Say the words "virtuoso tour-de-force" and whoever you’re talking to will immediately imagine dazzling displays of individual technique and musicianship. When I tell you that tenor saxophonist Don Braden and trumpeter Mark Rapp’s new album, The Strayhorn Project, is exactly that -- a virtuoso tour-de-force -- I mean something very different. In this case, it’s all about the understated brilliance of six superb musicians bouncing idea after idea off of each other and, in the process, creating something that’s deeper and richer than any single one of them could have created alone.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of individual virtuosity on display. You couldn’t hope for stronger soloists than Braden and Rapp. You’re also unlikely to find more generous leaders -- everyone has lots of room to stretch out. But the ensemble is the thing, and that’s a large part of this album’s charm.
It should go without saying that an equally large part of the album’s appeal is the material that the group has chosen to work with -- a collection timeless Billy Strayhorn songs, four by him alone, five co-written with Duke Ellington, one with Johnny Mercer, and another with Barney Bigard. This is the sort of material musicians live for -- beautiful, complex, and endlessly challenging.
To this day, Strayhorn hasn’t received the recognition that he deserves. He was one of the greatest of all jazz composers, yet, throughout his career, he stayed in the background, composing and arranging for the Ellington Orchestra. Along the way, he became what Ellington called "my right arm, my left arm, and the eyes in the back of my head."
In The Strayhorn Project, Braden and Rapp have translated the maestro’s Swing-Era classics into a variety of other jazz languages. They transform "Raincheck," the album’s opening track, into a New Orleans-inspired romp that will make you want to find a second line and dance down the street. Their reworking of "Isfahan" summons up memories of Mile Davis’s mid-‘60s quintets, while the subtly funky groove in "Johnny Come Lately" veers off in the direction of jazz-rock fusion. If Braden, Rapp, and company weren’t so respectful, so true to the material, these transformations probably wouldn’t work. But they are and they do, brilliantly.
The album’s ballads are particularly beautiful, and it’s here that Braden and Rapp’s generosity as leaders allows vocalist Sachal Vasandani and pianist Gerald Clayton to shine. Vasandani’s smokey, late-night sound in "Something to Live For" and "Daydream" creates an atmosphere of lamentation and regret that suits the songs perfectly. A magical reading of "Chelsea Bridge," featuring Clayton and the rhythm section, opens with a gentle, out-of-time piano solo that eventually gives way to soft, inventive interplay between the piano, bass, and drums. It’s one of the highlights of the album.
This review wouldn’t be complete without a shout-out to the recording and mastering engineers, Jim Czak and Bill Moss. From start to finish, the album’s sound is simply gorgeous.
You can preview the album (and buy it), here.
The Strayhorn Project: Don Braden, tenor saxophone, flute, and alto flute; Mark Rapp, trumpet; Sachal Vasandani, vocals; Gerald Clayton, piano; Rene Hart, bass; Greg Gonzalez, drums.
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Another version of this review will appear in Ellingtonia, the journal of the Duke Ellington Society.