If you want to make a big splash with your debut album, you put as many players on it as you can. Maybe you leave no doubt about where the record is going by opening with a nine-minute song which starts with the big riff from Also Sprach Zarathustra.
That’s what saxophonist Sam Pilnick did on the first album by his nonet, The Adler Suite, streaming at Bandcamp. It was not easy to resist being snarky about the album’s central concept: the mysteries of deep space (Pilnick came up with it on his first trip to Chicago’s Adler Planetarium). In all seriousness, Pilnick’s compositions are refreshingly uncluttered, tuneful and on the upbeat side: he and his formidable group managed to wrap up recording under the wire in February 2020, just ahead of the plandemic lockdowns.
The title of the opening number, Squawk Box refers to the NASA communication device which seems positively quaint after all these years. That famous Space Odyssey riff becomes a cheery march over an increasingly bustling rhythm, then suddenly the band drop out for a fleetingly sober break by pianist Meghan Stagl. She returns to deliver a longer, loungey twinkle. On bass clarinet, Ted Hogarth adds comfortable nocturnal ambience beneath growing lustre as the group wind their way out with an unhurried optimism. The far reaches of the galaxy have seldom been more inviting.
The album’s second tune, Star Launch opens with an attractively bustling theme, an intertwine between altoist Max Bessesen, trumpeter Emily Kuhn, trombonist Euan Edmonds, and Hogarth on baritone sax alongside guitarist Ben Cruz, bassist Ben Dillinger and drummer Matthew Smalligan. The bandleader races steadily through the song’s first solo, Bessesen raising the intensity to a genial 50s Basie-esque series of flurries which the ensemble ride out on.
Stagl switches to electric piano for extra starriness in Revolving Twins, a series of variations on a gentle, steadily circling riff, Cruz playing Luke S. to Smalligan’s Darth V. for a bit. Dillinger artfully shadows Pilnick’s deliberately paced upward trajectory to a febrile peak.
Kuhn does her best Venus impression in the tenderly resonant ballad Silver Light, and she’s got it, wafting over ambered horns and Stagl’s spacious chords. The moody duo number Constant Companion makes a good segue, the bandleader taking his time closing in on Stagl’s simple, loopy descending progression.
The album’s most epic track is House of the Massive (Pismis-24), inspired by a star system 6500 light years from home. With its hypnotically funky pulse, echoey electric piano, buoyant horns and shreddy guitar solo, it brings to mind late-period Steely Dan. Pilnick returns to spacious ambience with A Light Year, a contented canon for the horns and then takes that theme more bracingly and warily upward in Expanding Universe.
The group conclude with Falling Backwards, inspired by the return of the Gemini 12 expedition. Pilnick chooses his spots over a staggered, energetically syncopated drive and massed brassy atmosphere, Edmonds’ clusters and sailing phrases leading the group to the edge of night. Pilnick’s translucent compositions are a breath of fresh air: let’s hope we get to hear more from this purposeful crew.