Jentsch Group Large's Cycles Suite: Living History
Mortality Play: Jentsch’s jazz suite explores the life cycle
by Michael J. West (Washington City Paper)
Posted: May 6, 2009
Jentsch Group Large
Fleur de Son Jazz
Chris Jentsch’s Cycles Suite, an extended work about the circle of life, caps off a trilogy that also includes the city tribute Miami Suite and the borough ode Brooklyn Suite. It makes absolutely no sense to group Cycles Suite with the two geography-themed releases that precede it, but it matters little that Jentsch is no J.R.R. Tolkien when it comes to crafting trilogies. His primary concern should be making good music, and Jentsch succeeds on that front with Cycles Suite. The six-movement, 75-minute jazz suite for Jentsch’s 17-piece progressive big band, Group Large, is as dense and rococo as a classical symphony, filled with intersecting themes and variations, as well as inspired improvisation. Cycles Suite has good tunes aplenty and the best recur throughout the work. The main theme from “Home and Away” is a bright, happy morsel for Jentsch’s sinuous, rock-inflected guitar that successfully conveys the hopes of youth; the waltzing “Old Folks Song” (frequently carried by bassist Jim Whitney) captures bittersweet wisdom. The reappearance of these melodies throughout the album underscore the piece’s cyclical concept: bits of “Old Folks Song” are audible in both the birth (“Arrival”) and death (“Departure”) sections and pieces of the cheery “Home and Away” creep into “Route 666,” only to be suffocated by that piece’s darkness and dissonance. Still, the dominant recurring motif of Cycles Suite is a loosely packed free-jazz chaos that Jentsch refers to as “The Void,” meant to represent the ethereal realms of existence: pre-birth, post-death, dreams. Soloists, who make regular appearances throughout the disc, anchor the tumbles of noise and offer a reminder that the players in jazz are often more important than what is played. Trumpeter Mike Kaupa is the star of the show, his clear, agile sound grant meaty solos and important thematic passages on every movement. The ensemble players are also crucial: Clarinetist Mike McGinnis adds pathos and intellect to the rumba “Cycle of Life,” and pianist Jacob Sacks’ background tendrils on “Home and Away” and Monk-ish chords on “Route 666” practically place the whole suite’s weight on his grand piano. It’s a tremendous, complex load to bear, but then so is Cycles Suite’s heady life-and-death subject matter. At times, it’s more complicated than it needs to be, and, with as many as seven pieces per movement, can border on exhausting. But it reveals Jentsch as a musician who possesses great skill and a sharp ear, if not the gift of linear thought.