Avant/Derriere-Garde

Randy Sandke finds the postmodern in New Orleans and the traditional in metatonal

Randy Sandke's Outside In is a sequel to 2000's Inside Out. Once again the trumpeter brings together perceived avant-garde (saxophonist and clarinetist Marty Ehrlich, trombonist Ray Anderson, and pianist Uri Caine) and derrière-garde (Ehrlich's opposite number Ken Peplowski, utility man Scott Robinson, and Sandke himself), with trombonist (and former Marsalis regular) Wycliffe Gordon and drummer (and Mel Lewis protégé) Dennis Mackrel representing the mainstream, and bassist Greg Cohen qualifying as non-partisan. There's an increased emphasis on composition this time around, beginning with Sandke's robust arrangement of an unrecorded Jelly Roll Morton piece from 1941 recently unearthed by Morton biographers. "Ganjam," named for a place in India and crawling with "exotic" rhythms and voicings, is multi-thematic, like practically all Morton. Sandke, whose discography also includes "lost" Armstrong and Beiderbecke, gives Morton a modernist makeover, streamlining one of his themes (or "strains," as Morton would say) into an ostinato. The end result is more Ellington than Morton; with its plungered brass and keening clarinets, it could be a missing number from The Far East Suite—a comparison I don't make lightly. Faithful to Morton or not, Sandke's arrangement is that fetching.

Outside In ends with an encore of "Ganjam," and this is where the surprise comes in—not the expected alternate take, but idiomatic Morton, based on his original score. Five minutes of pure delirium, beginning with Mackrel's gong and added starter Howard Alden's guitar jangle, and ending with Peplowski wailing over the full ensemble, it retroactively justifies Sandke's liberties on the first version—the Ellingtonian traits, including what sounds like a quote from "The Mooch," were already there in Morton. Raising the possibility that Jelly Roll, close to the grave and still smarting at being rendered passé by swing, was out to beat Ellington at his own game, "Ganjam" makes you rethink jazz history—which is probably just what Sandke had in mind.

Between "Ganjam"s are Sandke's retooling of Ellington and Strayhorn's two-piano "Tonk" as a clarinet showdown, one original each by Anderson and Ehrlich, and nine by Sandke. Discounting a comic throwaway redolent of John Cage and David Tudor and two failed program pieces representing Genesis and Revelation (with Robinson's contrabass clarinet as the voice of God), Sandke's are the work of a composer for whom avant-garde connotes a mind-set, not a style. He loves counterpoint and chromatics and call-and-response, deploying common devices to uncommon ends. "Raising Caine," a free-form piano concerto with hints of ragtime, traverses styles and eras while anticipating the soloist's responses, and "Ornette Chop Suey" is what the play on words implies—Armstrong mutated into free. "Two as One," featuring Ehrlich's quicksilver alto, is a kissing cousin to Ellington and Strayhorn's woozy, sensual ballads for Johnny Hodges, and Mingus's dissonant ones for Charlie Mariano. The more straightforward pieces, including a nominal blues, succeed in showing links between the postmodernists and the swing revivalists, the whole point of the album.

A left conservative
photo: Ed Berger
A left conservative

Details

Randy Sandke and The Inside Out Band
Outside In
Evening Star

Randy Sandke
Trumpet After Dark
Evening Star

Dick Hyman & Randy Sandke
Now & Again
Arbors Jazz

Randy Sandke and The Metatonal Band
The Mystic Trumpeter
Evening Star

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Because Sandke is too generous as a leader, allocating himself no more space than anyone else, the more conventional Trumpet After Dark and Now & Again give a better sense of his prowess as a soloist. Spotlighting him with a rhythm section and a string consort, the first of these is subtitled "Jazz in a Meditative Mood." Fortunately, this is misleading. Sandke knows ballads don't have to be slow, he's a master of the lost art of the medium tempo, and his writing for strings is sophisticated and modestly inventive. The song selection is inspired, with only "Monk's Mood" (a duet with pianist Bill Charlap), "Soul Eyes," and "Lush Life" tempting overfamiliarity. The rest is evenly divided between obscurities and Sandke originals, including a lightly swinging adaptation of a Chopin étude and a knockout called "Being Human," written while he was an undergraduate in the late 1960s—after a faux-renaissance opening that allows the violas to operate in their natural element, the tension mounts along with the trumpet bravura. Now & Again is an album of duets with the reborn Dick Hyman, and again, much of the charm is in the repertoire—only a trumpeter and a pianist steeped in history and absolutely sure of their place in it could take on "Weatherbird" without making you daydream of Armstrong and Hines.

The most ambitious of Sandke's four simultaneous new releases is The Mystic Trumpeter, which presents two extended, multi-sectioned works for small group, the first inspired by the Whitman poem and the second an attempt to follow the general outlines of a symphony using the language and instrumentation of jazz. Both grow out of an approach Sandke calls "metatonal." As near as I can make out from his liner notes and a recent exchange of e-mails, metatonal is Sandke's alternative to writing and improvising from standard chords and scales (as in bebop and modal) or bypassing harmony altogether (as in free). Although harmonically rooted, the system relies on four-note chords with half-step intervals that Sandke says "lie beyond the tonal system" and haven't yet been integrated into jazz.

As with Ornette's harmolodics and George Russell's Lydian Concept, all that matters in the end is whether the music packs an emotional wallop. Both pieces pull you in with their dark, obsessive, churning power. And Sandke, Gordon, pianist Ted Rosenthal, and Robinson (sticking mostly to tenor) demonstrate metatonal's legitimacy as a springboard for improvisation.

"My metatonal music strikes some people as cutting-edge and others as conservative," Sandke pointed out, going on to say that while his unusual approach to harmony could be confusing, he also risked being seen as "old hat" because of his insistence on melody and structure. "I like music that sings and speaks to the soul," he concluded. In The Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer, in sympathy with the youthful protesters marching on the Pentagon but appalled by how much they took for granted, declared himself "a left conservative." Not a bad tag for a trumpeter into both metatonal and Jelly Roll Morton.

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