As has been observed here before, the newly renascent trend of augmenting a jazz group with a string section is a particularly welcome development – let’s hope more artists discover what Miles and Gil Evans knew decades ago. On this new album, saxophonist/composer/educator Jacam Manricks is the latest to utilize the approach, very innovatively and successfully. His inspirations come from all over – it’s obvious that he’s listened widely. With a forty-piece chamber orchestra featured on several of the tracks along with an inspired quintet including Manricks on saxes and flute, Jacob Sacks (of the excellent White Rocket) on piano, Ben Monder on guitar, Thomas Morgan on bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drums, the melodies here are strong, taking on an even greater intensity with the lushness of the arrangements.
On the cd’s opening cut, Portal, Sacks improvises upper-register rivulets as Manricks’ sax builds to a buoyant crescendo, the melody a variation on a Debussy theme. Microgravity begins gently, then the strings build over a martial beat evocative of Sketches of Spain (a motif that will recur even more evocatively later on). The orchestra swirls around behind a brightly reverberating Monder solo…and then a four-note pizzicato string motif echoes an earlier Manricks riff. Eerily ambient strings and sax end it on a suspenseful note. The title track builds on stately, sparse low-register piano intervals (fourths and seconds), much in the style of what Herbie Hancock and his contemporaries were doing in the late 60s, drums following and playing off the piano beat as Manricks adds balmy color.
The fourth track, Move has a pensive, tropical feel with acoustic guitar and soprano sax, down to an expressive, somewhat tense piano solo, Manricks maintaining the downcast intensity as the rhythm grows more complex. Cloisters, a somewhat epic number inspired by the popular uptown New York pre-Renaissance art museum/date spot and its lush, green surroundings, works around a bright, joyful theme – the bus has finally reached the end of the line, yay! With Aeronautics, the piano feels around as Manricks establishes the mood, glimmering quietly, through a Monder solo and then some of Manricks’ most poignant work here. March and Combat begins as an overt Sketches of Spain homage, its second half a pulsing Ravel Bolero-inspired chart. Aptly titled, the album’s concluding cut, Rothko is a hypnotic, static tone poem. This album is both cutting-edge and memorably tuneful – these are songs that will run through your head as you walk down the street. Watch this space for upcoming live dates.
Jacam Manricks has a fluid, fluent approach to the alto sax, but it’s his compositions which are his drawing card – and which may absolutely blow you away. Playing a mix of material mostly from his new cd Labyrinth – recorded with a 40-piece orchestra – the Australian-American composer and his quintet locked in on the songs’ intricate, often epic permutations with intensity and nuance. The bass and drums maintained a sinuous, practically minimalist pulse throughout some awfully tricky changes while pianist Gary Versace colored them with characteristic vividness and frequently outright menace. Perhaps because this was a five-piece playing big band music, the integral nature of the arrangements was especially striking, guitarist Ben Monder completing unfinished piano chords, or Versace doing the same in tandem with the guitar. Sometimes Manricks would do the same in tandem with the bass. Intelligence and imagination lept from the charts with agility and sometimes a wary apprehension.
Aeronautics, a bit of a latin shuffle with sustained, understated, reflective guitar saw Manricks taking a series of fluttery runs through shifting sections of the scale, Versace feeling around for his footing and eventually finding it, rich and ominous. The modal suite Microgravity was a full-scale masterpiece (one can only imagine how lush it sounds with the orchestra on the cd). Manricks opened it brightly, then bass and piano teaming up against guitar and sax, Monder hypnotic and eerie throughout a long series of quavery, reverberating chordal passages that recurred at the end, Versace practically microtonal with his starry, glimmering upper-register work. The cd’s title track, built on a richly melodic, interlocking architecture featured a playful conversation between Versace and the drums. They closed their second set with a new composition, simply titled 2-3-2 with a bouncy, staggered vintage Cuban beat, Manricks warily expansive over some Balkan-inflected changes to an insistent, intensely pulsing crescendo. One can only wonder where someone like Ivo Papasov could take that song. A jazz educator, Manricks doesn’t get the chance to play out as much as he no doubt would like to: if cutting-edge, out-of-the-box stuff is your thing, don’t miss the chance to see him.