Richard Nelson Large Ensemble: Pursuit (2011)
Brooding, ECM-like soundscapes and thick, tense harmonies predominate on Pursuit, from Maine-based guitarist Richard Nelson. A student of avant-garde composers Donald Erb and Mario Davidovsky, and a core member of Mark Harvey's Boston- based Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, Nelson takes a few cues from these experiences, and adds more than a few of his own, to come up with a distinctive synthesis of modern jazz, and contemporary orchestral music.
Not surprisingly, Nelson is an ambitious and daring composer and there's a lot going on here. "Portal" revels in brooding Euro-centric avant-garde tendencies, eventually taking off on a free jazz trajectory. The somewhat more conventional "Search" benefits from some exceptionally slinky rhythm section work before the piece climaxes amidst a collision of orchestral crescendos and fanfares. By contrast, "Azure" dabbles in an almost Charles Mingus-like approach to the blues. "Strive" opens with strings and flute waxing Schoenbergian, swapping lines with the horn section over a politely swinging rhythm in anticipation of Nelson's fine guitar solo. The CD's final two tracks are played by Nelson's quinteta subset of the Large Ensembleand are less agitated, though no less intricate, and borrow heavily from the mellow-yet-intellectual 1970s ECM ethos.
While none of the players may be familiar to those outside of Maine's jazz and contemporary music scene, do not be fooled: Nelson's ensemble is far more than a well-drilled student band. Several members, particularly saxophonists Pamela Jenkins and Tim O'Dell, and trumpeter Don Stratton are fearless improvisers with mature, fully formed styles. Props go to Nelson for letting the members of his ensemble have most of the solo space, though his guitar solo on "Strive" leaves a hunger to hear more. Perhaps the most radical thing about Pursuit, other than Nelson's knotty, innovative charts, is that its first five tracks are presented as a suite, with the band moving seamlessly from one track to the next. This is all the more impressive, considering that Pursuit is a live recording.
Perhaps the only negative thing that could be said about this CD is that the rather flat, dimensionless live recording quality does little to serve the band's varied and diverse instrumentation. Nor does it really support the potential sonic impact of Nelson's complex, multilayered, orchestral-scale compositions. Though the ensemble features a string section, they never really penetrate the phalanx of horns and drums. Bassist Cassidy Holden is only intermittently audible throughout. Nevertheless, Pursuit offers a scintillating glance of what's going on in the creative music scene outside of the United States' major metropolitan areas.
Track Listing: Portal; Innocence; Search; Azure; Strive; Abol Stream; Stillness.
Personnel: Richard Nelson: guitar; Bill Moseley: flute; Tim O'Dell: alto and soprano saxophones; Pamela Jenkins: alto saxophone; Frank Mauceri: tenor saxophone; John Foss: trumpet; Don Stratton: trumpet; Sebastian Jerosch: bass trombone; Anita Jerosch: bass trombone; Jon Luoma: viola; Moira Wolohan: cello; Cassidy Holden: bass; Steve Grover: drums; Russ Lombardi: conductor.
Record Label: Heliotrope