Steve Swell Music for Six Musicians

Hommage à Olivier Messiaen
Silkheart SHCD 161

By Ken Waxman

Taking the post-modern concept of saluting favored musicians without recreating their work, trombonist Steve Swell convened a sextet of New York improvisers to play five of his compositions expanding on the work of French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). Extrapolating Messiaen’s complex harmonies, rhythms and melodies to the 21st Century, this 76-minute suite manages to replicate orchestral verisimilitude with violist Jason Kao Hwang, cellist Tomas Ulrich, alto saxophonist Rob Brown, keyboardist Robert Boston and drummer Jim Pugliese.

Boston’s ecclesiastical organ fills create the perfect environment for a sly takeoff on Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” entitled “Sextet for the End of Democracy”. Quiet but sardonic like the 1941 classic, this piece features appropriate aviary cackles from the strings and plunger variables by Swell. Contrasting melodic cello and astringent reed timbres contribute to the juddering swing as the tune climaxes with swelling organ pulsations. Comparable transformations advance the other tracks, with the polyphonic and nearly atonal final “Exit the Labyrinth” filled with squeaking strings and blowsy horns reaching a passionate crescendo; and “Joy and the Remarkable Behavior of Time” outright jazz, matching drum shuffles, pseudo-tailgate trombone and cascading piano chording.

Tellingly it’s the nearly 25-minute “Opening” track which sets up the compositional tropes from the dynamic to the compliant, with as many dual contrapuntal challenges and pseudo romantic tutti outbursts as solos that measure technique against inspiration. More than a Hommage, the performance demonstrates how considered inspiration can create a work as memorable as its antecedent(s).

-For The Whole Note April 2018