Now For Something Completely Different," with its inventive melody overlaying a march beat, complete with majorette's whistle in the background. But there are also places where good ensemble arrangements give way, before a track has the opportunity to develop. Ken Schaphorst's "Bats" has the most boldly stated collaborative melody on the record—and it's a really good one—but it last only a few bars before it is subsumed by the aggressive (albeit very well played) individual improvisation of trumpeter Ken Cervenka, while "Spring Rounds," another Pease arrangement, is restatement of Igor Stravinsky's, "Rite of Spring," and is a rich enough source that it could merit an entire album on its own. The short improvisations, placed between the full length tracks, invite further exploration of leader and reed-man Daniel Ian Smith's smaller ensemble output.

In the end, Transitions is a well-played, interesting album that suffers because it is trying to serve too many masters. This record needed some editing before it was released. All the pieces are here, but they needed a stronger hand to guide them into something more coherent.

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