Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Garbage Out, Gratitude In

"MOBRO" (Parade Light Records) is the story from 1987 of a barge filled with  garbage from New York City, 6 million pounds garbage headed for North Carolina where those who were supposed to deal with decided not to accept it.  The barge, known as MOBRO 4000, spent 5 months on the Atlantic Ocean, along the way rejected by 6 states and 3 foreign countries.

Playwright Andy Bragen and composer/saxophonist John Ellis created the project with a commission from The Jazz Gallery in New York City, a grant from the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis and a grant from the Aaron Copland Fund for Music that helped towards some of the expense of the subsequent recording.

Bragen's libretto provides the fuel for vocalists Miles Griffith, Becca Stevens, Johnaye Kendrick, and Sachal Vasandani while Ellis's 12 sectioned-score is performed by 4 brass players (trumpeter Shane Endsley, the french horn of John Clark, plus trombonists Josh Roseman and Alan Ferber), guitarists Mike Moreno and Ryan Scott, bassist Joe Sanders, drummer Rodney Green, the sound design of Roberto Lange and the composer on tenor and soprano saxophones.

Many of the pieces tell the tale of the refuse (pictured left) from the viewpoint of the barge. Mr. Griffith's vocal on "III: Storm" would not sound out of place at a "death metal" concert, his strangled gargling relating the dangers of the barge on the open water during terrible weather. Meanwhile Ms. Stevens and Mr. Vasandani's handsome voices add pathos to "IV: Rejection" as does the forceful trombone solo.

As the story unfolds over 76 minutes, the music moves in various directions.  Ms. Kendrick and Mr. Griffith scat excitedly over the rampaging rhythms on "V: Mutiny/Rebellion" setting the scene for the assertive trumpet solo (Rodney Green's drums also tell quite a story).  "VIII: Doldrums" is a sound "sculpture" from Lange, filled with creaking boat sounds, voices whispering what sounds like a listing of the garbage on the boat and a variety of other noises.  "X: Self-Knowledge" is a "swing tune" featuring a sweet vocal from Ms. Kendrick and quite a bluesy turn from Mr. Griffith.  Ms. Stevens delivers a soulful vocal on "XI: Mourning", a ballad where the brass and the guitars weave melodies around each other (John Clark's work stands out during the verses).  The keening tenor sax solo in the middle of the tune uses the melody as its springboard.

My words do not truly do this project the justice it deserves. The story of MOBRO 4000 is really the beginning of the modern recycling movement (watch this video for more information).  Playwright Andy Bragen has created a libretto that, literally, tells this story from the inside out while the music of John Ellis creates an aural landscape that provides strength and a solid underpinning for the vocalists.   "MOBRO" is a story from 1987 that resonates today; if you ride AMTRAK down the Eastern Seaboard, look out the window as the cars pass through the cities and you'll see mini-dumps on the sides of the track.  This project is notable in many ways but especially as a lesson to a wasteful society. For more information, go to www.mobromusic.com.  

One is tempted to call pianist/composer Alon Nechushtan a citizen of the world.  Born in Israel, he moved to the United States in 2003 but has since toured to Japan, South America, Europe and back to Israel.  With the release of "Venture Bound" (ENJA), he has now issued 5 CDs, each one distinct from the others.  This new release features the excellent rhythm section of Chris Lightcap (bass) and Adam Cruz (drums!) supplying the grooves for John Ellis (tenor  or soprano saxophone on 5 of the 9 tracks), Donny McCaslin (tenor or soprano sax on the other 4), Duane Eubanks (trumpet of 2 of the tracks with McCaslin), Roggerio Boccato (percussion on 1 cut) and the oud of Brahim Brigbane on 1 cut.

This music is quite delightful, with tracks such as "Pome (Grenade)" and "Dark Damsel" incorporating Middle Eastern themes in the melodies.  The former is a vehicle for a splendid solo from Ellis and vigorous piano chords a la McCoy Tyner from the leader (the track would not sound out of place on Tyner's "Sahara" recording.) Brigbane's oud weaves around the whirling piano lines at the outset of "...Damsel" and the 2 instrumentalists team up with McCaslin's tenor for the lively theme. "F.A.Q" contains lovely soprano work from McCaslin plus a strong melodic solo from Lightcap.  Ellis turns to his soprano sax to lead the group through the handsome melody of "Snow-Flow", a piece with gospel-tinged chords from Nechushtan who also delivers a pleasing solo.

The opening unaccompanied piano lines of "The Gratitude Suite" have the feel of a Bruce Hornsby composition while the melody is firmly planted in the composer's homeland.  Eubanks' solo is tinged with emotion while Boccato and Cruz percolate below and Lightcap offers smart counterpoint.  The tenor solo (McCaslin) is a tour de force leading to a heightened intensity and a soulful piano spot.  It's tough not to be floored by the powerful opening track, "L'Avventura", with its dynamic piano chords and solo plus the delicious drive of the bass and drums.  Cruz is a powerhouse throughout, matching his intensity with that of the pianist - they really push each other on every song.  The short drum solo that opens the final track, "Serpentrails", literally explodes out of the speakers; the main melody is influenced by Monk and Ellis's bluesy solo has more than a touch of Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Rouse.  Listen to how Cruz dances below the solo while Lightcap's bass keeps the beat bouncing.

"Venture Bound" is a love letter to melody and rhythms, especially themes that composer Alon Nechushtan has heard all his life and to the heartbeat of contemporary jazz that has fueled most of his explorations.  His partners in this "Venture" dig right into this material and strike gold in every vein.  Enjoy the journey!  For more information, go to musicalon.com.

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