Christopher Zuar Orchestra’s Exuberance

cover, ExuberanceThe thing I like most about a big band is its almost infinite potential for varied tones, colors and textures. That’s always been true of big bands going back to the swing days, and it definitely applies to the big bands working today including Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra, WDR Big Band, and the 22-piece Christopher Zuar Orchestra, which is new to me.

Bandleader and composer Zuar’s music has been played by Germany’s WDR, the Brussels Jazz Orchestra, the Danish Radio Big Band, and Los Angeles’ Symphonic Jazz Orchestra. His orchestra’s debut album Musings(Sunnyside Records, 2016) was critically acclaimed. Zuar is the recipient of a 2020 Copland House Residency Award and a 2022 MacDowell Fellowship.

Exuberance is a sprawling, need I say exuberant chronicle of his relationship with the woman who’s now his wife, animation filmmaker Anne Beal. But don’t expect lush slow dances and waltzes; this is a clear eyed romp through the highs and lows (but mostly highs) of a relationship between two, as they say, “creatives.” That’s where all those multitudinous colors and textures of the big band come in, not to mention its rhythmic possibilities.

“This album is a journey of personal growth,” Zuar says. “For me, this has been very much a process of becoming more open and learning how to let another person into my life. Each piece is an in-depth exploration of my emotional landscape at the time it was written.”

The two met when both were Fellows at MacDowell, an experience captured in the opening track “Winter Blooms,” which also serves as an introduction to the band, which includes guitarist Pete McCann, pianist Glenn Zaleski, bassist Drew Gress, drummer Mark Ferber, Brazilian percussionist Rogerio Boccato and a horn section that includes Charles Pillow, Jason Rigby, Ben Kono, Dave Pietro, Tony Kadleck, and Alan Ferber, among others, conducted by Mike Holober. Bassist Gress and tenor saxophonist Rigby both take cool solos, and the piece does end in a tender, tentative fade. From there it’s a multifaceted journey to the 10-minute closing title track, which begins and ends with some delightful vocals from Emma Frank, delivering lyrics written by Beal.

From there it’s a journey that has aspects of tension (“Moments In Between”), joyous connection (“Communion”), tempestuous feelings complete with an opening clap of thunder (“Before Dawn,”) and the calm of the classical influenced “Certainty.” Some of my favorite moments come from the special guests who include Sara Caswell on violin and Joe Brent on mandolin, the latter especially an instrument you don’t hear much on jazz records. Caswell, an up and coming player who’s popping up on lots of projects these days (including WDR Big Band’s Renderings), turns in a ripping solo worthy of Jean-Luc Ponty’s Mahavishnu Orchestra days, on “Communion.” She also turns in a bit of Carolina style fiddling on the jaunty “Simple Machines,” which is where Brent and his mandolin also come in; it’s a smile-inducing piece that evokes Anne Beal’s Southern roots, a deft blend of Americana and jazz that I think Copland (another MacDowell fellow) would be proud of. Exuberance is a superb example of the potential of a modern big band.

(Tonal Conversations, 2024)

| Website | Anne Beal Animation |

Gary Whitehouse

A fifth-generation Oregonian, Gary is a retired journalist and government communicator. Since the 1990s he has been covering music, books, food & drink and occasionally films, blogs and podcasts for Green Man Review. His main literary interests for GMR are science fiction, music lore, and food & cooking. A lifelong lover of music, his interests are wide ranging and include folk, folk rock, jazz, Americana, classic country, and roots based music from all over the world. He also enjoys dogs, birding, cooking, craft beer, and coffee.

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