Drummer / vibraphonist Michael Waldrop 's intriguing Origin Suite (deftly arranged by Jack Cooper) sweeps away musical boundaries to make its points, one of which is that big-band jazz needn't be ensnared in a time warp but is capable of changing with the times to engender songs that are as aesthetically pleasing as they are thematically stylish.
The three-movement suite, written to feature Waldrop on drums and vibes, calls to mind in its powerful opening and closing narratives the iconic ensemble Weather Report while enfolding a mid-point ballad in the ECM style. Waldrop is showcased throughout, with guitarist Jimi Tunnell, tenor saxophonist Mario Cruz and German-based singer Marc Secara adding their voices at various points to help underscore the suite's incisive point of view. The work was inspired by the Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam, and its movements (La Jungla / Nativite / Al Final de la Noche) are named after a trio of his paintings.
The suite, however, serves as no more than an opening chapter, as the album moves ahead with nine generally impressive charts by Waldrop, Cooper, Tunnell and Gerald Stockton, three of which feature the big band, the others smaller ensembles. Waldrop is a constant, complementing star turns by percussionists Brad Dutz ("Through the Mist," "Vasconcelos") and Jose Rossy ("Mouzon"), pianist John Hansen ("Vasconcelos") and trombonist Scott Whitfield (trombone "section" plus acrobatic solo on the strenuous "Doppler Effect," on which Keith Jourdan comprises the multi-track "trumpet section").
"Through the Mist," inspired by the beauty of the Cascade mountains, brings to the forefront pianist John Hansen and bassist Chris Symer, while Cooper's modal "Sheath and Sword" does the same for trumpeter Mike Steinel and pianist Steve Snyder. Waldrop's lyrical, light-hearted "Ivana" is an homage to his wife, and Tunnell's hard-driving "Mouzon" (cleverly employing Scott Kinsey's synthesizer) salutes the late drummer Alphonse Mouzon. Stockton scored Waldrop's percussive "Doo Dat Tang" (which Waldrop describes as "Sun Ra meets Count Basie"), Cooper the drummer's Euro-inflected ballad "Belgrade." Dutz sits in admirably for the late Brazilian star Nana Vasconcelos on Waldrop's eponymous tribute (complete with obligatory bird calls) whose emphatic rhythms evoke the spirit of Brazil. Stockton wrote the sinuous (and overdubbed) "Doppler Effect" for the North Texas One O'Clock Lab Band (which, in spite of its virtuosity, took a pass), which leads to the placid finale, Waldrop's aptly named "Still Life." In closing, it should be noted that the orchestra and its smaller groupings are first-class, as are the various soloists (who include, besides those already named, trumpeter Larry Spencer, altos Tim Ishii and Will Campbell, tenor Chris McGuire, trombonists Tony Baker and Greg Waits, bassists Lynn Seaton and Scott Steed, guitarist Brian Monroney, pianist Wayne Peet and Snyder on organ ("Doo Dat Tang").
While Waldrop approaches big-band jazz from a singular point of view, one that he imparts to his orchestra and arrangers, the desire to enlighten and entertain the listener is always uppermost, which prevents the music from slipping away into inapt or ill-advised realms. True, it isn't always easy to absorb, but for those whose ears and hearts are open to fresh sounds and experiences, the Origin Suite offers myriad treasures to cherish.