David Sanford Prays for Lester Bowie

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SANFORD: Full Immersion. Subtraf. Woman in Shadows.+ # popit.# Soldier and the CEO. V-Reel.* RAGIN: A Prayer for Lester Bowie.+ # GILLESPIE-PAPARELLI: Dizzy Atmosphere# / David Sanford Big Band: Brad Goode or *Tony Kadleck, Tim Leopold, Wayne J. du Maine, Thomas Bergeron, Hugh Ragin, tpt; Mike Christianson, Jim Messbauer, Ben Herrington or +Mike Seltzer, t-tb; Steven Gehring, bs-tb; Raymond Stewart, tuba; Ted Levine, Kelley Hart-Jenkins, a-sax; Anna Webber or #Marc Phaneuf, Geoff Vidal, t-sax; Brad Hubbard, bar-sax; Dave Fabris, el-gtr; Geoff Burleson, pno; Dave Phillips, bs/el-bs; Mark Raynes, dm; Theo Moore, perc; Hugh Ragin, David Sanford, cond / Greenleaf Records, no number

David Sanford leads a 20-piece orchestra, but as you can see from the header above he has at least three subs who fill in for regular players when the latter can’t show up for a recording session. Formed in 2003, they have made several albums, although in toto he has recorded 24 albums (among them Pittsburgh Collective Live and Black Noise), won six Grammy awards and has one platinum and eight gold albums. Yet this is the first time I can recall hearing of him. One online source has suggested that he often “flies under the radar,” in part because he also writes classical and classical-jazz fusion works. My sincere apologies to Mr. Sanford for my not having heard of him before, because this album is a gem all around and apparently typical of the high quality of his output.

Of course, of the various influences in his music the only one I resent is that of rock music, which has about as much place in jazz or classical music as a football game, but I know this stuff is popular nowadays so I can’t blame him for going where the money is.

On this CD, however, he sticks pretty much to jazz, and particularly big-band jazz which is one of my favorite forms of it. Sanford’s use of harmony is sophisticated but rhythm is clearly the main focus in his music, and in the opener, Full Immersion, one hears the range of his aesthetic; the music has strong jazz and funk rhythms, mixed with some trumpet section overlays in a between-the-beats tempo. When the saxes come in, they are mixed with some brass to give them an unusual timbre. In the liner notes, Sanford made it clear that his goal was to capture a “raw”-sounding big band, a band with an edge to it. His own comparison was to some film scores of the 1970s, but it’s also clearly based somewhat on the edgier-sounding big bands of the past including the original Benny Goodman band, Dizzy Gillespie, and a bit of Stan Kenton.

As Full Immersion progresses, you can clearly hear that Sanford has a well-stocked musical mind: note, for instance, the very complex writing for the four trombones (three tenor trombones and bass trombone). Solos lean in the direction of contemporary jazz but, for the most part, do not go “outside” very often; this, too, is the selectivity of the leader, whose focus is on an integrated piece of music and not just a scream-fest. Echoes of modern classical music abound in this and other scores on the album, among them Stravinsky, Ligeti, even a touch of Penderecki. Full Immersion is clearly the appropriate title for this piece!

Fortunately, Sanford provides a bit of an emotional respite with the quiet opening of Subtraf, in which the bass trombone holds a pedal point while a muted trombone (sounds like a derby to me and not a cup mute, à la some of Duke Ellington’s trombonists) plays out-of-tempo extempore figures and members of the rhythm section (electric guitar and drums) fill in softly behind him. Eventually, other horns enter the picture, only to create ever more complex harmonies. Eventually, the electric guitar takes over, but although his solo is edgy it has more of a jazz-blues-funk quality to it than rock (thank God). Eventually, blues-funk guitar and plunger-muted trombone play opposite one another, and eventually you get that Ligeti-sounding orchestra come in behind them, slowly but surely creeping up in volume. Sort of a blues that becomes Nightmare on Elm Street, musical division (it sounds quite a bit like Charles Mingus’ Children’s Hour of Dream, another nightmare-like orchestral piece). Eventually, things quiet down as the solo plunger trombone rides things out.

