Whenever a jazz artist teams up with symphony orchestra I grit my teeth and hope for the best. All too often, the results are a less than swinging compromise, as a large orchestra when attempted to harness itself to the groove of a small ensemble is a bit like trying to drive a semi tralier hitched up to a mini. There have been notable exceptions, of course. Charlie Parker with strings, Miles' recordings with Gil Evans, Bill Evans with symphony, Oregon's work with the Moscow symphony and Vince Mendoza's "Epiphany" quickly come to mind as marvelous examples of the potential sonic rewards this symbiosis presents .
Eberhard Weber is no stranger to latching the large ensemble to his work. He first did so on the the third stream classic, Colors of Chloe and later on the understated (and overlooked) masterpiece, The Following morning, in which he added cellos , oboes and french horns to his duo with pianist Rainier Brunninghaus. His deceptively simple compositions are well suited to the development and extended colors of the orchestral palette, and are here are given the full treatment in this, his latest ECM release.
In many ways, this is a restrospective and summation of his considerable composing and performing career. This is evidenced both by the special guests from various periods of his playing career and by his choice of expanding largely existing compositions. Indeed the core group consisting of Jan Garbarek, Marilyn Mazur and Rainer Brunninghaus is the longstanding lineup of the Garbarek group. Gary Burton's crystal clear vibes are added to that ensemble. Burton has recently retired from his teaching post at Berkeley in order to focus on performing. I recently had to the opportunity to hear him with Chick Corea and am happy to report that the man is on fire! He is playing like a guy in his 20's. His performances on this disc are further evidence that this man's authority and heartfelt virtuosity are unmatched when it comes to four mallet technique on the vibraphone.
Highlights include a free wheeling, swinging romp through Carla Bley's Syndrome, a deeper more probing version of Maurizius (off of Later that Evening,) a lofty re-imagining of Colors of Chloe and a pared down duo on the standard, Yesterdays. I find it amusing when critics take a patronizing tone in describing their surprise that Weber can swing with the best of them on a walking bass line or that Garbarek or Brunninghaus can blow over traditional changes. Hello! These are master musicians-they were doing that when they were kids! That they veered away from the standard repertoire to help create today's european jazz language is what makes them great.
The album is not without its awkward moments. The opening track illustrates the pitfalls of coupling the nimble quartet with the great lumbering orchestral beast. Silent Feet is one of Weber's great small ensemble pieces, but sadly, this version loses some of the freedom and openess of the original, trading fleetfooted abandon for weightier orchestration. Happily, the CD picks up from there.
One of the most successful arrangements is the expanded Last Stage of a Long Journey. This tune started off as a quartet composition on the third Colors album, Little Movements, was further expanded on Later that Evening and now has evolved into a fully orchestrated arrangement here. It is expansive and cinematic in scope. It unfolds like Weber's own artistic career, probing, growing, ever deepening and integrating the wisdom of a lifetime spent in pursuit of the muse. Let us hope that this is indeed only another 'Stage' of his artistic journey and not the Last one. I am looking forward to more new music from this important performer and composer.
I just found out that Mr Weber suffered a stroke last april. He is recovering well, but unfortunately had to cancel his participation in the Garbarek tour this fall. However, he plans to tour this project in 2008-2009 with the same players and orchestra. I wish him a speedy recovery.