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JAZZ | Spotlight

Compositions Original and Classic to Start the Season

September 10, 2000|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is the Times' jazz writer

The first weeks of September always bring a sense of a pending new season, of new expectations and possibilities. Maybe it has something to do with all those early years of heading back into classrooms, with mixed emotions of greeting old friends, learning new ideas and facing new responsibilities. Maybe it's just that the energy begins to crank up after the lazy days of summer. Whatever the case, it's a pleasure to sample the cornucopia of new sounds that are arriving as the fall season approaches. Here's a sampling:

Brad Mehldau. "Places" (*** 1/2, Warner Bros.). The musical intelligence that has been a persistent element in Mehldau's music surfaces here in a compositional context. The title of the album as well as the titles of individual pieces--"Los Angeles," "Paris," "Amsterdam" etc.--seem to suggest that he has assembled a group of programmatic works reflecting place and scene. But for Mehldau the context is much broader, representing instead "something constant" that takes place throughout his busy schedule of world touring. The result is a collection of pieces that has the quality of a suite as well as a musical puzzle. Themes are repeated--the "Los Angeles" offering is a primary one--in different shapes and disguises. And it is testimony to Mehldau's creativity and ingenuity that he presents them in such consistently compelling fashion. Other melodies--"Paris," for example--surface with the sweet dissonance of a Chopinesque use of harmonies. Half the tracks are performed with his regular trio companions, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy, half as piano solos. All are the work of a major musical talent.

Christian McBride. "Sci-Fi" (***, Verve). McBride's writing abilities are upfront on this new album as well. Mixing seven self-penned pieces with his arrangements of works by Steely Dan, Sting, Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke, the virtuosic bassist comes up with an attractive program. The problem is that the space allocated to his full ensemble, with guest artists Herbie Hancock, Dianne Reeves, Toots Thielemans, James Carter and David Gilmore, doesn't allow a lot of performance time for the leader. Yes, we hear his impressive electric bass work on the Sting and Pastorius tunes, as well as the loopy, electronic sounds of the final "Sci-Fi Outro," and his always compelling acoustic playing surfaces from time to time. But a better balance between McBride, the bassist and McBride the composer-arranger would have made for a more consistently rewarding outing.

The Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra. "Allegresse" (** 1/2, Enja). Despite an early apprenticeship with Gil Evans, Schneider's work is not as Evans-like as one might anticipate, even though it pursues a comparable quest to find new tonal combinations from the standard big jazz band instrumentation. Where she is similar, however, is in the primacy of textures and sound over rhythm and melody in her compositions. But Evans never allowed his own seeming inability to come up with compelling themes prevent him from finding them elsewhere and framing them in energetic settings. Schneider takes a different path. The five original works on her new recording are filled with extraordinary aural accomplishments but--with the exception, in spots, of the Wagneresque "Dissolution"--the unrelenting emphasis upon long-toned textures eventually becomes wearing. They are enlivened only by soloing from saxophonist Rick Margitza, fluegelhornist Greg Gisbert and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, among others, Schneider is a masterful manipulator of sound, but she needs to allow more of the unexpressed heat in her musical persona to break through her too-controlled compositional planning.

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