Justin Morell’s Fascinating Guitar Concerto

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MORELL: Concerto for Guitar and Jazz Orchestra: I. Lost, Found and Lost; II. Life and Times; III. Terraforming / Frost Concert Jazz Band: Adam Rogers, gtr; Russ Macklem, Michael Dudley, Aaron Mutchler, Greg Chalmson, tpt/fl-hn; Derek Pyle, Will Wulfeck, Eli Feingold, tb; Wesley Thompson, bs-tb; Tom Kelley, a-sax/s-sax; Brian Bibb, a-sax/fl; Chris Thomson-Taylor, t-sax/fl; Seth Crail, t-sax/fl; Clint Bleil, bar-sax/bs-cl; Bryan Kennard, fl; Jake Shapiro, pno; Josh Bermudez, rhythm gtr; Mackenzie Karbon, vib/glock; Lowell Ringel, bs; Garrett Fracol, dm; John Daversa, dir/cond / ArtistShare AS0169

Justin Morell, a guitarist who has a Ph.D. from the University of Oregon in composition and jazz performance and is presently an Assistant Professor of Music in composition and theory at Lebanon Valley College, had previously recorded six CDs as a leader. Preceding this release was Subjects and Complements, a collection of new pieces for a 10-piece jazz ensemble, which came out in 2013 (and which I have not heard). In order to record this work, Morell contacted John Daversa, a noted trumpeter, bandleader, composer and producer who is Chair of Studio Music and Jazz at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. Daversa assembled, rehearsed and conducted the band you hear on this album.

This particular work has only one drawback, and that is its brevity, lasting only 36 ½ minutes. Otherwise, it is an excellent piece in the genre of jazz-classical hybrids. It opens with a gentle, rocking figure played by the rhythm guitar with soft brass interjections which eventually coalesce into brief melodic fragments and then moves into a modal melodic line. The music is strongly reminiscent of some of the more advanced “third stream” experiments of the 1950s, and in fact Morell’s orchestral palette has a soft focus about it, emphasizing trombones, flugelhorns and reeds (particularly the clarinet and alto sax). Indeed, the solo guitarist’s line develops much like a theme in a standard classical concerto, but you don’t notice it so much due to all the activity of the surrounding orchestral figures. The use of 3/4 time also gives Morell a chance to work in a tempo only occasionally associated with jazz. As the movement progresses, the solo guitar, playing with a soft focus, stands out more and more as a solo voice while the orchestra again plays brief interjections around it as the tempo moves back to a standard 4. One of this piece’s few weaknesses is that the guitar “development” seemed to me to become repetitive, retreading much the same ground. Perhaps a more inventive soloist who can think outside the box could do more with it.

The second movement is a true Adagio with a broad yet elusive theme played almost in slow motion by the band. When the soloist enters, the theme becomes a bit more graspable to the ear, and here his development seemed to me more original and varied. I only wish the soloist were playing with more of an edge to his sound and more use of dynamics: I have little patience for these soft, lounge-styled jazz guitarists who flood the scene nowadays, and to be honest, the monotony of Adam Rogers’ bland sound, which has no emotional inflection whatsoever, is quite dull both in context and on its own terms. There is, however, a fine tenor sax solo in this movement that adds interest to the proceedings.

The third movement opens with the soloist playing double-time licks as a sort of “ground bass” before the trombones and reeds enter with a complex and interesting theme. Here the music takes on a very slightly funky sound, as both guitar soloist and ensemble play around with it, using some rising chromatics to heighten tension. Morell does a nice job, once again, of playing the reeds and brass off each other with unusual rhythmic figures, and soloist Rogers contributes to the structure with rapid eight-note figures of his own. This eventually becomes part of the development, and once again I felt that this section of the music was a bit too staid and not inventive enough. Perhaps that is something Morell can work on for future performances of this concerto. Interestingly, this circular rhythmic figure then gets worked out as a fugue for the band. The work then comes to an abrupt close.

All in all, then, an interesting experiment and one that I hope Morell can develop into even more interesting works in the future.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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