In a way, the Atwood Suites have been in the works for almost two decades. When Kenny Wheeler approached Toronto native Andrew Rathbun in search for a band in 2001, the former furthermore inquired if the latter would like a composition of his own penning to be performed beside Wheeler's "Suite Time Suite." Consequently, the "Power Politics Suite," which makes for the second half of the first CD, was born, with Wheeler's and vocalist Luciana Souza's sound specifically in mind. Enjoying hearing the Suite being performed night after night, Rathbun decided to put a band of his own together and subsequently composed the opening piece of this recording: "Two Islands Suite."
The two above mentioned suites make up for the entire first disc and contain lyrics drawn from poems by Margaret Atwood - the Canadian author who is responsible for the 1985 novel The Handmaids Tale, which now seems more relevant than ever, due to the book's adaption to the award winning TV series. And herein lies the first (and virtually) only issue with these compositions. While Luciana Souza knows how to delight with a most soothing and empathic vocal delivery, the content and rhythm of the verses tend to contradict the musical framework - the opening verses being prime examples: "There are two islands - at least - they do not exclude each other." The sequencing of the words distract from the marvelous harmonic chord accompaniment on the piano.
But this feeling of slight unease is quickly drowned out, seeing how the band doesn't hesitate for long and gradually but surely joins into the choir, beginning a journey down paths of highly symphonic nature. Drummer Bill Stewart and flügelhornist Tim Hagans play the protagonists on the first two suites and color the compositions with their very distinctive voices. Hagans' tone is deep and full, at times telling somber tales at others cheering and soaring towards enticing horizons. Stewart animates the entire rhythmical foundation with his poignant stabs and snarky syncopation, never straying from the path of ensemble uniformity, but incessantly and secretly plotting a coup in the background. His very melodic sensibilities on sticks are shown off in the short but intense drum solo that opens the third act of the "Two Islands" suite.
The two suites are composed in similar fashion. Grand harmonic passages of orchestral dynamics make way for more intimate melodic exchanges between the core band. The amount of new melodic material introduced per act is impressive to say the least, and provokes ever-alternating changes in accompaniment and arrangement. Clocking in at almost an hour long, these first two pieces prove challenging, due, most of all, to their dense nature. For an easy listen look elsewhere - the second CD for example.
Other than the vocal replacement of Luciana Souza for Aubrey Johnson, the lineup remains unchanged. What does alter quite a bit is the nature of Rathbun's compositions. After an hour of jam-packed melody lines and orchestral outbursts, the opening "Fractured" comes as a most welcomed change and introduces the listener to a different flow. True to its title, the main motif comes off as choppy and syncopated. Then a bass line swoops in and gives the piece the necessary footing for Nate Radley to drop some serious lines on guitar. Jeremy Siskind and Russ Johnson on rhodes and flügehlhorn take over the soloing role until Aubrey Johnson joins back in for a final wordless chant over the main melody.
"V" , "I" and "II" abide by these new rules, giving the core rhythm section more room for intimacy and improvisation. While "Fractured" is a one off composition, which comments on the never-changing state of political division over the past decade, the subsequent pieces are excerpts from another longer Suite which have been revisited for this session. Holding on to a more open structure, the last three pieces work very well as individual songs rather than codependent acts and bring this oeuvre to an end in a fluent and easy way.
This collection of suites and songs certainly doesn't come as comfort music. It is a challenging and lengthy listen which requires multiple revisitations to fully grasp; and still more details will emerge upon every repetition. The compositions truly shine though, when at their most stripped back, and the core band is free to adopt the changes to their gusto.