The final scene before a film fades to black. The last line of a novel's dialogue. The stanza which ends a poem.
Often, the end of an artwork sheds new light on everything which came before it. Last lines, final scenes, musical codas act as translators, bringing context and clarity. Everything, as novelist Jonathan Safran Foer put it, is illuminated.
The final two tracks on Rich Pellegrin's new record, "Down," lend their weight and beauty to suggestions, theories and implications which crop up in the five previous songs. What Pellegrin and his band are up to, they confirm, is nothing less than jazz. But, at its best, it sounds like something more. Your ears haven't deceived you, these tracks — titled "Down (Introduction)" and "Down," respectively — seem to say.
Both feature the Mizzou New Music Ensemble, first under the direction of Pellegrin, then University of Missouri professor Stefan Freund. The connection is a natural one — Pellegrin, now on faculty at the University of Florida, taught for a time at MU.
Darkly lush strings lead "Down (Introduction)" into being. Pulsing clarinet and subtle percussion move in and around these quietly moody string parts, creating a strange, beautiful co-dependence.
A few final, shimmering notes usher Pellegrin's band in for the true title track, creating a sound with all the colors of symphonic jazz but little of the grandeur. Exhaling and inhaling, swelling and subsiding, drawing down to a near-whisper, the song exerts great emotional pull.
Using all the musical grammar spread throughout the record, these two songs form a definitive statement — that technique exists to serve texture and temperament, and that a piece of music can follow the rules and still end up sounding lawless.
Back to the beginning: Pellegrin and his band shoot themselves out of a cannon with the delightfully chaotic opener "Trial." Evan Flory-Barnes' undulating bass lines find a fascinating partner in Pellegrin's helter-skelter bursts of piano. Saxophonist Neil Welch commandeers the song's second half, delivering a sleek, assured solo.
"Birthright" moves deliberately, like something tightly, meticulously wound. Flory-Barnes shines again, as he does throughout the record, his playing a perfect blend of the athletic and cerebral. The coiled connections between players forms the very heart of the song; whenever melodic fragments and figures break through, their escape means even more.
A couple tracks later, "Acceptance" highlights trumpeter R. Scott Morning's evocative playing. Morning paints light in the song's early bars, creating the effect of sunshine piercing a wall of storm clouds. His gentle use of repetition and thoughtful phrasing allows the melody to radiate to greater depths.
"Exile" opens with plaintive piano; Flory-Barnes and drummer Chris Icasiano arrive like wise, caring confidants, brightening Pellegrin's mood with their sanguine rhythms. As the song grows, Pellegrin's piano textures become a thing of beauty, an exercise in controlled chaos, a test of mettle he ultimately aces.
The compositions on "Down" strongly convey one avenue of 21st-century music-making, one where jazz — and, to a lesser extent, classical music — offers the artist a grove of hardy trees, which then can be chopped up and used to build strange shelters and shrines. New in their own way, but always bearing the grain, the feel, even the smell of what once was.