Chris Jentsch “Reviews” Topics in American History

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TOPICS IN AMERICAN HISTORY / JENTSCH: 1491. Manifest Destiny. Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Tempest-Tost. Suburban Disapora. Dominos. Meeting at Surratt’s / Jentsch Group No Net: Michel Gentile, fl; Michael McGinnis, cl/bs-cl; Jason Rigby, s-sax/t-sax/bar-sax; David Smith, tpt/fl-hn; Brian Drye, tb; Jacob Sacks, pno; Chris Jentsch, el-gtr; Jim Whitney, bs; Eric Halvorson, dm/perc; JC Sanford, cond / Blue Schist CD004

Jazz guitarist and composer Chris Jentsch, who also earned a B.A. in History from Gettysburg College, presents here his musical impressions of seven events or moods from the American past. While I thoroughly enjoyed his musical adaptations and compositions, I—who also studied History in college—was brought up short by a couple of his observations. Whether he learned these at Gettysburg College or picked them up from somewhere else, I must make a few comments.

In his liner notes, Jentsch ends his brief summary of the original Lincoln-Douglas debates by noting that Stephen A, Douglas was “not the noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass.” Was this really necessary? Do students nowadays not know this? Yet this is mild in comparison to a couple of his other observations, to wit:

Suburban Diaspora. The idea that people who grew up in an American middle class suburb during the Baby Boom (and then spread to cities or rural areas) share some sort of cultural heritage.

Say WHAT?!? As someone who grew up in a suburb during the Baby Boom, I can assure you that no two families on my horseshoe-shaped, three-street enclave thought that they shared any sort of cultural heritage. We had a very wide variety of families there, and in fact the majority were working class people. Three homeowners—my father and two others—were mailmen. Three others were laborers. One was a fireman. My next-door neighbor worked in a factory in Passaic. Two were indeed pretty well off compared to the rest of us: one owned his own construction company and another sold his home to start, slightly outside our neighborhood, a homemade chocolate candy business. One was an office worker on Madison Avenue in New York—he dropped dead of a heart attack while not yet 40. Our cultures were radically different and no one “shared them,” but for the most part (our neighbor across the street, a laborer, had a pretty testy personality, and another, who lived next door to him, was pretty much a recluse who didn’t talk to anybody) we got along and had fun. We swam occasionally in each others’ swimming pools and the kids played together. That was the extent of our “shared cultural heritage.” We were friendly and, in a pinch, we helped each other. The End. Oh yeah: there was a Jehovah’s Witness family on the short middle street of the U who none of the kids went to for Halloween because they only passed out Bible tracts, not candy. The family that started their own chocolate business was THE BEST!!!!

Dominos: Invokes some of the existential dread of the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the Red Scare of the 1950s.

This one is a slippery slope, combining real fears with imagined ones. Yes, anyone with half a brain was a little scared of Nikita Khruschev because he was hot-headed, fairly crude, and threatened to “bury” us. The Red Scare was unfortunately very real, and it included forces from within our own government. Read Whittaker Chambers’ book Witness and learn for yourself how deeply imbedded Communists were—even at the highest levels—from the early 1930s onward. Joseph McCarthy, who was supported by politicians on both sides of the political aisle (the Kennedys were staunchly loyal), actually did a pretty good job until he began drinking too heavily and let power go to his head. Nearly all those he prosecuted were indeed Communists. The Rosenbergs were guilty. Alger Hiss was really a Communist at the highest level of our foreign affairs (he engineered the Yalta Conference and convinced FDR to give half of Europe away to Joe Stalin). What led to McCarthy’s downfall was that combination of alcohol and ego.

With our history lesson over for now, on to the music, which is uniformly interesting.

1491 begins with flute over cymbals, leading into a strange, amorphous series of background sounds that resemble exotic birds and animals. This continues for about a minute and a half before the piano enters, playing a repeated riff in irregular meter, over which the various instruments come in. This has a definite Mingus kind of sound about it—think of Pithecanthropus Erectus. Trombonist Brian Drye plays a surreal, somewhat loping solo in the manner of Jimmy Knepper while the rhythm section works out behind him. A wonderful flute solo by Michel Gentile follows. I especially liked the licks that bassist Jim Whitney plays in the background.

Manifest Destiny also starts out of tempo, with flute and bass clarinet figures over irregular drum and cymbal beats. This one moves into a strange melodic line at a slow tempo, with the horns and winds playing together as a unit. I very much liked Jentsch’s orchestrations and good ear for tone color. This one somewhat resembles those “spacey” jazz compositions of the 1950s. Whitney takes a plucked bass solo, followed by a passage in which pianist Jacob Sacks adds his own commentary around Whitney, then an ensemble horn passage follows, with McGinnis following on clarinet (playing quite a bit in the high range a la Benny Goodman) as the tempo slows to a crawl. Things pick up again with Rigby’s soprano sax solo in double time, which leads to an explosive climax.

Lincoln-Douglas Debates starts out sounding almost like a Dixieland number except for its odd structure and irregular meter. This one is a string of solos and ensemble bits, with Rigby now on tenor sax, although there is another fine trombone solo and David Smith gets a look-in on trumpet, playing some wonderfully irregular figures over the rhythm section before Drye returns. The leader adds his own commentary on electric guitar, then Smith returns, muted, for a few bars. The tension builds when the trumpet returns, now unmuted, and the tempo picks up before a slower, out-of-tempo section that leads to some free-form jamming.

Tempest-Tost opens slowly and out of tempo before leading into a similarly slow melodic line played by the clarinet with interesting textures created in the orchestration. This is absolutely wonderful music of a kind I rarely hear nowadays. Rigby lumbers around in an amusing fashion on what sounds like a baritone sax, Jentsch wails for a while on guitar (but in a jazz-blues style, not necessarily a rock style); afterwards, the band sort of moshes around, but in an interesting way, over Eric Halvorsen’s busy drums and cymbals. A figure played by bass clarinet, flugelhorn, trombone and sax is heard next, followed by a bass clarinet solo with ensemble and percussion punctuation.

Suburban Diaspora has a funky sort of modern rock beat mixed with a little Latin feel, the ensemble playing another strange melody line as an ensemble, although there are brief clarinet and flute solos mixed in. Jentsch returns on guitar, this time picking his way cleanly but slowly in the upper range for the first half-chorus. Sacks almost sounds as if he is playing an old upright or a tack piano on this one, perhaps recalling those beat-up old keyboards that proliferated in school auditoria, church basements and even occasionally in firehouses in those old days. Gentile plays an excellent flute solo on this one, too.

Dominos builds from a slow, moody piano opening into a bitonal figure played by the trumpet and high winds, followed by equally strange piano figures that underscore the development. This leads into a sort of bluesy-funky-slightly rock styled solo by Jentsch, followed by yet another highly creative ensemble passage which does indeed invoke a creepy undercurrent of fear. Rigby’s tenor sax is busy and edgy.

The finale, Meeting at Surratt’s, recalls the arrest of Mary Surratt, at whose home the conspirators who plotted to kill Abraham Lincoln met. It begins, appropriately, with an almost military march-style drum solo before leading into its dolorous, minor-key tune, which is then worked out by the soloists and ensemble. Rigby is especially creative on tenor. Here, however, I felt that Jentsch’s use of a rock sound on his guitar was inappropriate.

Yet this is clearly one of the most creative and original jazz albums I’ve heard in this or any other year. I give it six fish!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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