McCarthy Blends Jazz With Civil War Music

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THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE / TRADITIONAL-McCARTHY: The Bonnie Blue Flag. HOWE: The Battle Hymn of the Republic. McCARTHY: Shiloh. The Better Angels of Our Nature. ROOT: Battle Cry of Freedom. TUCKER-SAWYER: Weeping, Sad and Lonely. EMMETT-HOBBS: I Wish I Was in Dixie’s Land. SPIRITUAL: Oh, Freedom. HEWITT: All Quiet Along the Potomac To-night / Brian McCarthy Nonet: McCarthy, a-sax/s-sax; Bill Mobley, tpt/fl-hn; Daniel Ian Smith, t-sax/s-sax; Stantawn Kendrick, t-sax; Cameron MacManus, tb; Andrew Gustauskas, bar-sax; Justin Kauflin, pn; Matt Aronoff, bs; Zach Harmon, dm / Truth Revolution Recording Collective (no number)

I suppose only saxist-bandleader Brian McCarthy really knows why he chose to arrange a number of Civil War-era songs for his nonet, adding a few originals by himself. The publicity blurb accompanying this CD, due out June 13, states that “McCarthy finds the roots of jazz in Civil War-era songs and spirit.” I like the musical results, though, and in the end that’s really all that matters.

As an arranger and soloist, McCarthy is clearly influenced by the larger cool jazz bands of the 1950s and ‘60s led by such writers as Gil Evans, George Russell, Tony Scott and Rod Levitt, the last a name that only jazz cognescenti seem to recognize. These musicians pushed the envelope of the style initiated in the late 1940s-early ‘50s by Evans, John Carisi, Gerry Mulligan and Shorty Rogers, later finding flower in the names cited above. Like them, McCarthy’s band sound is rooted in the trombone and baritone saxophone, using the trumpet in its lower mid-range rather than pushing it to the stratosphere. Happily, he has in Bill Mobley a trumpeter and flugelhornist who knows how to do a first-rate Louis Mucci emulation, Mucci being the go-to guy whenever those ‘50s composers-arrangers wanted a mellow but full-sounding high horn in their ensembles.

McCarthy has also learned well the lessons of using contrasting voices and counterpoint, not just in the lead lines but even as background figures. Listen to the beautiful figures he has composed behind Justin Kauflin’s piano solo in Battle Hymn of the Republic, and then, later, the astringent held chords he places behind his own alto sax solo. Due to the richness and complexity of his writing, the solos themselves don’t have to be the most dazzling, but they do have to fit in to the overall structure. They need to be able to pick up on the theme statements and altered chord progressions used in the ensembles and apply those to their improvised contributions. McCarthy’s band, which is as tight as a snare drum and as warm as a teddy bear, envelops itself around those alterations and composed figures with consummate ease.

The first of the original tunes to come up is Shiloh, and here McCarthy departs significantly from the tone and temperament of the authentic Civil War-era songs. This piece has a theme made up of modern-styled licks, meaning that it never really coalesces into a recognizable theme, and the rhythm is likewise ambiguous. The tempo relaxes into an almost motionless ballad mood for McCarthy’s soprano solo, in which he meanders using other brief licks in a continuously evolving series, later breaking them into little two- or three-note figures before then running changes. A surprisingly lovely theme rides the tune out.

This is immediately followed by an uptempo romp titled The Better Angels of Our Nature. This one has a sort of melody which is catchy but repetitive, whose rhythmic elements allow McCarthy the chance to write some nice counterpoint around its theme statement. Mobley gets a nice solo on this one, played in a sort of Clark Terry vein, which is appropriate since three of his band’s members (Kauflin, Kendrick and MacManus) actually played with the legendary jazz trumpeter. But this one has more ensemble work in it than its predecessor, and once again McCarthy shows how deftly he can write for his tight-knit ensemble. In this one, perhaps due to the more driving beat, Stantawn Kendrick’s tenor solo is gutsy, borrowing a few R&B sounds as it goes along. There’s a nice (improvised?) counterpoint passage between trumpet and alto sax, then once again the tempo comes way down, Kauflin plays repeated open fourths on the piano, and Aronoff plucks a few tasteful notes in and around it before the ensemble slowly comes creeping back in—and then, it just stops.

George Frederick Root’s Battle Cry of Freedom is given a leisurely but rhythmically complex treatment, with open scoring on its simple tune. On this track it is the solos rather than the ensemble that makes the greatest impact, particularly Daniel Ian Smith’s soprano sax and MacManus’ warm, burry trombone solo. Once again a tempo shift, solo piano for a while, but this time when the ensemble returns the tempo is increased and the musical temperature rises. Interestingly, Kendrick’s tenor solo on this one is considerably cooler, showing a bit of bop influence as he plays almost consistently in double time around the rhythm section.

Weeping, Sad and Lonely is an anomaly, a jolly, upbeat tune with dismal, sad lyrics. McCarthy slowed the tempo down to try to make them match a bit better. The intro and opening chorus are played by the rhythm section only, with Kauflin’s piano leisurely leading the melody with nicely articulated figures. Then the rhythm section drops out entirely as the horns play a variant using altered chords and rich, warm timbral blends. Eventually the bass and drums come in beneath them, but subtly and softly, ending with the ensemble. I Wish I Was in Dixie’s Land begins with Kauflin playing out-of-tempo bluesy licks while Zach Harmon rumbles around on the drums, with occasional ensemble passages playing a somewhat mournful tune. It’s only around 2:40 that the listener slowly begins to recognize the overly-familiar melody, alternately known simply as Dixie, but this is quickly interrupted by some free-form passages. The tempo remains bogged in non-movement as McCarthy wails on the alto, later shifting to sort of a medium tempo jazz blues that appears to have no relation to the original theme. There is an extended drum solo on this one, following which there is an interesting chase chorus between McCarthy’s alto and Kendrick’s tenor, which eventually heats up both the tempo and the ensemble in an almost Mingus-like finale.

The spiritual Oh, Freedom is once again turned over to the ensemble in a relatively short (2:36) but meaningful statement, although Kendrick has a brief two-bar tenor solo. The album then closes out with John Hill Hewitt’s All Quiet Along the Potomac To-night, given a hip, almost Las Vegas-type jazz treatment, entirely different from anything else on the set. Here the textures are lean and geared more towards the top-end instruments, with the baritone sax used sparingly and lightly and the trombone playing higher in its range than usual for this group. This is the one tune that sounds the most like something Clark Terry would have played, light and bouncy, and the solos by Mobley, Kauflin and Smith have that nice sort of ‘50s cool-jazz feel about them. This could almost have come from a Russ Freeman session c. 1956!

All in all, then, a particularly varied and interesting album, combining fine solo work with outstanding writing. Footnote: having reviewed this on a cool, raw, rainy day, I can assert that this is perfect bad-weather music, guaranteed to raise your spirits!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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