CD Review: Jentsch Group Large – Cycles Suite
Composer/guitarist Chris Jentsch specializes in modern big band jazz suites. This is his third, beginning with the 1999 Miami Suite, continuing with the riveting, haunting 2007 Brooklyn Suite – a bonafide 21st century classic – and now with the even more ambitious Cycles Suite. If the Brooklyn Suite was Jentsch’s Dark Side of the Moon, this is his Wish You Were Here. Built around a ferocious four-bar phrase that begins as a horn motif and gets more and more intense as it takes on new shapes and voicings, the Brooklyn Suite careens like a stolen taxicab barreling along a potholed Atlantic Avenue of the mind at 4 AM. It’s all tension and suspense, and the central hook is a melody that ranks with the best of them: Jumping Jack Flash, the Bach Toccata in D, Black and Tan Fantasy and any other iconic musical phrase you can imagine. Following up such an accomplishment is always difficult. This one is even longer, but it’s considerably different – where the Brooklyn Suite was savage and reckless, the Cycles Suite is thoughtful and expansive, cleverly referencing its predecessor in its darkest, most pensive moments.
Jentsch owes a debt to both Steve Ulrich (of Big Lazy and innumerable film and tv soundtracks) and Bill Frisell. The opening cut here, Arrival is dark, skronky, distorted funk, sounding like Big Lazy with a horn section. The fifteen-minute second track, Cycle of Life is a suite in itself, shifting from languid and atmospheric into a tango, separated by a pointed tritone played by the horns. Home and Away, clocking in at almost twenty minutes has a similar architecture, opening with a jangly, pastoral Frisell-style guitar motif that melds with the band as they rise to a big, romantic crescendo, individual instruments lending their voices, fading in and out of the mix as the procession continues. Then a portentous echo of the Brooklyn Suite, Jentsch eventually taking over with an austere, round, slightly distorted guitar tone, the band working a comfortable Basie-esque riff evocative of neon, exhaust and maybe another round of drinks.
Darkness begins to fall with track four, Old Folks Song, the piano beginning it with a three-note chromatic hook straight out of Jentsch’s previous album, shifting to gritty reggae and then to wistfulness as the horns swell and fade. The delightfully titled Route 666, another mini-suite, kicks off with as much of a romping feel as an ensemble this size can muster, trumpeter Mike Kaupa pushing the revelry, such that there is. The rest alternates between quiet and skeletal and lushly ebullient, without any of the diabolical vibe alluded to by the title. The final cut, Departure brings back the suite’s two most resonant, poignant motifs and then lets them fall away somewhat abruptly yet aptly – after all, nobody gets to decide how they want to go out. In the big, lavish arrangements, the compositions’s often vividly melodic sensibility and some very inspired playing by an A-list of the New York jazz scene, there’s a lot to sink your ears into here. Headphones very highly recommended.
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