Like Brahms and Bartók late in their careers, Bob Brookmeyer has achieved increased profundity by clarifying his musical palette. The tensions and conflicts that continued to roil his compositions as he emerged from a period of electronics and experimentation in the first half of the 1990s may not be gone, but if they linger they do not dominate.
Spirit Music, Brookmeyer’s new recording with his New Art Orchestra, includes moments that recall his advanced mainstream writing in the 1960s for the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. “Silver Lining” does that. Brookmeyer’s splendid solos on that ebullient piece and the reflective “Alone” leave no doubt that he is still the leading valve trombonist of his time.
On the CD’s five additional tracks, he lays his horn aside and speaks through new compositions for his eighteen-instrument ensemble. “Silver Lining” may suggest the harmonic structure of “Blue Skies,” but his other pieces are compositions in the full sense–not dependent on pre-existing chord patterns or on riffs, but arising from one of the most original minds in the eight-decade history of big jazz band writing. Titles like “New Love,” “Dance For Life” and “Happy Song” indicate that Brookmeyer’s psyche has taken a turn toward tranquility. The music reflects that greater ease, but it has the gravity of experience and wisdom. Brookmeyer approaches his 77th birthday next month with his insights sharpened and his creativity expanding.
The members of the New Art Orchestra, most of them Europeans, all of them supremely talented, “phrase and interpret my music perfectly,” as Brookmeyer puts it in his album notes. Among the impressive soloists are trumpeter Ruud Bruels and tenor saxophonist Nils van Haften. In “New Love,” van Haften creates a dreamy tenor saxophone solo that suggests he is a direct descendant of the Stan Getz of “Early Autumn.” But all of the solos, including Brookmeyer’s own, are in the service of his writing, which has deep textures, pulses with subsurface rhythms, and reflects a passionate soul.
When listeners consign art to categorical boxes, they achieve not exclusivity but exclusion. If they eschew Brookmeyer’s recent work on grounds that it is not jazz as they define it, or as he used to play and write it, they turn their backs on the larger world of music in which he lives, and they miss great satisfactions.