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Monday, June 15, 2020

Webber/Morris Big Band – Both Are True (Greenleaf Music, 2020) ****

By Nick Ostrum

It seems that more and more younger musicians have been experimenting with big bands lately. Anna Webber, who released the exquisitely realized Clockwise just last year, and Angela Morris, who recently performed on Jessica Pavone’s acclaimed Brick and Mortar, are among them. (For what it is worth, both albums were chosen for the FJB top 15 of 2019.)

In its conception, the Webber/Morris Big Band is distinctive. Webber and Morris share lead saxophone, compositional, and conducting duties. The band consists of 18 young New York-based musicians. The instrumentation is heavy on the horns (six saxophones [with all musicians doubling on flute or clarinet], four trumpets/flugelhorns, four trombones [including one bass trombone]). The rest of the ensemble is rounded out by a more conventional array of vibes, guitar, piano, bass, and drums. It should be unsurprising, then, that the brass and reeds drive the pieces on Both Are True.

The music nevertheless relies more on interweaving melodies and sonority than sheer force. In that. It reminds me a lot of Dave Holland’s big band works. Contemporary jazz grooves converge through frequent time and key changes. Complexes of wafting melodies intermingle with phased repetitions of eight-notes and slide into soft, stunted chords. Detours and flourishes abound, but never stray too far from the melodic/gravitational center. Some tracks, such as “Reverses”, include pulsing, looping ecologues of melody, heavily shaded with a distinctive romanticism. Others, especially the moving “Foggy Valley,” are more finely colored electroacoustic/experimental pieces.

In short, Both Are True is rich and deeply compelling. It is skillfully composed and beautifully rendered. At many points, it is even exceptional. Clearly, Webber and Morris can span the avant-garde and the mainstream. Though with feet on each side of this admittedly artificial spectrum (avant-garde cannot simply mean unpopular or unrecognized), Both Are True leans slightly toward the latter musical truth and, in its recorded form at least, is quite refined. Originally, I had written that as a critique. One fourth and fifth listen, however, I am not so sure that it is indeed a criticism so much as an observation. Take from that what you will.