By Dave Gregg
“Origin Suite,” the new jazz CD by drummer and composer Michael Waldrop, is a dazzling potpourri of diverse musical styles and aesthetics, a bold and ebullient example of how jazz forever revitalizes and remains infinite in its form of expression.
In my review of Waldrop’s previous album, his considerable talents were given the following mention:
Waldrop is the indomitable anchor of an ensemble, a master of kinetic energy who plays both authoritatively and with a rare symmetrical beauty.
With Waldrop’s latest outing, his sublime gifts have shown no signs of slacking.
This scrumptious stew of a recording, cooked at a slow burn and seasoned with the creative gusto and impeccable musicianship we’ve come to expect from Waldrop and his crew, features both small ensemble pieces and big band.
The stylistic journeys throughout Origin Suite range from jaunts into the high caliber fusion reminiscent of Weather Report, to Monk-inspired blues riffs and scorching Latin rhythms, all played with unwavering conviction by the ensemble.
Jack Cooper, the arranger of Waldrop’s previous album “Time Within Itself,” continues to impress as a gifted and influential writer for big band. His imaginative use of the human voice, expertly interwoven into the traditional sonorities of the jazz orchestra has created an exciting new palette of vibrant textures and tonal colors, a unique and dynamic soundscape that might best be described as — dare one say — Cooperesque?
An inspiring example of this is featured in the programmatic piece, “Origin Suite,” a joyous and free-spirited exhalation of what makes jazz fusion so feel-good and downright intoxicating.
Based on thematic ideas by Waldrop, Cooper sculpts this compositional clay into an astonishing work for jazz ensemble that juxtaposes the rhythmic horsepower of Waldrop, a human juggernaut on the drums, against the preternatural presence of Jimi Tunnel on voice and guitar. Listen to the way Tunnel vocally doubles ensemble lines in the falsetto — an extraordinary effect.
“La Jungla,” inspired by the surrealist paintings of Wilfredo Lam, the celebrated Cuban artist, bursts to life in a frenetic exchange of Afro-Cuban textures and exotic sounds, evoking images — if imagination allows — of Waldrop trading drumsticks for machete as he hacks through thickets of twisted vines in a tropical jungle. The primal drive of a walking bass line, the enduring heartbeat of this movement, clears a path and establishes the groove for the piece, leading to the funk-inspired first tune in the suite. Tunnel plays the searing guitar solo that threatens to burn everything down around him, including much of Cuba.
The second movement, “Nativite,” offers a harmonious contrast, with an aerial theme that seemingly soars above cloud-covered mountain peaks, the melody doubled by voice and vibraphone. Waldrop’s ruminations on the vibes near the end of the movement almost mirror the tonal quality of wind chimes, the aleatoric flutter of notes more the result of drifting currents of air rather than deliberate intention.
The final movement, “Al Final De La Noche,” is a breezy Latin tune that flies high for the duration, evoking images of palm trees swaying in tradewinds and tall glasses dew-dripped and teeming with Long Island Iced Tea.
A sprightly ostinato in the bass sets the piece in motion, with more vocal and ensemble lines paired in matrimony, suggesting new and inventive colorations to use when scoring large ensembles.
Cooper’s arrangement leaves plenty of room for Waldrop to demonstrate his rhythmic acuity and zen-like precision on the drums, and Mario Cruz rides the wave back to shore with a marvelous tenor sax solo, an effusive surge of tumbling notes amidst hints of ocean spray.
The suite culminates in an ecstatic vamp built off plucky tritone figures, lending an air of native magic to the mischief, followed by tonally ascending rhythmic sections in the ensemble. A stark and eerily provocative passage interrupts the anticipated climax, where the guitar intones seven solemn incantations — suggesting there’s a darker underbelly to the earlier airiness of the piece — before bringing the suite to an inevitable and exciting conclusion.
The lyrical “Through the Mist,” the first of the small ensemble works on this recording, is a gentle pastoral that prompts deeper contemplation and a willingness to flow with the harmonic landscape, evocative of passing clouds drifting overhead.
“Sheath and Sound” begins with tenor saxophonist Chris McGuire resurrecting hints of Michael Brecker, in a raw and well-played display of fierce inventiveness.
Inspired by the big band style of Gerald Wilson, this impressive composition by Jack Cooper provides an attractive vehicle for the large ensemble — the tune itself echoing the modal constructions of stalwarts like Woody Shaw. Again, vocals play a prominent role in the tonal shadings of the arrangement, aptly performed here by Marc Secura, a German recording artist with the Berlin Jazz Orchestra. Mike Steinel and Steve Synder take lively turns on trumpet and piano.
