Thursday, October 18, 2018

Mark Masters Ensemble's Our Metier

While listening to trumpeter Mark Masters' new album, Our Metier, I started thinking about European influences in jazz and how to properly define them--a fool's errand, of course. Perhaps it's because of the impressionist painting on the cover, or Masters' propensity for using ethereal elements in his music such as voice and vibes, but these ten original compositions are dense and complex and moody and because of that they seem to be from somewhere else, somewhere more cultured. Masters is known for re-imagining the music of others into jazz idioms, most notably his adaptations of Steely Dan, but here he seems to be traveling abroad, at least in his mind, soaking his forward-thinking jazz in a sea of pastels.

That's the key here, colors, because that's what I hear when I listen to Our Metier. I'm not talking about synesthesia, of course, but the simple act of ascribing colors to moods. That apt cover was wisely chosen and sets those moods, and Masters has assembled what he calls a "free bop" large ensemble that can move and improvise in a way that highlights those natural and light-filled hues. There's a lightness to his music, the sense that everything is floating in space as one despite the focus on improvisation.

These impressions are mostly due to Masters' vivid arrangements, and his ensemble is unique enough to bring the composition and the execution together. He's enlisted two trumpets (Scott Englebright and Les Lovitt, a French horn (Stephanie O'Keefe), two trombones (Les Benedict and Ryan Dragon, plenty of woodwinds, including a bass clarinet (Kirsten Edkins and Bob Carr,. a piano (Ed Czach and thate ghostly, shimmering vibraphone (Craig Fundyga). That implies a horn-heavy presentation, which is certainly true at times, but that ethereal sheen levels the playing field so that the horn and woodwinds are balanced with the core sextet of soloists and the lovely, wordless vocals of Anna Mjoll. That's right, each track contains a solo from what Masters calls The Sextet: drummer Andrew Cyrille, bassist Putter Smith, trumpeter Tim Hogans and saxophone players Gary Foster, Oliver Lake and Mark Turner.

That's almost a big band right there, and at times it sounds like one. For the most part Our Metier has a much more intimate feel to it, however, a softer countenance that, despite all those horns, is smoother and lighter than you'd expect from such a large ensemble. For me this music offers only a passing resemblance to big band jazz--it is far more subtle and moody, and far more loose and exploratory. Perhaps that's why I keep thinking of this album as European in character--it seems to me that European big bands such as the WDR are far more willing to go beyond the boundaries of any particular jazz genre and give in to intuition. This is jazz from an impressionist master, with all those wonderful colors intact.

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