Duke Ellington liked suites. So does Edward Simon. Likewise, the jazz icon and the Venezuelan pianist share classical roots, a genius for orchestration and a completely outside-the box sensibility. Simon’s latest album Sorrows and Triumphs – streaming at Bandcamp – reaffirms his darkly eclectic sensibility, interspersing material from two suites. The first is the broodingly orchestrated title suite, the second is his more rhythm-centered House of Numbers suite. The result is as lavishly hypnotic as it is incisive and edgy. Simon is bringing a stripped-down version of the band on the album – his Steel House trio with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade – to a stand at the Vanguard that runs from Jan 8 through the 13th, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 PM; cover is $35.
The album’s epic opening track, Incessant Desires begins with a misterioso rustle, chamber quartet the Imani Winds wafting over a tersely enigmatic series of hooks, alto saxophonist David Binney adding spaciously placed colors. Singer Gretchen Parlato joins them as the music rises joyously, guitarist Adam Rogers leading a pensive return downward. Darcy James Argue at his most plaintively lyrical is a strong reference point; Binney’s moody modal solo over Simon’s tense, distantly menacing glimmer as the wind ensemble circle around behind them could be the high point of the album.
The group keep the eerily dancing glimmer going with the circling counterpoint of Uninvited Thoughts, with piano that’s both carnivalesque and carnaval-esque. Once again, Binney adds judicious riffage, this time throughout a lively exchange with the wind ensemble.
The shadowy interweave between piano, guitar and Parlato’s tender yet assertive vocalese as Equanimity gets underway slowly reaches toward anthemic proportions. This time it’s Rogers who gets to take centerstage in the ongoing enigma: the sense of mystery throughout this album is pretty relentless.
With its persistently uneasy, often hypnotic piano chromatics, the winds weaving in and out, Triangle is equal parts Bernard Herrmann suspense film theme and Darcy James Argue altered blues. It’s the key to the album.
The balmiest, most atmospheric track is Chant, anchored by Rogers’ tremoloing guitar waves and Parlato’s gentle, encouraging vocals. Colley’s minimalist solo echoes Simon – and is that an organ, back in the mix, or just Rogers using a pedal?
Venezuela Unida, a shout-out to Simon’s home turf, has most of the band running a warily dancing melody together, then diverging into clever, tightly clustered polyrhythms. The sparse/ornate dichotomies and moody/ebullient contrasts as it winds up and out wouldn’t be out of place in the Maria Schneider playbook.
Triumphs is part circling indie classical, part terse latin jazz, Parlato’s misty mantras and Rogers’ wry oscillations at the center. The album’s slowly pulsing closing cut, Rebirth, is even more envelopingly stripped down. If this otherwise jauntily orchestrated masterpiece slipped under the radar for you in the past year’s deluge of albums, now’s as good a time to immerse yourself in Simon’s dark melodic splendor.