The Planets, a picturesque seven-movement suite written more than a hundred years ago (1914-16) by the English composer Gustav Holst, has been marvelously Reimagined in a present-day framework by film scenarist Jeremy Levy and his superlative Los Angeles-based Jazz Orchestra in a medley that safeguards the tantalizing flavor of the original while adding sufficient seasoning and spices to make it even more appetizing than before.
To state the matter clearly, this is awe-inspiring music, lovingly recast by Levy to suit a contemporary audience. Holst poured his heart and soul into The Planets, and Levy has taken great care in reshaping the suite, scrupulously preserving its melodic contours while reassembling the more tenuous and pliable aspects of the score. The result is a mosaic that satisfies on both levels, as a classical masterwork and as a jazz tour de force. From "Mars (The Bringer of War)" through "Neptune (The Mystic)," there's nary a misstep nor an imprecise note. The other planets described are "Venus (The Bringer of Peace)," "Mercury (The Winged Messenger)," "Jupiter (The Bringer of Jollity)," "Saturn (The Bringer of Old Age)" and "Uranus (The Magician)."
Why only seven? Because Pluto (since downgraded to scattered disc) wasn't yet seen (there was no universe-scouring Hubble telescope a century ago) and Earth wasn't included (nor are the sun or moon) because Holst's concept was "astrological rather than astronomical," with each planet "intended to convey ideas and emotions associated with the influence of the planets on the psyche." What was true in Holst's day remains persuasive today, at least in Levy's dazzling framework. "Mars" roars to life in an Afro-Cuban setting before its forceful melody appears, preceding a muscular solo by trombonist Andy Martin. Speaking of solos, there aren't many but one scarcely notices their absence, as everything else is so sharp and engaging. Besides Martin, soprano saxophonist Alex Budman is superb on "Mercury," trumpeter Michael Stever even more so on "Saturn," tenor Tom Luer splendid on "Uranus." Although pianist Andy Langham isn't listed as a soloist he takes at least two, on "Venus" and "Neptune," while guitarist Andrew Synowiec comes to the fore on "Jupiter."
Unison trombones usher in "Venus," which is as beauteous and shapely as her likeness. Langham, though uncredited, is featured prominently, as are the various sections as she glides seductively forward to a tranquil coda. "Mercury" presents a brash and brassy backdrop for Budman's soprano, setting the stage for the bright and swinging "Jupiter," whose fiery section work calls to mind the most stalwart licks of Count Basie, Stan Kenton or Woody Herman. No solos are needed to reinforce that cannonade. "Saturn" assumes a more quiescent posture that complements Stever's entrancing solo, gathering momentum as he plays before decelerating to an entrancing finish, anchored by Ken Fisher's sultry bass clarinet. "Uranus" marches boldly into the fray, again with brass and reeds in lock-step, and Luer takes it from there, soloing securely amid the rhythmic hue and cry before stepping aside to let the sections have their say. "Neptune" seals the voyage with verve and panache, striding from pianissimo to forte and back behind Langham's supple piano before fading into the depths of the cosmos and leaving the listener wishing there were even more Planets to survey.
To reiterate: Jeremy Levy's The Planets: Reimagined is all that one could envision in an enterprise of that scope. A masterpiece? Such an opinion is always problematic and personal. Nevertheless, based by and large on Levy's creative vision and artistry, the verdict here is "yes."