What could be more appropriate for this year than an album about a trip through hell?
When the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis recorded their live performance of alto saxophonist Sherman Irby’s Inferno in 2012, it’s unlikely that anyone in the world had any idea how much we would suffer eight years later at the hands of the lockdowners. Nor is it likely that the big band were even considering releasing this show as an album. But when it’s illegal to have your whole band in the same room, you do what any reasonable organization with a massive archive would do: you put out one great live record after another to keep your fans satisfied (and remind the rest of the world that a free society will someday flourish again in this city). This brings the orchestra’s releases this year to a grand total of four, and there may be more on the way.
Irby’s Dante-inspired suite features crowd favorite baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley playing the devil role, an assignment he obviously if rather subtly relishes when his turn comes.
A brief overture has slurry low brass, train-whistle high reeds and flickers of hi-de-ho swing, Temperley taking everybody way down into the depths. The first movement is titled House of Unbelievers, its brassy strut quickly giving way to suave, plush swing with good-natured solos from flute, soprano sax and trombone: it’s anything but hellish. But the atmosphere heats up in the simmmering second movement, Insatiable Hunger, a slow, slinky minor-key roadhouse theme of sorts: is that a piccolo descending from the clouds and hovering overhead like a drone? Shivery trombone offers a demonic response and kicks off the ensuing chatter.
Temperley’s allusively menacing solo follows that gremlin conversation as Beware the Wolf gets underway, echoed by smoky tenor sax, evilly slurry trombone and wicked, downwardly spiraling trumpet over a practically frantic swing. The album’s showstopper is The City of Dis, a slow, creepy, kaleidoscopically arranged Ravel Bolero-inspired number worthy of Gil Evans, packed with sly carnivalesque touches. It’s one of the most entertaining pieces of music released this year.
The Three-Headed Serpent is just about as colorful, a racewalking swing tune with bits of stern 19th century gospel, lowrider funk and solos from drums to tenor sax to piano popping up all over the place. The fierce trumpet duel at the center really energizes a crowd who up to this point have been pretty sedate.
The album’s epic final movement is The Great Deceiver, a synopsis of sorts that wraps up the brooding bolero theme and pretty much everything else, the devil himself slowly stalking in on the pulse of the bass as his minions chatter away. He slinks off amid an Ellingtonian lustre at the end. Irby is best known as a fearsome soloist, but these compositions are flat-out brilliant: let’s hope we get more like this out of him in the years to come. This is best-of-2020 material.