Thursday, September 10, 2020

Aardvark Jazz Orchestra – Faces of Souls (Leo Records, 2020) ***½

By Troy Dostert

It is a shame that Mark Harvey isn’t more widely known outside Boston, where he has been an anchor point for the jazz community since the 1970s. An exceedingly ambitious trumpeter and bandleader, Harvey’s commitment not only to traditional and avant-garde jazz but also to fostering political awareness has enabled him to craft music that consistently manages to speak to broader social and cultural realities. A case in point is the recently released Rite for All Souls (Americas Musicworks, 2020), a live recording from 1971 of his eponymous quartet (featuring woodwind specialist Peter Bloom and percussionists Craig Ellis and Michael Standish) in which the group blended jazz and performance art in protesting the Vietnam War. And then there’s his leadership of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, an ensemble that also traces its origins to the early 1970s and which has frequently tackled politically and socially conscious themes. The group’s Democratic Vistas (Leo, 2018), for example, includes such unsubtle topical commentary as the “Trumputin Tango” and Fake News Blewz.”

On their latest, Faces of Souls, the Aardvarks’ message is as relevant as ever, with the sprawling, seventeen-minute title track inspired by Charles Ives’s “Saint-Gaudens in Boston Common,” a piece Ives dedicated to the famed sculptor’s tribute to the Massachusetts 54th, the fabled all-African American Union regiment in the Civil War. Other Harvey pieces on the album, such as “Of the People” and “Lament for the City” seem to touch especially upon the contemporary challenges America faces surrounding racial injustice, even though the music here, recorded live in a number of performances between 2015 and 2019, predates the most turbulent urban unrest of the summer of 2020.

The band is a good-sized one, with around twelve musicians on average, allowing Harvey lots of possibilities to create music that often defies category. The opener, “Meltdown,” pulses with abstraction and freedom, with shifting tonal centers, only taking a more definitive shape toward the end with a hard-swinging finish. “Sisyphus,” conversely, is a funk-driven workout that highlights the bluesy guitar of Richard Nelson and some terrific ensemble playing from the horns.

Other pieces are substantially more elliptical, pointing to the extensive use of space that often characterizes Harvey’s compositions. “Consecration” reveals Harvey’s deep debt to Ellington, although the piece unfolds very gradually, the central theme not emerging until almost four minutes into the track. And “Greta” is even more measured, with lots of room for an extensive flute solo from Peter Bloom and most of the band limited to occasional, muted interjections. “Faces of Souls” is another expansive effort, with some gorgeous moments in a piece that wears its classical influence on its sleeve, with especially stirring playing from cellist Rob Bethel alongside Nelson during the opening segment. The piece has an elegiac quality that is quite compelling, and the piece’s restrained tranquility is thoroughly uncharacteristic of what one typically expects from a jazz big band, possessing only fleeting glimpses of swing or conventional jazz harmonies. In contrast, “Of the People” traverses the full gamut of jazz modes, with up-tempo swinging energy and in-the-pocket funk alternating with its more languorous and abstract moments.

As a reliable vehicle for Harvey’s muse for well over 40 years, the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra continues to make creative and unconventional jazz with a big-band template. Given the monumental challenges of maintaining any jazz ensemble—of any size—for four decades, its very existence is a minor miracle, and Faces of Souls is another reason to celebrate its longevity.

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