The Phil Dwyer Orchestra Sweeps Through the Seasons
The cover of the Phil Dwyer Orchestra’s new album, Changing, depicts what looks like the storm from hell barreling down the highway, the one that Pierre de Gaillande warned about. Which on one hand is what you might expect from a bunch of Canadians. Just as Vivaldi did, composer/multi-instrumentalist Dwyer’s four-part suite follows a seasonal trajectory here, beginning with Spring and taking it all the way through to when that hellish storm would be most likely to hit. Is this classical music or jazz? It’s both, sometimes both at once, it’s absolutely gorgeous and it gets better as it goes along. When’s the last time you heard an entire almost 40-piece orchestra play a sweeping, majestic crescendo in 10/4 time?
Throughout the album, violinist Mark Fewer is the featured soloist: he’s a good choice, foreshadowing the main theme with a sly quote from Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. Fewer and pianist Chris Gestrin bring it in austerely and bracingly. From there the orchestra rises and falls, majestically and lushly, with big, ambitious Gil Evans-influenced charts, through a bucolic, Turtle Island Quartet-style dance, many artful exchanges of voices, hints of the blues as the brass rises and finally a bright, brisk Gestrin solo. As many ideas as there are here, they’re orchestrated, and articulated by the ensemble, with a seamless and joyous precision.
Summer is a nocturne, and a somewhat nostalgic one. Fewer channels contentment, but Dwyer’s tenor sax solo cleverly avoids anything resembling that, serving and dodging and doing anything to avoid resolution until he finally hits it head on and hands it off triumphantly to the clarinet. From there, the orchestra emphasizes its warm buoyancy as a jazz waltz.
The charts for Autumn are to die for, a model of restraint with distantly swirling and sweeping strings, lingering brass, counterintuitive Jon Wikan drum breaks and a trick ending. The bass introduces an insistent, bolero-tinged theme that Fewer uses as a launching pad not for bittersweetness but for incisive contemplation. This isn’t a requiem for a more blissful past – this is bliss, if a soberly aware one, seizing the day as it comes along. Likewise, Winter whispers in with tinkly piano and distant swirls of strings, and then gets funky, then goes swinging, Fewer introducing a characteristically thoughtful, pensively fluttery Ingrid Jensen trumpet solo. For Canadians, winter isn’t a death metaphor: this is when the fun really starts, and Dwyer winds up the suite with a vigorous ebullience as Fewer sails overhead, austerely but approvingly. There’s so much more here that would take pages to chronicle: from here, the joie de vivre is all yours. Count this is as one of 2011’s best and most emotionally rewarding albums in any style of music.
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