4 1/2 STARS
Andrew Rathbun is a Canadian saxophonist who has made a major musical statement here with this collection of suites, two of which are based on the poetry of author Margaret Atwood. Rathbun's writing shows the influence of another Canadian, Kenny Wheeler, in its lush sonority, the frequent gorgeous flugelhorn solos by Tim Hagans and the role of Luciana Souza, who both sings Atwood's poetry with gentle forcefulness and moans wordlessly within the orchestral ensembles, the same way Wheeler often utilized Norma Winstone.
"Two Islands" begins with Souza singing simply over Jeremy Siskind's piano. Then the entire ensemble comes in with a controlled turbulence propelled by Bill Stewart's drumming and a beautiful, warm solo by Hagans whose flugelhorn is really featured within the darker, more somber sound of Part II. In Part III Stewart breaks down his drum beats like Joe Morello leading into soaring ensemble music with the rich fullness of Gil Evans. Souza sings brightly, Hagans does his thing again and saxophonist Quinsin Nachoff takes a hard swinging tenor solo.
"Power Politics" begins with Souza and Siskind again starkly declaiming Atwood's words before the horns weave in. Hagans makes another strong, flowing statement and Souza's voice becomes a wordless instrument melting into the massed surge of the ensemble. Siskind's piano starts Part II with a dark, agitated bounce that leads into a tempestuous tug of war between the reeds and brass before Souza's voice spreads over everything like a cooling balm. There are also strong solo statements by Hagans, trombonist Mike Fahie and tenor player Dan Pratt here. Part III is an extended slow-rolling climax underpinned by funky vamping from Stewart with massive group harmonies and a brawny, rippling alto solo from John O'Gallagher.
That is the meat of the set but there is a second CD with additional music. "Fractured" is a commentary on our current political situation with staccato horns and a stomping jazz-rock beat. Aubrey Johnson handles the wordless vocalizing this time and Siskind's electric piano and Nate Radley's burrowing guitar do an extended bit of jamming. There are also three movements from yet another, untitled suite full of wide, ambient harmonies, wary guitar and careful Bach-like progressions that bounce between piano, voice and the entire ensemble.
Andrew Rathbun is another contributor to that lineage of rich, impressionistic orchestral jazz that includes figures like Gil Evans, Bob Brookmeyer, Maria Schneider and Jim McNeely. He writes warm, intriguing melodies and can create powerful backgrounds for soloists. The ones he has here, especially Souza, Hagans and Stewart, are all excellent. This has been an exceptional year for large ensemble jazz recordings and this is one of the best.