Metropolitan Jazz Octet

The Bowie Project



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MUSIC REVIEW BY Paul Reynolds, All About Jazz


A tribute to a pop artist by jazz musicians—as with the new David Bowie album by Chicago's Metropolitan Jazz Octet—has to tread a careful line. It obviously won't—can't—be a rote reproduction of the originals, a flaw that sinks many pop-to-pop tributes. Yet it needs to translate the songs into jazz—its harmonic sophistication, especially—in a way that retains the essence of the artist being celebrated.

The MJO effort deftly rises to that challenge. This 11-song project should intrigue Bowieists while also pleasing fans of little-big-band jazz whose ears are open to an unlikely new oeuvre. The success begins with the savvy song selection. A greatest hits collection this is not. While 1969's "Space Oddity"—which belatedly entered the charts years later—and Bowie's late-disco-era smash "Let's Dance" is included, the album mostly favors fan favorites and deep cuts.

The Octet was founded in the 1950s, and is very much in the mainstream small-big-band tradition; despite its hometown, this album hasn't a hint of Windy City AACM avant inclinations. Rather, it's a swinging project that remakes the originals in fresh, but rarely unrecognizable, fashion. Every cut features the amiable and approachable tenor vocals of Tom Marinaro, who deservedly gets "Featuring..." billing on the artists' line of the album.

There are three cuts each from 1971's beloved Hunky Dory album (RCA)—"Changes," "Quicksand" and "Life on Mars"—and Heathen Bowie's fine 2002 album (ISO). For "Changes," the band trades the original's wide variations in tempo and dynamics from verse to chorus for a loping, low-key arrangement that's simpatico with a lyric that reflects on Bowie's early artistic and commercial struggles: ("Still don't know what I was waiting for/And my time was running wild, a million dead-end streets and/Every time I thought I'd got it made/It seemed the taste was not so sweet.")

"Space Oddity," on the other hand, is less reflective than the original. The spritely arrangement and Marinaro's confident voice renders Major Tom as, at worst, resigned to his fate in a space accident, rather than spiraling into panic and dread. In place of the kaleidoscopic orchestral interlude of Bowie's original, the CJO version inserts restrained yet lively duetting trumpet and trombone solos. It's one of many selections on the album in which the arrangements replace the riffing of guitars and swell of strings in the Bowie renditions with well crafted ensemble horn writing.

The "Oddity" interlude marks one of the longer bouts of soloing on the record. For the most, true to the heritage of big band selections with featured-vocalist billing, these are fairly tight arrangements. The solos are mostly short excursions wedged into songs that usually clock in at five minutes or so. (Only one selection breaks the seven-minute mark, "5.15: The Angels Are Gone," which runs a full 5 minutes in the Bowie original.)

The inevitable (and helpful; some surprises are always welcome) obscurities are "Letter to Hermione" and "Conversation Piece," both from 1969 but never on heavy rotation, even for fairly serious fans.

Perhaps the greatest sign that this tribute works is one listener's willingness—after a half-dozen or so listens—to let these arrangements, and especially Marinaro's vocal interpretations, begin to co-exist with the original records in musical memory. The CJO has done what every tribute should do. Less replace the artist's originals than create reinterpretations of them that feel familiar enough while also yielding new insights and pleasures.





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