4 1/2 STARS
Most artists, in most fields, move into their eighth decade on an artistic decline, their best days behind them. But not so for the Portland, Oregon-based musician David Freisen. The bassist/pianist/composer hooked up with Seattle's Origin Records in 2014 with the release of Where the Light Falls. Five more sets arrived in short order, top tier duo, trio or solo outings. Now, with Testimony, Friesen embraces the orchestral, resulting in the gorgeous magnum opus of a long and successful career.
The recording with the National Academic Symphonic Band of Ukraine in Kiev, conducted by Oleksii Vikulav, came about, in part, from Friesen's desire to explore his mother's Ukrainian heritage, a search which took him on a tour of family landmarks in Smila, Ukraine, then to a meeting with Oleksandr Pirozhenko, the Symphonic Band's director. The efforts for the resultant concerts and the recording of the orchestral tunes here, in the National Philharmonic Hall of Ukraine, Kiev, feature diaphanous arrangements, a light and airy sonic touch, a sublime and heavenly translucence. The music orbits—with a subtle, measured and seemingly inevitable galactic grandeur—the sound of Freisen's Hemage bass, an instrument custom made for Friesen by Hermann Erlacher. It is a smaller, more portable version of its acoustic cousin. The Hemage bass has a distinctive sound, sharper and slightly less resonant than the traditional acoustic bass. More space surrounds the individual notes, making the collaboration with the spacious approach of the National Academic Symphonic Band a perfect fit.
The disc opens with the brief "Prelude," a solemn and buoyant two minutes introducing a feeling of an unspecified spirituality—that pervades the entire effort, start-to- finish—as it transitions into "Still Waters."
Eleven of the seventeen Friesen originals presented here are rendered by Pirozhenko's Symphonic Band. Six are played by Friesen's quartet, with vibraphonist Eugene Dobrovolskyi, drummer/percussionist Alex Fantaev and tenor saxophonist Mykola Ryshkov. The transitions from large ensemble to small, and the sequencing throughout, are handled perfectly. The transcendent mood is maintained. "Meaningful," by the quartet, shifts the sounds from the exquisitely classical feeling of the larger band to a smooth flowing, sultry jazz atmosphere.
"My Faith, My Life," by the big band, gives off a gently joyous and celebratory feeling. The quartet's "Pumpkin" steps lightly, with a joy of life mixed with a bit of whimsy. And the closer, "Lament For the Lost/Procession," strikes a note of beautiful sadness at first, before it shifts into an insistent forward momentum on a vibraphone drive train which takes it into a place of organic majesty—a grand and beautiful effort presented, in the 2020 time frame of the vexing COVID-19 pandemic, that lends a new hope and a sense of optimism to our troubled world.