Third Eye Jazz
In case you lack time, here’s the short version:
Four stars. Buy this CD. A mere $12.97 outlay promises frequently multiplying returns.
If you have some time to kill, read on:
Vivid visual images often highlight the force associated with big bands. The Thundering Herd is upon us and we tremble along with the very earth! The “Atomic Basie” mushroom cloud redefines an era in the history of sound waves. Sun Ra takes us to outer space on a rocket ride of freedom. Space is the shining place.
Where do we look and what place do we see when we listen to Morgan Powell’s big band jazz? My eye sees nothing out there. I think it’s the third eye that this music engages, deep inside the head. Despite its frequent magnitude and volume, it is essentially introspective music, and will trick only the inattentive or fearful into thinking it extrovert.
On this CD, the most vertiginous improvisations are embedded between or over passages of swingingest swing. Because, for Powell to “experiment” is to compose, simply. I, at least, detect no distinction. In composing, he uses everything available, without label, prejudice, or celebration. So swing, group improvisation, the voices of a string orchestra placed alongside a big band’s—all are equally brought to jazz. Powell is as deeply responsive to traditions and heroes of the past (“All Gone’s” homage to Bird, Dizzy, Miles) as to his private sources of invention, as available to conventions of beauty (“Reflections”) as to what will disturb some as being “chaotic.”
I find the “chaotic” passages of this CD the most affecting (as in “Volume XII,” or the opening of “Free Solo.”) There is a kind of primal fear—or, perhaps, awe—that affects me physically. When loud, up-tempo group improvisation begins, I feel pulled apart. My mind tries to pull me back to a center; it refuses the unhinging.
But the senses concentrate me. I work to grasp at the reality in this music: to hear, and so to steady myself in the emerging individual voices, to detect the sudden new way time exists. Concentrating, I perceive the disciplined, new order that the old has split open briefly to admit and reveal. I am an army of one, working as many fronts as it takes to follow as far out as I can. When the improvised passage ends and I float back into my usually compounded self, I seem to take up more room than I did before.
It would be self-indulgent to recount such a personal reaction in a review did I not think that it reflects something about the way Powell works. The eclectic combination of musical elements he wields will induce such heady moments. Not only does he create great sound, he scrupulously orders sound elements to make intense reactions available when they are unexpected or even resisted. Thus he composes in a large sense—composing, proposing, and suggesting to the listener possibilities for idea and emotion.
Helpful liner notes accompany the CD. Thomas Shabda Noor’s (a.k.a. Thomas Wirtle) director’s notes give excellent mooring for each of the works.
All the featured artists (who include among others Ron Dewar, Jim McNeely, Ray Sasaki, and Howie Smith) are in some way affiliated with the University of Illinois or North Texas State, members of a large friendship network of teachers, students, and colleagues that dates from the late ‘50s. The nature of that network makes it the harder to understand the oversight that leaves us without a personnel list for the U of I Jazz Band and Orchestra who perform here. It would be a service to listeners of this complex music, too, to know the Jazz Band’s instrumentation. One would also have liked to know for certain the dates of the compositions.
Others will write more about this CD qua music. I encounter the music as experience itself: as life event. I think that this may not be so idiosyncratic. This may be what Powell is about—music as a compact expression of his thought and feeling experienced in a particularly unified way.
Recorded music allows us to rehearse and understand certain experiences ever more thoroughly, or differently, or—come next year, knowing ever more of life—in greater depth and detail. We don’t often do that because composers and players don’t always extend compelling invitations.
The Morgan Powell Jazz Album does. Enter and you’ll come back and keep referring to it because it is so rich. It’s music that expands thought and experience. You’ll invest much more than a few dollars in this.