Cycles Suite - Jentsch Group Large (Fleur de Son Records)
Guitarist/composer Chris Jentsch studied at the New England Conservatory and also holds degrees from the Eastman School and the University of Miami. His 17-piece big band, conducted on this recording by another large-ensemble leader, Darcy James Argue, features 5 reeds, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, piano, bass, drums and the leader on guitar. Trumpeter Mike Kaupa gets top billing of the musicians (alongside the leader) and takes the most number of solos but this is very much a group effort.
This is a concept recording, in this case, focusing on life between birth and death. One might think that using music to describe ‘life' might be way too abstract or contrived but, in Jentsch's mind and on composition paper, it's a whirlwind of emotions and actions. His soloists throughout are impressive, whether it be Brian Drye's exemplary trombone work on "Arrival", Mike McGinnis's impassioned clarinet flight on "Cycle of Life", Kaupa's bluesy contemplations on "Home and Away", or drummer John Mettam's quiet brush spot on "Old Folks Song." Jentsch himself lets loose several times including a long, boisterous, ramble over the reggae section of "Old Folks Song."
‘Section’ is an important word because not only is the entire CD a ‘suite' but also each track has several distinct sections (suites within the suite, you might say.) This is a 75-minute program yet it never drags. The longest piece, "Home and Away", is 19 and 1/2 minutes but there is so much detail. The intricate arrangement, the brass and horns moving in and out of solos and the subtle changes in the rhythm section, keeps the attention of the listener. "Route 666" opens in a rousing manner with fiery guitar licks leading in the horns who really build the intensity, then the rhythm slows and then drops into a walking bass line for a short time before firing back up. Then, just as quickly, the group moves into an out-of-rhythm phase, quiet, introspective and then the music moves on. The sections each get riffs to play over the rock-ish rhythm and then it's off to another mood and even more changes before the piece concludes.
First time through, Cycles Suite keeps one guessing. It's not as if Jentsch flits from change to change, mood to mood; most of the time, his works are logically constructed, with time for the soloists to say their piece and the sections to have time to comment. On further exploration, one can really hear how well the sections play, how their parts are so intelligently constructed. Then concentrate on how the rhythm section is so attuned to the shifting moods in the compositions. Neither bassist Jim Whitney nor pianist Jacob Sacks has a solo yet both are integral to the success of this recording, whether it's the bass anchoring the rhythm or the solid and inventive piano lines beneath many of the solos.
In the past few years, listeners have been blessed with a goodly number of big band recordings, from Maria Schneider's brilliant Sky Blue to John Hollenbeck's exploratory The Blessing, to the afore-mentioned D.J. Argue's Secret Society's Infernal Machines to Marcus Shelby's Harriett Tubman to Spirit Music from Bob Brookmeyer & The New Art Orchestra. Add this and the ones mentioned above to the list of recommended recordings.
Maybe, just maybe, bigger is better.
For more information and sound clips, go here.
- Richard Kamins (Hartford Courant)