Listening: Schneider & Upshaw. Weiss Twice.

The next few Rifftides posts will be devoted to reviewing—or at least acknowledging—some of the hundreds of recent album arrivals that have given my mailman an aching back and made an obstacle course of the office and music room. My intention is to choose wisely among a bewildering profusion of mostly recent CDs by known, little known and unknown musicians and to keep the reviews reasonably short.

Dawn Upshaw, Maria Schneider: Early Morning Walks (artistShare)

Schneider, Upshaw CDMaria Schneider’s orchestral settings are for nine poems by Ted Kooser and four by Carlos Drummond de Andrade. The glorious American soprano Dawn Upshaw is the singer. The composer-conductor, the soprano and the work of the poets combine in a collection that is neither jazz nor classical but has elements of both. There is no use wasting time attempting to categorize this music.

Kooser (born in 1939) was poet laureate of The United States from 2004 to 2006. Drummond, who died in 1987, is often described as the most influential Brazilian poet of the 20th century. Their poetry uses plain language to tell simple stories saturated with universal meaning. Melding their own disciplines, Schneider and Upshaw interpret the poems to create new art. Whether by design in Schneider’s scores or by spontaneous inspiration, Upshaw uses repetition and variations on phrasing to create the feeling of improvisation. For example, here is Kooser’s “Walking by Flashlight.”

Walking by flashlight
at six in the morning,

my circle of light on the gravel

swinging side to side,
coyote, raccoon, field mouse, sparrow,
each watching from darkness

this man with the moon on a leash.

Upshaw enhances the fourth line’s rhythmic feeling by singing:

…”my circle of light on the gravel
swinging, swinging, swinging, swinging, swinging
side to side…”

In her orchestration of the piece, Schneider opens the score for improvised soloing by pianist Frank Kimbrough and obbligatos by clarinetist Scott Robinson and bassist Jay Anderson, the only members of Schneider’s orchestra to appear on the album. The subtle magic they achieve is typical of the rewards the album gives close listeners. The Australian Chamber Orchestra plays on the Kooser pieces, the St. PaulSchneider Upshaw 2 Chamber Orchestra on the Drummond.

Schneider prefaces the Drummond poems/songs with her composition “Prologue,” which Upshaw vocalizes wordlessly. Upshaw’s singing and Schneider’s writing for the orchestra create an effect not unlike that of Heitor Villa Lobos’s “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5,” although Schneider does not borrow from Villa Lobos. Her penchant for Brazilian music is evident as an undercurrent in the Drummond pieces, which she fashions as a suite. Her Brazilianism brings dramatic enhancement to the mélange of emotions in “Don’t Kill Yourself.” The music underlines and intensifies the poet’s celebrated amalgam of elegance and satirical humor:

Don’t kill yourself. Don’t Kill Yourself.
Save all of yourself for the wedding
though nobody knows where or if
it will ever come.

The delicacy, strength, surprise and rhythmic punch of Schneider’s writing for that stanza is a high point of the album. Upshaw’s evocative ability with lyrics provides others. When she sings “moon,” you see the moon. The inflection and color she gives “earthy,” makes you understand something about the Carlos of “Don’t Kill Yourself.”

This is not music that you’re likely to play at your next party, unless you invite no one but quiet listeners. It is one with which to sit alone and have before you the Kooser and Drummond poems in the booklets that come with this beautifully packaged CD.

In Brief

David Weiss & Point Of Departure, Venture Inward (Positone)
The Cookers, Believe (Motéma)

Trumpeter Weiss is a resourceful leader who forms groups that attract young musicians making a mark in jazz and older players long since established. His Point Of Departure quintet brings together the rising Venture INWARDtenor saxophonist J.D. Allen, guitarist Nir Felder, bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Jamire Williams. The band builds on the tradition of Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard and other mainstream figures while edging into avant garde territory. Their repertoire here includes pieces by Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill, Tony Williams and Charles Moore. Thirty-odd years ago, Moore wrote intriguing compositions for the nearly forgotten Contemporary Jazz Quartet. His “Number 4” stimulates a muscular, dancing solo by Allen and a reflective one by Weiss at his most Milesish. Curtis and Williams move everything along with surging power. Felder is a guitarist to keep your ear on.

Weiss’s septet The Cookers incorporates leading musicians over 50, although alto saxophonist Craig Handy only recently made it into that age group, and Weiss won’t until next year. Pianist George Cables, tenorThe Cookers saxophonist Billy Harper, drummer Billy Hart, trumpeter Eddie Henderson and bassist Cecil McBee are veterans seasoned by work with Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, Art Pepper, Joe Henderson and Max Roach, to name a few of the leaders who have employed these all-stars. Harper is formidable in solo on the opening “Believe.” Indeed, each of the soloists is consistently impressive. The ensemble is a wall of sound in Wayne Shorter’s “Free For All,” which is remarkable for Cables’ dancing solo. Weiss’s trumpet playing has developed impressively over the past decade. He more than holds his own with the formidable Henderson.

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