Woman in Shadows folds a really attractive theme into Sanford’s unusual sound world. This one is reminiscent of some of the great “cool jazz” orchestras of the late 1940s or ‘50s, echoes of Claude Thornhill or Sauter-Finegan imbuing its structure and outer garb; even the alto saxophone solo by Marc Phaneuf has echoes of Charlie Mariano or Sonny Stitt. In many ways, this is a real old-school big band ballad, and here Sanford appropriately keeps his penchant for harmonic audacity under wraps. He does, however, suddenly let the trumpet section explode in one passage before bringing the volume back down.

With popit (all lower case) we return to an explosive big band sound; although the piece is clearly based on hip-hop, Sanford so changes the rhythm around that you’d probably twist your ankle trying to dance to it. Here, the trumpet solo is so much “outside” that it almost sounds as if the player was having a brain aneurism while performing, and the electric guitar does indeed lean towards rock, but near the end the tempo freezes and all hell breaks loose. Fortunately, Sanford understands that you shouldn’t keep this kind of intensity going for too long, and it ends before it becomes repetitive or too annoying.

Except for Dizzy Gillespie’s Dizzy Atmosphere, Hugh Ragin’s A Prayer for Lester Bowie is the only piece on the album not written by Sanford. After a lovely, lyrical a cappella opening trumpet statement, in come the Ligeti-sounding chords in a wonderful, original mixture of brass and reeds; then, the tempo quadruples as several musicians start improvising all at once in the spirit of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which Bowie was a founding member of. (I actually saw them perform in person once, oddly enough at the Chicago Art Museum in 1981, but at the time didn’t know who they were, but you certainly couldn’t forget a band that dressed in African garb and had white paint on their faces…except, of course, for Bowie, who generally wore a bloody lab coat.) Since I don’t have a booklet for this CD, I don’t know if Ragin or Sanford orchestrated this piece, but my money’s on the former. It just sounds too much like his work. This is also a multi-section piece where the tempo, themes and mood keep changing and shifting, a mini-suite if you will. I was much surprised to hear a frantic passage that sounded like a modern-jazz version of the old New Orleans polyphonic style, albeit with every musician improvising on his own wavelength rather than trying to keep the melody going. Then the tempo slows down, and once again we hear a plunger-muted trombone solo, this time with Ellington-sounding reeds behind him and, eventually, another plunger-muted trombone playing lower in its range as the first trombonist plays more softly in the background. A wild and creative piece!

Even though Sanford’s arrangement of Dizzy Atmosphere opens with some space-age harmonies, it stays relatively true to the original and again acts as a return to more conventional big-band jazz—except that the bass doesn’t swing, but rather maintains a very stiff, fast march-like beat. The trumpet solos (two of them, at least)) are virtuosic and recapture some of the excitement that Gillespie generated but do not match his genius as an improviser. Interestingly, however, we get a bowed bass solo towards the end that sounds for all the world like Slam Stewart.

Soldier and the CEO opens with an alto sax solo played so high in its range that at times it sounds like a clarinet. The late jazz clarinetist Frank Powers once explained to me that this is made possible by using an exceptionally hard reed, which gives the player greater control of the high range. At the 1:40 mark the guitar enters, very, very softly, eventually taking over from the alto as the band slowly but surely falls into place playing in hocket style. Two trumpets play atonal figures opposite one another, then two trombones do likewise as the tom-tom and bass drum is heard behind them, then the full band playing those wonderfully complex figures that Sanford knows how to create and make work. I could have lived without the crappy rock guitar solo, however.

V-Reel is a piece that Sanford recorded on one of his previous albums; it’s an interesting piece, built around bitonal and atonal harmonies with a complex and ever-shifting beat. It’s not the most original or complex piece on the album, but it ‘s dramatic and makes an effective closer.

Except for the disgusting guitar solo on Soldier and the CEO, then, this is a wonderful, interesting album of complex modern jazz with more than a little modern classical influence. Highly recommended.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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