Wednesday, February 09, 2005

The Shadowgraph Series

George Lewis/The NOW Orchestra: The Shadowgraph Series: Compositions for Creative Orchestra. Posted by Hello

It's Black History Month at HurdAudio. Time for a celebration of great music by African-American artists. Tonight it's George Lewis's 2001 recording of The Shadowgraph Series.

I had the pleasure of hearing these pieces live the same year as this recording. It opened my ears to the sonic world of George Lewis and solidified my enthusiasm for Lewis and the NOW Orchestra. This is a potent collaboration and a vibrant chapter in big band composition.

The New Orchestra Workshop is an unbelievably talented ensemble of Vancouver, British Columbia's finest improvising musicians. Individually I've been deeply impressed by the music of pianist Paul Plimley, cellist Peggy Lee, drummer Dylan van der Schyff and reedsman Coate Cook for some time now. And they're just a sampling of the caliber of creative players that make up NOW. Active since 1977, this band has achieved a virtuosic capacity for group improvisation. The sum is even greater than its already impressive parts.

The Shadowgraph compositions were originally composed in Chicago in the 1970s. Lewis takes over as band leader as he shapes the interpretation as an improvising conductor and at times takes a few solos on the trombone himself. The level of chemistry between Lewis and NOW is incredible. This is heady, dense musical material that swings like crazy.

Sonically, the Shadowgraph pieces present a shifting range of textures. Lewis skillfully keeps a soloist or small group of improvisers in the vocal point as a propelling force most of the time. There's a great blurring between through-composed material and improvisation that keeps things fluid. The resulting sound is modern jazz of orchestral dimensions. It's a near perfect balance between intellect and groove.

The Shadowgraph Series ends with an arrangement of "Smashing Clusters" from Lewis's solo piano composition "Endless Shout." I'm extremely familiar with the Sarah Cahill performance of that work from the Tzadik label's Endless Shout CD so I find the audible remapping of the piano material to large ensemble particularly satisfying. I would love to hear the other movements of "Endless Shout" arranged for large ensemble (particularly "Doing the Hicty Dicty"). But it serves as an extended encore as well. I can't think of a better, more energetic sound for big band music in the 21st century.

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