The Felipe Salles Ensemble Steps Forth


THE LULLABY PROJECT / SALLES: Lullabies Nos. 1-5. Odd Tango. Astor Square. Carla’s Tango / The Felipe Salles Interconnections Ensemble: Jeff Holmes, Yuta Yamaguchi, Eric Smith, Doug Olsen, tpt; Joel Yennior, Clayton DeWalt, Dan Hendrix, Randy Pingrey, tb; Angel Subero, bs-tb; Richard Garcia, Jonathan Ball, a-sax/s-sax/fl; Mike Caudill, t-sax/s-sax/cl; Jacob Shulman, t-sax/cl; Tyler Burchfield, bar-sax/bs-cl; Nando Michelin, pno/melodica; Kevin Grudecki, gtr; Ryan Fedak, vib; Keala Kaumeheiwa, bs; Bertram Lehmann, dm / Tapestry Records (no number)

This CD, titled The Lullaby Project, is not what you might think at first blush. As the composer indicates in the notes, the music is drawn from Brazilian lullabies and is designed “to create a musical commentary on the dark underlying qualities of lullabies, as well as to illustrate the socially transformative impact lullabies have had on generations of children.” It’s the latter part of this statement that puzzles me. What “socially transformative impact” have lullabies had on “generations of children”? I had lullabies sung to me when I was a toddler; I recall very few of them and none of them had any “socially transformative impact” on me. Apparently, Brazilian lullabies are a form of brainwashing technique.

Salles also adds that “Each movement is through-composed and features different members of the ensemble as soloists,” but does not indicate whether or not the solos are also composed. The indication seems to be that they are improvised. Whatever the case, the music is utterly fascinating; it has crescendi, moving chromatic harmonies, brass explosions and all the other features one comes to accept from good jazz orchestras. Indeed, each piece is so well crafted that, were it not for the Brazilian-tinged jazz pulse, one would surely hear these are classical compositions.

And therein lies the rub. I know from bitter personal experience with artists who produce such albums that the larger jazz public refuses to listen to this kind of music. It started back in the 1940s when Django Reinhardt started composing pieces for himself and was branded a “classical” guitarist, followed by Stan Kenton who alienated a great many people by the screaming brass in his bands but who also alienated listeners by insisting on a fusion of jazz and classical form. There is a superb album by Darryl Brenzel, The Re-Write of Spring, which is a jazz take on Igor Stravinsky’s groundbreaking ballet score. I gave it a rave review when it was issued; Brenzel later wrote to me that only classical people love it, that he can’t even find jazz venues to play it in because they don’t like it.

Salles’ music isn’t quite as formal as Stravinsky, but it is surely quite complex and rich in both composition and orchestration. There are multiple themes presented in each of the five lullabies, sometimes linked and sometimes developed in a classical fashion. In toto, these pieces put me in mind of late-period Kenton, when he was leading the Neophonic Orchestra in concerts of commissioned works by Russ Garcia, Clare Fischer, Allyn Ferguson, Hugo Montenegro and John Williams. There is a particularly dark moment in Lullaby #2 with Angel Subero’s bass trombone growling in a menacing manner over the turmoil of the percussion with interjected commentary by high reeds; following a dead stop, the two flutes play in calm classical counterpoint against each other, thus completely changing the mood as well as the theme, before the rhythm section comes in and the tempo and mood change, with an electric guitar solo of equally menacing mein. A menacing, downward bass pattern in F minor is taken over by the trombones, then the trumpets come screaming into the mix. A lullaby, indeed. Reminds me more of Charles Mingus’ The Children’s Hour of Dream, which his widow Sue has called “the children’s hour of nightmare.”

Indeed, each of the five Lullabies has its own individual sound profile and musical shape. Mike Caudill’s forlorn G minor soprano sax tune introduces Lullaby #3, which despite its classical form and relatively quiet dynamics becomes one of the most aggressively rhythmic pieces on the CD, with sort of parade drum backbeats played against the suddenly animated soprano sax, now suddenly transforming the harmony from minor to major, following which Jeff Holmes’ trumpet comes in. The aggressive pseudo-parade beat returns beneath a particularly creative brass-reed passage which acts as a bridge to further themes. Only Lullaby #4 begins with a theme that I would associate in my own mind with lullabies, played on the celesta, yet this is the one piece that, sadly, introduces a rock beat into the proceedings. (I am allergic to rock music, thank you very much.) The rock beat lasts too long for my comfort, but fortunately not throughout the piece. An aggressive Brazilian rhythm enters later in the piece.

