The Mark Masters Ensemble ‘Blue Skylight’ (Capri) 5/5

I had been aware of the name of Mark Masters for some time but this was the first opportunity that I had had to hear any of his output.  Masters is an American trumpeter, composer and arranger who “has emerged as one of the great jazz arrangers of the 20th and 21st Century.” His first recording as leader, the aptly titled “Early Start” was released in 1984 when he was aged just twenty-seven. Since then he has released some ten albums as leader.  
Aside from writing charts, Masters has dedicated much of his time to education. In 1997 he founded the American Jazz Institute, concentrating on interpreting the music of Bill Holman, Lee Konitz, Sam Rivers and others. His initial recording in tribute to jazz greats was “The Jimmy Knepper Songbook” and subsequently “The Clifford Brown Project.”
Masters’ modus operandi is to assemble groups of all stars and the best local West Coast musicians to record his arrangements in concept tribute albums. His latest release continues this tradition by focussing on the work of Charlie Mingus and Gerry Mulligan. At first these two might seem to be strange bed-fellows, but the affiliation seems to be a marriage made in heaven. The play list includes ‘Peggy’s Blue Skylight’ and ‘Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love’ by Mingus and ‘Apple Core’ and ‘Birds of A Feather’ by Mulligan. Otherwise, less well-known compositions have been chosen for Masters’ arranging pen.  

Amongst the soloists in this seven piece group are Gary Foster sounding at times rather reminiscent of Lee Konitz on alto saxophone, Gene Cipriano (the sound of Tony Curtis’ sax playing in ‘Some Like It Hot’) on tenor sax and Adam Schroeder on baritone sax. On the Mingus tracks the ensemble sound is varied with trumpet and trombone replacing tenor and baritone saxes.

I found this to be a thoroughly enjoyable set, so much so, that I immediately ordered two other Masters’ releases.  

Despite the stress placed on Masters’ arranging skills, he does not over-write and allows plenty of space for his soloists. Each group member gets solo features throughout the eleven tracks.  

It is important to say that these are not slavish imitations of the originals. This is no repertory band and the charts are a wholly original re-imagining, almost re-compositions. After all, as trumpeter Tim Hagens points out in the liner notes; “arranging is composing and if the arranger’s voice is highly personal and developed, the original composer fades in function against the arranger’s musical opinion”. It’s clear too that Masters had the personalities of the various band members in mind when writing, in much the same way as Ellington had done many years previously.

There really is something for all musical tastes here, burly swing, tender balladry, swaggering bluesy interludes, and be-bop fuelled bravura.

One final comment, the wonderful Edward Hopper painting adorning the album sleeve seems to depict perfectly the music to be found within.

From start to finish this album certainly delivers the goods.

Alan Musson