Jazz at Lincoln Center Leaves the World Behind

“Sherman Irby’s Musings of Cosmic Stuff,” a new extended work for big band presented this past week at Jazz at Lincoln Center, is a team-up between the most famous man in jazz, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s artistic director, Wynton Marsalis, and perhaps the most easily recognized name, face, and voice in all of science, Neil deGrasse Tyson. It’s a collaboration presided over by a saxophonist, composer, and arranger, Sherman Irby.

In the last few years especially, Jazz at Lincoln Center has grown very international — last year there were jazz-fueled voyages through the music of Pan America and the Middle East, as well as a singularly excellent concert spotlighting Duke Ellington’s travel-inspired creations. Now, JALC is taking it a step further and leaving the world behind to travel through the far-flung reaches of international space.

The title conveys the overall wittiness of the music: “musings” and “cosmic” are very serious terms, but “stuff” is casual and informal. Previous jazz musings of cosmic stuff have often tended to be as deadly serious as a science class. John Coltrane’s “Venus and Mars” is far from the most light-hearted piece of music that the jazz messiah ever composed, but conversely some of Sun Ra’s astral voyages have allowed for levity.

Much interstellar jazz finds its point of departure in 1960s avant-garde and free music, but Mr. Irby grounds his compositions in familiar turf: swinging flag wavers, ballads, and blues, the kind of music that big bands have done best for a hundred years now.
Nearly every subsection of the suite has a clear-cut sound and identity: “Movement I: The Prime Singularity (aka the Notorious CMB)” is an explosive big bang of a big band opener. “Movement II: The Nuts and Bolts of Matter” employs exotic sounds in a tropical, Latin style. “Movement VII: A Long, Raging Goodbye” opens like a spiritual, with Ted Nash soloing on alto saxophone before the rest of the saxes, then the entire band joins in like a collective prayer. “Movement V: Waltz of the Silver River” is, as the title implies, in an understated 3/4.

During a pre-concert Q&A with JALC’s Caleb Smith, Mr. Irby talked about how he prepared to compose the work by reading as many books on astrophysics and cosmic stuff as he could get his eyeballs on. Through both the music and the narration, Mr. Irby makes references not only to science but to spirituality and literature, in that the title of “Movement IX: The Evidence of Things Not Seen” is a reference to the Old Testament as well as to James Baldwin.

At other points, he paraphrases T.S. Eliot’s iconic line, from “The Hollow Men,” about the world ending “not with a bang, but with a whimper.” When Mr. Tyson tells us, “It’s not only that we are alive in the universe, the universe is alive within us, we are stardust brought to life, and empowered by the universe to figure it out, and we’ve only just begun,” we can’t help but think of popular songs by the likes of Hoagy Carmichael, Joni Mitchell, and yes, the Carpenters.

The first half concludes with “Movement VI: The Spherical Universe of the Drum.” It’s become a tradition to end a jazz set with a percussion solo, but this is much more: It starts with a persistent, African-sounding beat played by drummer Obed Calvaire, over which Vincent Gardner’s muted trombone and the composer’s alto sax chase each other. Then, he truly gives us what we least expect, a capsule history of jazz that starts with a 19th century-style march inspired by John Philip Sousa.

Having time-warped us back to about 1900, the march theme is heard again in the jazzed-up style of early New Orleans bands, now in a jaunty two-beat with clarinetist Victor Goines evoking George Lewis and Mr. Marsalis summoning the ghost of Bunk Johnson. From there we modulate forward to the swing era, and the work becomes a Fletcher Henderson- style swing number, with brass and reeds interacting in call-and-response fashion, and a big-toned tenor saxophone solo by Abdias Armenteros.

Like the characters in Ovid’s “Metamorphosis,” it then transforms into a fast bop number, with Mr. Marsalis trumpeting like Dizzy Gillespie. Next is a Latin piece with Mr. Calvaire, pianist Dan Nimmer, and bassist Carlos Henriquez laying down a clave beat. Finally, we think we’re going to get the expected drum solo by Mr. Calvaire, but in sparks a blues section by the rest of the group, which includes wailing solos by Mr. Goines, now on tenor, guest trumpeter Bruce Harris, and trombonist Vincent Gardner.

There follows a contemplative, introspective section for Mr. Nimmer and then a fiery duet of Mr. Calvaire’s drums and Elliot Mason’s trombone. Taking the other Eliot at this word, it ends quietly, with Mr. Calvaire reprising the percussion pattern that had launched the piece 15 minutes earlier. When the Lincoln Centurions include this work in a retrospective concert years from now, this will be the movement that they select.

At one point, Mr. Tyson’s narration speaks of “gravity’s relentless rhythm,” and Messrs. Irby and Calvaire have just illustrated how rhythm and the drummer connect all forms of jazz to each other. Likewise, throughout, the text reminds us that the microscopically small — atoms, protons, quarks — are intrinsically part and parcel of the very large: stars, black holes, solar systems. “If stars were people, galaxies would be their cities,” the narration asserts.

At two and a half hours with intermission, “Cosmic Stuff” is one of the longer original jazz compositions commissioned by JALC; it’s even longer than Gustave Mahler’s famously long third symphony. Yet by breaking it up and adding a human voice with Mr. Tyson’s narration, the work becomes very listenable and engaging. Indeed, he establishes the tone of the piece with his very first words: “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.”

by Will Friedwald
Source: The New York Sun

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