A Composer Ascendant

Maria Schneider keeps her orchestra on its toes with works both challenging and sublime

Substantial reputations have been built on less than what Gerald Wilson, a veteran of the swing era and bebop's first wave, has achieved since turning 80 almost a decade ago. In jazz, there is no right way or wrong way: Whereas Schneider eschews section writing, the longtime West Coaster thrives on pitting brass against reeds, and it lends punch to even his sleekest charts on Monterey Moods, his third consecutive album fronting a stellar crew of New Yorkers (the trumpet section alone includes Jon Faddis, Jimmy Owens, and Terrell Stafford). Most of the album is taken up by the seven-part title suite, written in honor of the Monterey Jazz Festival's 50th anniversary. Organized around a three-note phrase (Mon-ter-EY!) that's put through nearly every conceivable tempo and style, from ballad to Latin, this ultimately isn't among Wilson's best recent work—what at first seems ingenious becomes merely repetitious once you figure out what's going on. But the individual movements are striking when heard one at a time, especially the opening riffer and a flute-y ballad somehow evocative of both '50s West Coast cool and '60s nouvelle vague. Moreover, Wilson has few peers when it comes to providing springboards for his soloists: Top honors here go to the unheralded tenorist Kamasi Washington and flutist Hubert Laws, who's made his compromises over the years but digs into Wilson's music with contagious élan.

Drummer Harris Eisenstadt's The All Seeing Eye + Octets broaches the subject of recomposition, which has lately become a genre into itself. The Original All Seeing Eye, from 1965, might be the least celebrated of Wayne Shorter's Blue Note albums, but it was also his most ambitious gambit as a composer, and the work most in touch with that era's mystically inclined avante-garde—his La Creation du Monde, ending with an ominous acknowledgment to Mephistopheles by flugelhornist Alan Shorter, the saxophonist's more daredevil brother. Eisenstadt reconceives the album's five heads as chamber works: without Shorter and Freddie Hubbard, this reinterpretation lacks the original's soloistic firepower, but makes up for it with dark, bruising interplay between Daniel Rosenboom's trumpet and three low reeds. If the presence of a bassoon inevitably recalls La Sacre du Printemps, the combination of bass clarinet, Chris Dingman's vibes, and Eisenstadt's drums reinforces this music's Blue Note origins, implicitly linking to Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch. And, in at least one instance, Eisenstadt comes closer to realizing Shorter's intentions than Shorter himself did: Given his proud musicianship, there was no way Shorter could bring himself to depict "Chaos," but Eisenstadt can. The original proceeded from a belief in what is now called "intelligent design," and could itself be taken by a believer as evidence of it. Eisenstadt treats it as an evolutionary work-in-progress, and it says something about his own promise as a composer that the pair of tumbling, three-part octets that complete this CD don't come as a letdown.

The Maria Schneider Orchestra performs at the Jazz Standard November 20 to 25, jazzstandard.net

Challenging, Nabokovian, and worthy of the pantheon
Jimmy and Dena Katz
Challenging, Nabokovian, and worthy of the pantheon


Maria Schneider Orchestra
Sky Blue

Gerald Wilson Orchestra
Monterey Moods
Mack Avenue

Harris Eisenstadt
The All Seeing Eye + Octets

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