OUR MÉTIER / MASTERS: Borne Towards the Stars. 51 West 51st Street. Lift. Ingvild’s Dance. A Précis of Dialogue. Dispositions of the Heart. Obituary. Luminescence. In Our Time. Our Métier / Mark Masters Ensemble: Scott Englebright, Les Lovitt, tpt; Ryan Dragon, Les Benedict, Dave Woodley, tb; Jerry Pinter, t-sax/s-sax; Kirsten Edkins, a-sax; Bob Carr, bar-sax/bs-cl; Stephanie O’Keefe, Fr-hn; Anna Mjöll, voc; Ed Czach, pno; Craig Fundyga, vib. Sextet: Tim Hagans, tpt; Gary Foster, Oliver Lake, a-sax; Mark Turner, t-sax; Putter Smith, bs; Andrew Cyrille, dm / Capri Records 74150
Jazz composer-arranger Mark Masters, a graduate of Riverside City College and California State University, is also president of the board of directors at the American Jazz Institute in Los Angeles. He was, apparently, a trumpeter or trombonist (unspecified on Wikipedia or in the liner notes) who gave up active playing to become a composer-arranger back in the 1980s. In this very ambitious project, he has combined the soft textures of his own 12-piece ensemble (if one includes vocalist Anna Mjöll) with a hand-picked sextet that includes the well-known saxists Gary Foster and Oliver Lake (formerly of the World Saxophone Quartet).
The result is, as the publicity sheet describes it, “free-bop.” Yet the music has far more structure than the usual avant-garde you hear nowadays, and Masters admits that he wrote these compositions specifically for the musicians involved here. My lone caveat is that Mjöll is one of these breathy no-voice singers that modern-day left coast musicians seem to think are jazzy, so when I hear her in the ensemble I just tune her out. (Earth to Left Coast: it doesn’t matter if they swing or not, they’re just lounge singers with a beat, not jazz singers. Even Jackie Cain sang with a better tone than this when she blended her voice with the Charlie Ventura Orchestra. Thank you.) Otherwise, the compositions and arrangements are superb.
In a certain sense, Masters’ ensemble sound is like many of the cool jazz ensembles of the 1950s and ‘60s led by Allyn Ferguson (a sadly forgotten name nowadays), Clare Fischer or even Stan Kenton. It has a rich, mellow blend, achieved by having the trumpets play in their middle register much of the time and blending a French horn in with the trombones. The texture isn’t wholly original, but it is refreshing and enjoyable to hear, and Masters scores the, beautifully, using unusual chord positions to achieve his timbral blends.
Interestingly, Masters spots his soloists very carefully within the ensemble. In fact, the structure of the compositions and arrangements that command your attention; the solos, fine as they are, are icing on the cake, not the cake itself. Some of Lake’s solos sounded wrong in context to me; they’d have been fine within the WSQ, but not here, where he disrupts the harmonic balance. Otherwise, all is well. Order and form are the dominant features, and in this specific context Gary Foster works more congruently. Ingvild’s Dance is a cute jazz waltz, while A Précis of Dialogue is the most abstract piece on the album—and here, Lake fits in much better. We return to form and structure in the ethereal Dispositions of the Heart, and a bebop feel again in Obituary. We then move into an ethereal space with the odd melodic line and close harmonies of Luminescence, again marred by breathy-girl’s vocal. This one sounded like some of the spacier Sauter-Finegan scores of the ‘50s, though the rhythm coalesces in the second half.
In Our Time returns us to spaciness, here with an even more irregular beat and modern accents while the finale, which is the album’s title track, combines an outside-jazz sort of jazz waltz with 4/4. It is clearly one of the album’s highlights, and no vocal (thank goodness).
All in all, an impressive outing for Masters as a jazz writer.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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