Odd Tango lives up to its title, beginning with Caudill’s tenor sax playing the theme a cappella before the rest of the orchestra stealthily falls in behind him. We then return to the solo tenor, now with the rhythm section playing unusual metric patterns. Later on, the trumpets play an asymmetric staccato ostinato behind unusual melodic patterns by the reeds and other brass. Astor Square and Carla’s Tango are pieces in a similar vein.

This is the kind of album that will greatly appeal to those of us who value creative jazz-classical fusion, but will undoubtedly confuse or alienate those who only want small-group improvisation. Highly recommended.

As an addenda to this review, I herewith present a short online interview that I did with Salles on October 7, 2018. I think you will find it interesting, as I did, as to his influences and some of the qualities he wanted to bring out in the music:

ART MUSIC LOUNGE: First of all, I really wanted to congratulate you on the music presented on this disc. It is really creative, richly-written and thoughtful music produced in an era where it seems that such values are either ignored or underappreciated by jazz listeners. How did you manage to raise the funds to hire the band, record it, and produce the album?

Felipe Salles: Thank you. I am so glad you enjoyed it. I am lucky to have found incredibly talented people who believe in my musical vision, despite all the difficulties. I was able to secure a few small grants, raise some of the money via crowd-funding, and the rest I paid for it myself.

AML: In my review, I mentioned a few jazz-classical composers of the past, such as Russ Garcia, Clare Fischer, Allyn Ferguson, Charles Mingus and Hugo Montenegro, and I might also mention Johnny Richards (who was Mexican despite his American-sounding name), whose work was in the same vein. Were any of these musicians an inspiration for you? And if not, who were?

FS: Clare Fisher, and Mingus, for sure. Other than that, my influences range from Ellington, Strayhorn, Gil Evans, to Claus Ogerman, Vince Mendoza, George Russell, to Villa-Lobos, Bartók, Stravinsky, Piazzolla, Jobim and Hermeto Pascoal.

AML: I also wondered, since you wrote that the music was through-composed, if this included the solos or not. A few earlier jazz pieces by Mingus (“Self-Portrait in Three Colors”) and Monk were like this, where the solos were written out. Or were the solos improvised?

FS: The solos are improvised. I can be very particular, but not that much. I really believe in the individual contribution, and I write with the specific soloist in mind.

AML: Who were some of the classical composers who most strongly influenced you?

FS: I guess, some I already mentioned: Stravinsky and Bartok, Villa-Lobos, Bach, Debussy, Ravel, Satie; Glass, Reich and Schoenberg, to a certain extent.

AML: I was just curious to know if you are familiar with, or a fan of, pre-1950 composers like Still, Mundy, Sauter, Wilder and others (even Ellington) who used jazz textures in a more classical form (scoring top to bottom like a classical orchestra but substituting jazz instruments in place of classical winds or strings) or late Ravel who clearly used jazz “sounds” in his works? I sometimes feel that these pioneers’ work is sadly overlooked or misunderstood today.

FS: Ellington was a big early influence, as you can hear in Carla’s Tango, to a certain extent. Ravel and Stravinsky both incorporated jazz elements, and so did Copland. I think more like Ellington, in the sense that I consider myself coming from jazz, and incorporating classical influences. George Russell, whom I studied with, was a big influence in the way I connect the two musical styles. I am familiar with the composers you mentioned, and I think their approach was relevant at the time and important as a way to open up the possibilities. I like how composers like Bernstein did it in a seamless way. A lot of great works and less known composers get overlooked, unfortunately.

AML: Do you have any further ambitious musical projects in mind that you would like to share with my readers?

FS: At the moment, I am working on a multi-media project for my 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship, which is my most ambitious project to date. It stems from video interviews, and involves live music and video projections in a multi-movement suite about conversations with Dreamers. I have other projects in mind but it is too soon to make them public. I have a lot of orchestral music I would like to record one day, if I ever get the funding.

AML: Thank you for your time!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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