Monday, January 21, 2019

Mariel Austin's Runner in the Rain

"Every so often, an article appears in print or social media that ponders whether jazz is dead or just on its last legs."

So begins the press release for Mariel Austin's new album, Runner in the Rain, and my response is a mixture of "you're preaching to the choir" and "yeah, I said the same thing two years ago, before I wrote a few hundred contemporary jazz reviews." After expressing similar opinions about the future of jazz after reviewing a handful of jazz albums that were, in my opinion, ambitious enough to create some level of renewed interest, I've come to the humble opinion that jazz, in all its forms, is miraculously alive. Mariel Austin, a young trombonist and composer/arranger, has the right to call Runner in the Rain an ambitious project, a potential game-changer, so much so that you might instantly think about the new directions jazz might be taking in 2019 under this burgeoning leadership. She's certainly not the first person who has arrived on the jazz scene with such confidence, since youth is usually accompanied by new perspectives. But she's certainly hit the ground running, pardon the pun.

Runner in the Rain is an interesting and innovative new work, a mixture of big band jazz, rock and pop underpinnings and a sweeping tone that suggests a rhapsody even though there are five distinct sections. (In a curious aside, this is called an EP even though the entire piece last nearly 40 minutes--that's still an LP to us boomers.) She's enlisted her "compatriots" from the New England Conservatory of Music and the Berklee College of Music, where she was educated, into what she calls the Mariel Austin Rock-Jazz Orchestra. It's a unique collection of well over 20 people--not including the string section--who can shrink and expand according to her shape-shifting ideas.

Runner in the Rain winds up being remarkably different from most big band jazz recordings because of that ambition and because there is a lot of substance to uncover. (The title, for instance, is a reference to Watership Down.) First off, you can choose to absorb these five pieces as a whole or take them on one at a time. Choosing the former strategy is almost intuitive since there's a fluid quality to the themes, despite the shifting of the musical dynamics. On the other hand, Runner in the Rain is a collection of individual compositions, five distinct arrangements for big band that have been developed over time. "Mirrorshift," for example, was commissioned by the New York Youth Symphony, and some of you may recognize "Night Dreamer" as a Wayne Shorter composition. In certain parts Austin sings in her big, clear voice, and it's the voice of a skilled storyteller as well as another dimension to this work.

While her band is notable for its shared youth with Austin, and the collective old soul that is often projected across the stage, it's Austin who deserves extra credit for the sheer audaciousness of this project. She composed, arranged and produced this complex work--can you imagine the grades she must have received at Berklee and NEC?--she sings, she plays trombone and she even created the artwork on the cover. If this unbridled energy and imagination is the future of jazz, we have nothing to worry about.

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