Muhal Richard Abrams knew as much about writing for large improvising ensembles as anyone who ever lived. So it’s no surprise that one of his late largescale works, Soundpath, would be as erudite as it is playful and fun. The seventeen-piece Warriors of the Wonderful Sound’s new recording – streaming at Bandcamp – is creative jazz as entertainment, a lively, dynamic uninterrupted, roughly forty-minute suite.
The group are a mix of big names, up-and-coming players and familiar faces from the free jazz demimonde. They unfold this brighty, brassy theme and variations symphonically, with plenty accommodation for individual contributions. Abrams uses every trick in the book to his advantage: false endings, suspenseful foreshadowing with varying numbers of voices, and conversations everywhere. The full ensemble is only engaged all at once in maybe twenty percent of the piece, if that. Otherwise, it’s remarkably spacious, with lots of pairings and moments where the whole orchestra emphatically punches in and out.
The genial, brassy floating swing behind the opening theme recurs throughout the performance, but there are plenty of airy interludes where the rhythm drops out. Pianist Tom Lawton excels in the bad-cop role: he’s the only one who gets anything in the way of disquieting modes. Bassist Michael Formanek is as much rhythmic center, maybe more than drummer Chad Taylor, the latter of whom gets to lead the shenanigans as the coda, with its innumerable moments of amusement, gathers steam.
While there are interludes where this could be any reasonably inspired chordless trio kicking into an energetic solo from the horn player, this is more about interplay, whether via jousting, or the whole ensemble in contrast to a soloist. Bass trombonist Jose Davila’s wryly gruff solo gets a very subtle but no less amusing reality check from Taylor, on his rims. After walking the changes for much of the time, Formanek finally gets to carry a thematic variation by himself amid the orchestra’s densely hovering atmosphere.
There’s a vastly dynamic, duotone-spiced tenor solo – sounds like that’s Hafez Modirzadeh – which cues Taylor that it’s time to introduce a steady clave; the way the polyrhythms shift from there is artful to the extreme. The ending is pure Beethoven: try listening all the way through without smiling. Impossible. At a time when in most parts of the world, music like this is not only illegal to invite an audience to, but also illegal to play, we need recordings like this more than ever to remind us how desperately we need to return to normal. A triumph from a cast that also includes ringleader and alto saxophonists Bobby Zankel, Marty Ehrlich and Julian Pressley; Mark Allen on baritone sax; Robert Debellis on tenor sax;, Steve Swell, Michael Dessen and Al Patterson on trombones; Duane Eubanks, Josh Evans and Dave Ballou on trumpets; and Graham Haynes on cornet.