Christopher Zuar Orchestra ‘Musings’ (Sunnyside) 4/5

christopher-zuar-orchestraJazz orchestras seem to be enjoying something of a resurgence of late. New York trumpeter and composer Christopher Zuar, together with a 19 piece orchestra, celebrates life’s “Musings” with an excellent debut, adding to the increasing list of jazz musicians taking on composition for large ensembles, big bands and orchestras. What is of note in particular here though, is that Zuar had not yet turned 30 when this album was recorded. I mention this for two reasons; firstly, it’s not just the elder statesmen of jazz turning their hand to this genre of music, and secondly, when I listen to “Musings” it is refreshingly youthful in some of its mood and outlook, yet is written and performed with such skill that one might have expected it to be written by someone more mature in years, the music being to such a high standard.
To aid in the preparation and execution of the recording, Zuar enlisted Mike Holober as producer. The experienced ensemble that Holober helped assemble is truly top-notch, featuring woodwind players Dave Pietro, Ben Kono, Jason Rigby, Lucas Pino and Brian Landrus, trumpeters Tony Kadleck, Jon Owens, Mat Jodrell and Matt Holman, trombonist so Tim Albright, Matt McDonald, Alan Ferber and Max Siegel, guitarist Pete McCann, pianist Frank Carlberg, bassist John Hebert and drummer Mark Ferber. Vocalist Jo Lawry also features on four of the tracks, as well as percussionist Rogerio Boccato. The resulting performances throughout this album are to an exceptional standard, with all of the musicians showing an astounding amount of flexibility and prowess.

Ranging from tender, gentle and thoughtful, right through to fiery and explosive, “Musings” manages to cover just about every musical angle. Yet it is all held together so well by the composer’s startling ability to not only deliver individually wonderful moments, but to also give the listener a sense of time and place, with the overall resulting album feeling like a journey the listener is sharing with the composer. The opening piece, “Remembrance” is based on the writer’s recollections of his childhood and familiar places as he considers where he came from and where he is going… and so the adventure begins, with the beautiful tonal colours and textures of “Chaconne”, the rousing emotion of “Vulnerable States” and the Brecker-like funky horn-led “Ha! (Joke’s on You)”. Special mention has to go to the incredible “So Close, Yet So Far Away”. This is a truly mesmerising piece of a music, haunting and anguished, yet beautiful and thought-provoking. To my mind, this tune above all else, marks out Zuar as an exceptional composer, one with strength, passion and that rare skill of being able to touch a listener’s soul with the music that has been written. This track also features a remarkable solo from one of my favourite saxophonists, Jason Rigby. Our journey continues with “Anthem” which was written as a proclamation of strength and perseverance, and “Lonely Road”, more simple and reflective in nature. The album closes with an uplifting take on Egberto Gismonti’s “7 Aneis”.

“Musings” is a fascinating collection of compositions. A brilliant debut from Christopher Zuar, and one that acts as a mouth-watering prospect for things to come from this exciting writer and performer.

Mike Gates