Canadian-born poet, essayist, and novelist Margaret Atwood (born Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) 1939) is currently enjoying renewed popularity these days thanks to HULU's production of "The Handmaid's Tale" and NETFLIX's production of "Alias Grace." Her depictions of dystopian societies hits home in this time of Boko Haram and ISIS. Before her novels became popular, she wrote numerous volumes of poetry and that's where composer and saxophonist Andrew Rathbun (a native of Toronto, Ontario, Canada) has concentrated his attention. He has taken several poems written 40+ years and created a pair of suites that are part of an ambitious project that takes Ms. Atwood's poetry and his music on a fantastic voyage.
"Atwood Suites", featuring the 16-member Andrew Rathbun Large Ensemble and released by Origin Records, is a fascinating two-CD sonic adventure. Joining the ensemble for the first CD is vocalist Luciana Souza and soloist Tim Hagans (flugelhorn): one can hear the influence of Kenny Wheeler especially on "Power Politics I-III" , a piece the late trumpeter/flugelhornist performed with Rathbun after their 2002 Fresh Sound New Talent collaboration "Sculptures." One can hear tinges of Wheeler in Hagan's impressive solos and his the horns and brass interact with him plus the fine rhythm section - Nate Radley (guitar), Jeremy Siskind (piano, Fender Rhodes), Dave Ambrosio (bass), and Bill Stewart (drums) - that pushes the music forward. The sectional work throughout is impressive (a full list of the personnel is below). While Hagans is the principal soloist on disk one, there is also sterling performances from saxophonists Quinsin Nachoff (tenor), Dan Pratt (tenor), John O'Gallagher (alto) plus trombonist Mike Fahie and guitarist Radley.
The "Suites" succeed on many levels but pay special attention to the tremendous vocal work of Ms. Souza (pictured left). Oftentimes, this combination of large ensemble, poetry, and vocals can sound pretentious or stodgy but, the singer inhabits the poetic fragments that tell of the interaction of men and women, of love and being subsumed in relationships There are also moments when Ms. Souza sings wordless lines alongside one of the sections. Her voice glides, the words flow, sometimes, there is fire, other times, subtle interactions with the musicians. After a lovely reed introduction, "Two Islands" opens with just voice and piano: the melody is lovely (Siskind is a fine accompanist) perfectly suited for Rathbun's long and supple melody line. Hagan's burnished tone and lyrical solos stand out in fine contrast to the vocal, the sectional work, and Stewart's powerful push.
Disk two opens with "Fractured", a perfect title for the jagged melody that introduces the piece. Aubrey Johnson wordless vocals support the melody, serve as counterpoint on the Fender Rhodes solo, and float effortlessly along with the sectional work. Owen Howard takes over for this track and the first one of there suite below and his solid, swinging, style gives the tracks an excellent boost. The final three tracks are also part of suite Rathbun composed in 2012 (they were first performed that year). Presented out of order, - "V", "I", and "II" features sumptuous melodies, two separate compositions that open with "chorales" ("V" with just reeds, "II" with reeds and brass), and all three take time to introduce thematic material before heading into solos. This is music that, at times, seems to float (the influence of Kenny Wheeler's "airy" sound permeates "I") and the use of the different sections (notably the range of the various reeds, including flutes) of the band alongside the voice is creative and satisfying.
"Atwood Suites" is serious music yet such a joy to sit and listen. Andrew Rathbun has taken his time to create a program that takes several of his older pieces and the use of a larger ensemble gives him more possibilities. With the help of his co-producer George Schuller, he's made music that will stick to your mind even as it takes you out of the everyday.