Pianist Johannes Wallmann’s new Elegy for an Undiscovered Species – streaming at Bandcamp – is an unusual and strikingly tuneful big band jazz album. For one, the lineup – jazz quintet plus a fourteen-piece string orchestra – is unorthodox, harking back to the days of Charlie Parker With Strings. Yet it also engages the orchestra as much as the rest of the group. It’s also remarkably groove-oriented. Conventional wisdom is unless you’re Ron Carter or Buddy Rich, bass and drums in a big band are a thankless task. Not so here.
Don’t let the album title fool you: it’s about contrasts and shades far more than the darkness it implies. The group open with the epically swaying, eleven-minute title track, the strings rustling, tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen working the bittersweet hook over the clustering groove of bassist Nick Moran and drummer Allison Miller. Stephens takes a pensive solo as the orchestra darken the atmosphere, Jensen pushing outward with her microtones and volleys. Wallmann’s solo delivers spirals and erudite blues phrasing as the orchestra rise behind him, with bracing exchanges amid the strings.
The second number, Two Ears Old is a fond ballad, wafting horns contrasting with uneasily circling piano underneath, Wallmann and then Stephens pushing the clouds away and choosing their spots as they climb. Miller’s whispery thicket of sound and nimbly altered shuffle in tandem with Moran’s tersely dancing lines beneath Jensen’s lyrical ambered solo are masterful. They reprise the theme at the end of the album as a bit of a High Romantic feature for cello and piano.
In Threes has rhythms and unsettled harmonies shifting around a piano pedal note as the band gathers momentum. Wallmann eventually abandons a twinkling righthand solo for warpy, spacy synth: the bizareness of the individual strings answering has to be heard to be believed. Whatever you think of this, you can’t say it’s not original.
A looping, syncopated bass riff anchors Expeditor, bright horns versus hushed, expectant strings, Jensen’s calm, floating solo contrasting with the bandleader’s loose-limbed attack and devious exuberance from Miller afterward. The ending is unexpected and amusing.
Longing, a jazz waltz, is the album’s most lyrical and strongest track, Wallmann in lounge lizard mode as the strings waft and then recede. The strings carry the melody. revealing the moody bolero underneath, Stephens ranging from blippy to balmy.
The strings develop a windswept, cinematic tableau to open The Greater Fool, then the rhythm section bring in a clave for Jensen’s low-key, amiable solo, Wallmann delivering some coy ragtime allusions. Miller’s shamanic solo as the modalities darken could be the high point of the record.