Setting poetry to music is nothing new. Setting Margaret Atwood's poetry to music is a different matter. Most people probably aren't even aware that novelist Margaret Atwood wrote poetry. She has. Toronto saxophonist and composer Andrew Rathbun has taken her We Are Hard on Each Other and Two Islands: Excerpt From Circle/Mud Poem and set the prose to music on the two-CD set Atwood Suites (Origin). But this isn't ordinary music. First, it's richly orchestral. Second, the compositions and arrangements are uniquely original and expansive. And third, Rathbun invited Luciana Souza and Aubrey Johnson to sing on the album and their contribution is spectacular.
Combined, the result is a wide-ranging brassy expression that has a moody David Amram (Manchurian Candidate) or Don Sebesky (George Benson's White Rabbit) feel. The large ensemble's collective personnel consists of Seneca Black (tp); Matt Holman, Dave Smith and Russ Johnson (tp,flhrn); Tim Hagans (flhrn/solo on first six tracks); Alan Ferber, Mike Fahie and JC Sanford (tb); Chris Olness (b-tb); John O'Gallagher (sop,as); Ben Kono (as,fl,cl); Quinsin Nachoff (ts,cl); Dan Pratt (ts,fl,cl); Carl Maraghi (bar,b-cl); Jeremy Siskind (p,el-p); Nate Radley (g); David Ambrosio (b); Bill Stewart and Owen Howard (d); Andrew Rathbun (dir,comp); Luciana Souza and Aubrey Johnson (voice).
I can't recall the last time I heard an album this exciting on such a large scale. Rathbun has a firm command of the brass section's hues, sifting trombones together with French horns and topping them with trumpets and Tim Hagans' flugelhorn. The reeds have a misty feel, filling the spaces with breathy texture. And Bill Stewart's drums are quite busy throughout and keep the Rathbun's arrangements on edge. On the first of the two CDs, Souza's voice has a Flora Purim feel in places, giving the music a 1970s flavor. But Souza's voice is distinctly her own, which makes her inclusion all the more exciting and dynamic.
The reeds play a central role on the second CD, leaping around like wild hares. If you listen carefully, Johnson's vocal on the second CD mirrors the high-pitched instrumental tones, which is fascinating, especially on the song known only as I (the Roman numeral for one). Her voice gives these instrumental notes a warm, glowing value.
Recorded in 2016 and released earlier this year, Atwood Suites is a must own. The album is a feast for the ears and is perfect for autumn. Having interviewed Margaret Atwood, I can say that the music is as gentle and as perspicacious as she is. If you dig orchestral work, this one is most engaging and exciting.