(I am writing this review one day after the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton)
As we experience one of the most wrenching political and social periods in the new millennium, it is often up to our musical artists to fully express the outrage and disbelief necessary to inspire the changes needed, to give us any hope of raising our children in a sane society.
Portland based composer/pianist/college professor, Ezra Weiss, has used his big band in a unique and novel way to address his fears as a parent of two young children. He has written an extended suite, gut wrenching at times, as an effort to both educate and open eyes to the violence and hate so out front daily in our existence. In addition to compositions that are at times elegiac or foreboding, Weiss adds narration, written much like bed time "conversations" with children, to add to the outrage (and still a yearning hope) that should lead to a reevaluation of where we are heading. The entire suite surely should move parents who worry about their children's future, and the values of justice and equality that seem to be in question.
Ezra is a music professor at Portland State University, and very active in the local jazz scene. For this monumental project, he has gathered some of the best Northwest jazz musicians to bring a vibrant vision, combining jazz and classical motifs that both soar in their beauty, and express a foreboding unease when necessary. There is both an American based expression of "we can get this done," coupled with a disappointment that we have let this happen in an irrational fear of "the other." Taken in whole, his musical plea gives pause for reflection.
It opens with "Fanfare For a Newborn." There is a glorious horn blend fanfare, followed by a theme resplendent with inspiring peaks, and Farnell Newton's trumpet solo. The jazz/classical blend brings Aaron Copland to mind. "Dear O and J" is the first narration by Ezra, explaining to his two children that he began this project in 2015, when he hoped that the "fear of the other" was only going to be a temporary issue facing our country, and the world facing humanitarian refugee crises. Weiss contrasts these fears with his son's wonder of nature, shown by his "bowing" to trees in a local Portland park.
"Blues and the Alternate Fact," its title taken in part from Oliver Nelson's classic jazz composition, "Blues and the Abstract Truth," explores the outrageous obsession with claiming that "facts" that we do not agree with, must be "alternative." Weiss brings a troubling dark musical motif here with "gut bucket" bottom end solos by baritone sax player, Mieke Bruggeman, and trombonist, Stan Bock.
Next, we have Ezra gently narrating his son's fear of starting kindergarten (wondering if his father will be on time to pick him up) with a stark contrast of a five year old Honduran boy separated from his father at a border crossing in El Paso ("Jose's Drawing").There is a wistful flute, leading into a passionate tenor sax solo from Renato Carranto, that drips with emotion. It will bring a lump to your throat.
Ezra narrates "I Don't Mean to Be a Downer" with a discussion of marriage equality brought down to a child's understanding. "Obergefell," the Supreme Court decision validating same sex marriage is a musical celebration of this decision. John Nastos, on alto sax, and Thomas Barber, on trumpet, provide solos rich with beauty, uplifting in a "it's about time" manner.
"What Now" deals with a recitation of wrongs, an expression of outrage complete with tears from Ezra as he lays out in clear disgust the issues of our times. Here are just a few: Sexual assault/ The Me Too Movement, police shootings of black Americans, transgender discrimination, mass murders by white nationalists, and separation of refugee families. In between, Ezra offers the heartbreaking refrain, "I hope to write a song (for the wronged), but I don't have it in me.." Weiss has musical dissonance coupled with a yearning flute solo by John Savage, back his narration.
The title track of the CD takes its name from a 1853 hymn from George Rawson, from words given by a pastor to Pilgrims leaving Holland for America. Ezra has the Camas (Wa.) High School Choir recite the hymn. Their choral blend is magnificent, and striking in a suite that deals with so much anguish and grief, as it gives hope for a just future.
Weiss ends this journey with two musical gems of hope and beauty. "Please Know That I Love You" expresses a father's love of his children as well as a plea for a just society. The full band exults in his vision. Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" is the closer, and is a refreshing return to a straight ahead jazz composition that highlights this big band's chops. John Nastos' soprano solo here is exemplary.
Ezra Weiss deserves major kudos for putting his heart on his sleeve, for a musical vision that combines a powerful big band bringing to the forefront the troubling issues we face as parents worrying about our childrens' future. Ezra has met this challenge with a plea for understanding, justice, and grace. I highly recommend this CD. The music is a joy to hear, and the themes it explores demand attention.