By DAVE GREGG
Time Within Itself, Michael Waldrop’s first big band CD, is a joyous, rip-roaring ride that charts a rollicking course through diverse musical styles, ranging from jazz fusion to the very best of big band jazz.
At the helm on drums, Waldrop is the indomitable anchor of the ensemble, a master of kinetic energy who plays both authoritatively and with a rare symmetrical beauty. Creating a rhythmic force that is high-octane yet beautifully measured is a tall order for any drummer, but Waldrop miraculously sustains this virtuosic energy throughout the entire recording. A talented composer, as well, he wrote or co-wrote six of the eight tunes on the project, and beautifully plays the vibraphone on three of the tracks.
Jack Cooper, a gifted musician and composer in his own right, arranged the music on this project, co-writing two of the tracks with Waldrop and a couple originals of his own. His own critically acclaimed CD, Mists: Charles Ives For Jazz Orchestra, now available on Planet Arts, was released last year. Cooper’s dazzling arrangements on this session, brimming with originality and inventiveness, unquestionably establishes him as a writer of big band jazz destined to make a mark.
In El Vino, the first track on the CD, Waldrop pays tribute to the great jazz drummer, Elvin Jones. Echoes of early Coltrane permeate this medium groove, an extended blues form that revives the hard bop style once celebrated in the Blue Note recordings from the 60s. The tenor sax soloist, Larry Panella, who earlier in his career performed with Woody Herman and The Phil Collins Band, almost sets the studio on fire with his scorching tone, torrid runs, and blazing vaults into the altissimo.
Tunnell Vision, a standout on the session by its sheer energy alone, features the impassioned electric guitar and wordless vocals of Jimi Tunnell, former member of the group, Steps Ahead. When Tunnell’s epic incantations roar in your ears for the first time, bigger than life and almost operatic in intensity, you immediately realize this is not your typical big band recording. Tunnell Vision is so infused with infectious energy that at some point the music transcends the boundaries of structure and form and becomes nothing but pure energy. Cooper’s electrifying arrangement helps stem the frenetic demands of this fusion tune, adding sock and sizzle to the ensemble when needed, with the proceedings relentlessly driven home by the transcendent drum work of Michael Waldrop.
In Time Within Itself, the title cut, an elegant and diaphanous waltz that alludes to the best of Bill Evans, the music seems to glide along serene waters on a summer afternoon. The breezy, easy-going quality of the piece never ceases to delight, and the immaculate piano artistry of Steve Snyder just adds to the sunny character of this affable work. The alto sax solo, light and winsome, comes from the tasteful musings of Will Campbell, who leads the saxes in this session. Composed by Waldrop, the tune has the makings of a future jazz standard and will probably be widely recorded by other musicians. In the ingenious ways that have become a hallmark of his writing, Cooper’s arrangement exquisitely builds on the melodic material, snatching beautiful fragments from the song as if he’s catching butterflies in a net.
Munich Musings, a samba-like, straight eighth note groove with its lilting melody and yearning chord progression, unfolds amidst jagged rhythmic figures that intermittently disrupt the flowing line like modern skyscrapers translated into sound — but all to good effect. The invigorating percussion of Jose Rossy, of Weather Report fame, is on full display here, and trombonist Greg Waits and Mike Steinel on trumpet both craft memorable solos.
Inner Truth highlights the warm vibraphone playing of Waldrop, in a lovely slower piece that also features sensitive turns by Larry Panella on flute and Mike Steinel on flugelhorn. Cooper’s deceptively simple arrangement enchants with a lushly voiced introduction by the ensemble, as soft and delicate as the skin of a newborn. Written by Waldrop, this charming work offers a gentle reprieve before the coming storm of the remaining tracks ahead.
In Vistas, another effusive outpouring that encapsulates the best of fusion and contemporary jazz, Jimi Tunnell returns to continue his soulful dialogue. Composed by Jack Cooper, this charismatic work begins with a sprightly a cappella introduction by the ensemble, followed by the spirited main theme played by Tunnell that’s doubled an octave above by the ethereal vocal stylings of Susan Dudley. Larry Panella plays the commanding tenor sax solo that leads to the final climatic moments. A work reminiscent of Weather Report or The Brecker Brothers, Vistas is one of Cooper’s most emotionally expansive outings, with the ecstatic ascending line of the ending ultimately reaching to heights unknown. Some purists may find the forays into jazz fusion objectionable, but to his credit, Cooper brings his uncompromising standards to all styles of music, creating sophisticated compositions that are both intellectually and emotionally sound — a criteria for all great music.
The intriguing Her Moon Rises East, another composition by Cooper that features Tunnell, begins with a rhythmic figure reminiscent of Golson’s Blues March, before segueing into the more contemporary material in three-quarter time. At first written for a failed ballet, the work has a through-composed feel, allowing for evocative passages in the ensemble writing by Cooper that explores textures and colors not often associated with the big band.
Twisted Barb, a straightforward uptempo swing tune written to feature the drum work of Waldrop, concludes the recording. Cooper’s inventiveness with the linear line comes to the forefront here, as he weaves a brilliant mosaic of contrapuntal passages like a crazy quilter that’s traded in his sewing needles for an armful of musical scales. Later, in a series of solo passages between the drums and the band, Waldrop demonstrates true finesse, with masterful playing that is muscular and powerful yet capable of subtle touches that suggest soft drops of rain pelting panes of glass. In short, the incredible artistry of Waldrop’s performance — on this track and throughout the rest of the CD — is nothing short of remarkable.
Remarkable is also a fitting summation for the creative collaboration between Michael Waldrop and Jack Cooper, whose formidable talents breathed life into the music on this project. With the expiration date on big band recordings growing closer — according to some naysayers — Waldrop’s Time Within Itself offers a welcome extension, reinvigorating the genre with a unique juxtaposition of musical styles that blends the best of the present with the best of the past. In the end, though, the simple joy of creating remarkable music overrides everything else, and that is what you find in abundance on this recording — remarkable music.
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- El Vino
- Tunnell Vision
- Time Within Itself
- Munich Musings
- Inner Truth
- Her Moon Rises East
- Twisted Barb
Will Campbell (Lead) – alto, soprano, clarinet, flute
Tim Ishii – alto, clarinet, flute
Larry Panella – tenor, soprano, clarinet, flute
Chris McGuire – tenor, clarinet
Paul Baker – baritone, bass clarinet
Keith Jourdan (Lead)
Anthony Williams (Lead)
John Wasson – bass trombone
Chris Derose-Chiffolo – guitar (1,3,4,5,8)
Carl Hillman – bass
Steve Snyder – piano
Michael Waldrop – drums, vibraphone
Jose Rossy – percussion (2,4,5,6,7)
Chad McLoughlin – additional guitar (3)
Sandra Dudley – vocals (6,7)
Jimi Tunnell (electric guitar)