Considering ambition and musical vision, bassist/bandleader Marcus Shelby has a single peer: Wynton Marsalis
. Both men have a healthy reverence for the past and big imaginations for large-scale works. Shelby is struck by history, much of which he incorporates into this larger works like Soul of the Movement: Meditations on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
(2011) and Beyond the Blues: A Prison Oratorio
(2015). On Transitions
, Shelby wanted to present something akin to his live performances with his big band. He accomplishes this with a nuclear aplomb, weaving Ellington, Mingus, and Shearing in with his most recent large-scale work Black Ball: The Negro Leagues and the Blues
. The outcome is magic.
Shelby opens the disc with a flute-forward arrangement of Charles Mingus
' "Remember Rockefeller [at Attica]" that originally appeared on Mingus' late career recording Changes One
(Atlantic, 1975). Shelby favors older textures, using the low reeds, especially the bass clarinet, as the solid bottom. The effect is notable. A clear, ringing flute from James Mahone
shines through the woody tone of Patrick Wolff
's bass clarinet. The bandleader continues his sepia vision on a rarely heard Ellington piece, "On a Turquoise Cloud," featuring violinist Mads Tolling in the roll of Ellington's salwart Ray Nance
. This easily represents the best of the pre-WWII swing era.
Shelby reveals his secret weapon on the first of five vocals with a jaunty "Begin the Beguine" sung by the incomparable Tiffany Austin
. The arrangement is as progressive as Austin's assertiveness, producing a stunning performance. Austin sings Shearing's "Lullaby of Birdland" with a strut in her step and sardonic voice. She is gentle with "In My Solitude," waltzing with pianist Dan Clark
in the introduction. The band and singer repave Cole Porter
's "It's Alright With Me." This is a match made in bandleader-singer heaven.
Shelby introduces his four-part suite with "Transitions I (Pittsburgh)" with a loping piano left hand and rim-shot on the downbeat. The whole band enters, piquantly, tastefully accenting the percussive blues laid down by the rhythm section. The piece provides a vehicle for solos by trumpeter Rafa Postel
, bari player Fil Lorenze, who summons the spirit of Paul Gonsalves
for a couple of choruses, before pianist Clark brings the piece to the coda.
"Transitions II (New York)" is sleekly sophisticated with shifting time signatures and tempos, keeping things off kilter, but not so much so to ruin the swing. "Barnstormin' (Chicago)" begins slowly, building momentum, evolving into a circuitous blues sporting some brief Basie-like piano by Clark. The brass recalls the territory bands of the '20s and '30s, while the arrangement betrays more modern thinking. "Black Ball Swing (Kansas City)" is all Shelby. His bass is steady and rock-hard, guiding the procession with his arrangement that is lively and interesting.
Austin closes things with a smokey "Mood Indigo," sharing the opening with Clark and tenor saxophonist Danny Brown
. It is a great end to a great recital.
Remember Rockefeller; On a Turquoise Cloud; Begin the Beguine; Lullaby of Birdland; Solitude; It’s All Right with Me; Transitions I (Pittsburgh); Transitions II (New York); Barnstormin’ (Chicago); Black Ball Swing (Kansas City); Mood Indigo.
Marcus Shelby: bass, conductor, composer, arranger; Bill Thereur: trumpet; Bill Ortiz: trumpet; Rafa Postel: trumpet; Mike Olmos: trumpet (10); James Mahone: alto sax, flute; Tom Griesser: alto sax, flute; Patrick Wolff: tenor sax, clarinet; Danny Brown: tenor sax; Fil Lorenz: baritone sax; Mitch Butler: trombone; Rob Ewing: trombone; Charles Hamilton: trombone; Matt Clark: piano; Mads Tolling: violin (2); Jeff Marrs: drums; Tiffany Austin: vocals.