“Ivana” offers a cheerful contrast to the earlier proceedings. Composed by Waldrop and handsomely arranged by Jack Cooper, the work features an appropriately sunny solo by alto saxophonist, Will Campbell, played with taste and good spirit.
“Mouzon,” a composition by Jimi Tunnel, thrills at every turn with its high-octane propulsion and original vocal effects. Dedicated to the drummer, Alphonse Mouzon, the best of Weather Report echoes throughout this track.
Composed by Waldrop, “Doo Dat Tang,” a Monk-inspired big band feature with possible allusions to the enigmatic “Blue 7” by Sonny Rollins, turns the blues into something inscrutable yet surprisingly compelling. Saucy solos follow, played by Larry Spencer, Tim Ishii, Greg Waits, and Tony Baker. The ensemble writing by arranger Gerald Stockton features a slick sax soli, sparsely voiced and with snatches of lines in contrary motion, along with intriguing ensemble passages barren of traditional harmonic flourishes, but brought to life by stark and jagged tonal columns — with no apologies made for how hard it all swings.
“Belgrade” features Waldrop on vibes in another classy arrangement by Jack Cooper. The delicate and pensive melody bears qualities similar to Pat Metheny. The tonal colors throughout, which include touches of guitar, soprano sax, and vibes, are the perfect seasoning for this enchanting piece. Special mention goes to the fabulous soprano saxophone solo by Travis Ranney, a finely modulated expression of tone and melodic craftsmanship.
Perhaps the most effervescent piece on the recording, “Vasconcelos,” an Afro-Brazillian confection, delights from start to finish. A lovely Waldrop composition, the tune features a beautiful array of percussion parts, from hand drums, berimbau, cuica to bells, shakers and even a birdcall or two –all played with exquisite taste by Brad Dutz. John Hansen and Scott Steed enrich this Brazillian atmosphere with solos on piano and bass; Larry Panella contributes the lush flute tones.
Funk-drenched and unabashedly hip, “Doppler Effect” nods to the irrepressible recordings of the Brecker Brothers during the mid-70s, exemplified by popular tunes such as “Rocks” and “Some Skunk Funk.” Composed by Gerald Stockton, the arrangement, in all its mercurial charm is fiendishly difficult to play, with fast chromatic lines extending into the upper register for the brass. Still, with multi-tracking for added security, the band performs the most demonic passages with a level of perfection that must be heard to be believed, a truly herculean effort. Scott Whitfield, one of the ringers in the ensemble and a commanding musical presence, takes the blistering trombone solo in the Latin section.
“Still Life” concludes the recording with another small ensemble venture, featuring Waldrop back on vibes. This agreeable amalgam of small group pieces opposite the large ensemble arrangements works extraordinarily well. There’s a balance achieved, both emotional and intellectual, where each track seems perfectly tempered to reward the listener with an aural experience that’s fulfilling and memorable. What more could one ask from a great recording?
Samples from Origin Suite:
Track Listing for Origin Suite:
- Origin Suite
- Through the Mist
- Sheath and Sword
- Doo Dat Tang
- Doppler Effect
- Still Life
Saxophones: Will Campbell (Lead), Tim Ishii, Mario Cruz, Chris McGuire, Paul Baker
Trumpets: Keith Jourdan (Lead), David Spencer, Larry Spencer, Mike Steinel
Trombones: Anthony Williams (Lead), Tony Baker, Greg Waits, John Wasson
Piano: /Organ: Steve Snyder
Guitar: Jimi Tunnel (1-3); Noel Johnstone (5,6,8)
Bass: Jeff Plant (elec. 1-3); Lynn Seaton (acou. 5, 6, 8)
Drums/Vibraphone: Michael Waldrop
Percussion: Jose Rossy
Travis Ranney – saxophones (9,11)
Richard Cole – saxophones (9,11)
Stephan Friel, saxophones (11)
Dan Marcus – trombones (9)
Brad Allison – trumpets (9)
Larry Panella – flutes (10)
Noel Johnstone – guitar (5,6,12)
Brian Monroney – guitar (9,11)
Barry Aiken – keyboards (11)
Rick White, electric bass (11)
Scott Steed – bass (9,10)
Scott Kinsey – keyboards (7)
Wayne Peet – piano (12)
John Hansen – piano (4,9,10)
Brad Dutz – percussion (4,9,10,12)