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Saxophonist Bobby Zankel first convened this Philadelphia-based big band almost 20 years ago, and here the lineup boasts a slew of heavy hitters. Only a handful would count as jazz-household names — among them trumpeter Josh Evans, cornetist Graham Haynes, trombonist Steve Swell, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Chad Taylor — although the entire band plays with strength and even inspiration throughout.
But the band’s new release, SoundPath, would also attract attention with lesser musicians, owing to the provenance of its single composition. In 2012, the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound commissioned this piece from Muhal Richard Abrams, co-founder and guiding light of the AACM, whose work as a composer all but outstripped his spiky and distinctive piano praxis. Virtually no one got to hear SoundPath: It received only two public performances, in 2012 and in 2018, both for small audiences in the Philadelphia area. This 2019 recording, with saxophonist Marty Ehrlich conducting, offers the first chance for the world at large to hear a “new” piece by a master innovator, and that alone would recommend it.
Abrams, who died in 2017, constructed SoundPath around a series of miniature cornerstones — mostly trio episodes linked and occasionally buoyed by tuneful ensemble sections that wax and wane in intensity. The first such vignette presents pianist Tom Lawton, flatteringly respectful of Abrams’ own approach without slipping into parody; bassist Formanek also gets a solo spot, and later joins with Ehrlich (playing alto) for a duo interlude. But primarily, these meet-ups distill the horn sections of the jazz orchestra, with each group featuring one saxophonist, one trumpeter and one or two trombonists — as in the lovely pastoral woven by Robert DeBellis on soprano, Michael Dessen on trombone and Dave Ballou on trumpet. SoundPath becomes a sort of tour through these various “neighborhoods,” enlivened by the street-corner dialogue among these intimate gatherings.
The work inhabits the genre-bridging “freebop” territory that Abrams all but discovered on his early small-band records. And while the term has become widespread since then, his own pursuit of the idiom into large-ensemble formats constitutes a significant portion of his legacy — as SoundPath winningly reminds us.