The United Women's Orchestra: Virgo Supercluster (2002)
This is the third album by the cutting-edge United Women’s Orchestra of Cologne, Germany, and as before, one of the most daunting tasks facing a reviewer is describing the music therein. If distilled into a single word, that word would perhaps be “adventurous,” although “expansive” would certainly apply, as would “captivating” or “passionate.” Maria Schneider, a rather impressive composer / arranger in her own right, summarizes her thoughts in the liner notes: “[Co-directors] Hazel Leach and Christina Fuchs have contributed exciting and creative new music full of intricacy and beauty, and it is presented by stellar players.” Indeed they have, and indeed it is.
Taking their cue from Schneider and such other pioneering orchestrators as Ellington, Gil Evans, George Russell, Carla Bley, Julius Hemphill and others, Leach and Fuchs have outdone themselves again to produce the orchestra’s finest recording to date, one that is appreciably enhanced by the presence (on three selections) of guest trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. The UWO seems to acknowledge no boundaries, nor do the restless imaginations of its co-leaders (one of whose compositions, Fuchs’ “Virgo Supercluster,” is a six-movement homage to the universe!). Fuchs also wrote “Shadow and Light” and “Lost One,” Leach the others (“Sweet for Evie,” “Cerasarda,” “À la Mode” and the three-part Shakespearean motif, “Double Trouble”). “Sweet for Evie,” with its echoes of “Chelsea Bridge,” is Leach’s tribute to Ellington, who said that music was his mistress, and to the women who were forever relegated to second place in his life. “Cerasarda,” written for the Blue Note Big Band of Sardinia, is a polyphonic essay inspired by the vocal music of the “Tenores di Bitti,“ while the rhythmic “À la Mode,” Leach writes, “sums up several of the musical ideas [she has] developed in recent years.” Fuchs composed “Shadow and Light” as an expression of “complementary opposites [that] are all around us,” and “Lost One” to convey the pain and loneliness that ensues when love and beauty have vanished.
Jensen’s muted trumpet and Fuchs’ picturesque soundscapes enkindle memories of Miles Davis / Gil Evans on “Shadow and Light,” which includes brisk solos by trombonist Annemarie Roelofs and alto saxophonist Corinna Danzer. Trombonist Viola Engelbecht, trumpeter Hermine Schneider and clarinetist Meike Goosman are featured on the placid “Sweet for Evie,” tenor Marie-Christine Schröck on the harmonically elaborate “Cerasarda.” Vocalist Céline Rudolph, sounding early on like a Japanese or Native American psalm-singer, makes her first appearance on “Supercluster,” which opens, as one might expect, with the turbulent “Big Bang” before giving way to “The First Glimmer of Dawn,” “Crescent Moon,” “Orion Nebula,” “Silent Room” and “Man on Mars.” Other solos are by Schneider, Goosman (on soprano sax) and bass clarinetist Silke Eberhard. Rudolph’s heavy breathing introduces the mournful “Lost One,” on which she, Jensen and Danzer are the soloists.
The three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth inspired the suite “Double Trouble,” which opens quietly behind Eberhard’s bass clarinet and builds to a dramatic climax with solos to match by pianist Julia Hülsmann, bassist Ulla Oster and drummer Caroline Bigge. Fuchs (tenor sax) shares blowing space with Jensen and Bigge on “À la Mode,” which closes the album on an upbeat note. As conceded earlier, Virgo Supercluster is decidedly cutting-edge and may not be everyone’s cup of tea. On the other hand, it is as deliciously seasoned and easy to swallow as such music can be, and those who consume each of its seven courses should find their craving for solid music that assuages one’s appetite more than amply rewarded.
Track Listing: Shadow & Light; Sweet for Evie; Cerasarda; The Virgo Supercluster Suite (Big Bang / The First Glimmer of Dawn / Crescent Moon / Orion Nebula / Silent Room / Man on Mars); Lost One; Double Trouble (Hubble Bubble / Toil and Trouble / Hurly Burly);
Personnel: Hazel Leach, Christina Fuchs, composer, arranger, co
Record Label: JazzHausMusik
Style: Big Band