Thinkin’ Big is a Chicago-based big band led by composer and trumpet player, Jonah Francese, a Mexican-American PhD candidate at Chicago University. ‘Reclamation’, their second album, is a chunky 19 tracks. The expansive tunes are interspersed with spoken word interludes. These tracks feature the opinions and observations of individuals belonging to minorities in the US because, as Francese says, their “voices remain unheard in our political environment, and the stories these voices can tell are important to the construction of the multicultural intersectionality of which most in power choose to ignore.”
“Rich Man’s Empty Pocket”, electric piano sparks the mid-paced spiky fusion-y rhythmic patterns. The drums here and throughout the set are excellent. The bright and breezy horns, although absent through much of the song, play out the anthemic melody. The proficient guitar solo midway through is Zappa-esque rather than the regular speed wizardry usually associated with this style. The combination of the big band, electric instruments and voices create an unusual but very pleasing texture which is consistent throughout this release. Piano arpeggio introduces the saxophone led theme of the refined and expansive “Sunburnt Daydreams”.
The band bursts into life sounding like the theme tune of a forgotten 70s crime show for the uptempo “Destroyer of Ignorance”. The smooth scat vocal melody line is juxtaposed with the gripping, industrious rhythm section. The tempo eases with the luscious bluesy melancholia of “Down the River”. The folky balladry of “Forgotten Forests”, complete with fiddly sounds, is vaguely reminiscent of Aaron Copland’s “American” music and not really my bag. The standard “Chim Chim Cheree” follows. On some of the tracks on this release, the big band merely provide a solid backing to the lead instruments but here it is fully utilised with the complex arrangement.
The immediate, rocky “Humidify” is dominated by distorted electric guitar rifferama and electric piano, the motif of which is adopted by other instrumental combinations throughout the arrangement. The rhythmically slow build middle section highlights the pleasing trumpet and keys solos. The post boppy “To Ash” is a joyous noise. The sombre cover of the gospel tune “Total Praise” is the last music track on this album. I guess it achieves the required grandeur for a conclusion of a work like this but is also rather mawkish and sentimental.
The spoken word sections are accompanied by solo piano, which very occasionally obscures some of the dialogue. The content is important and interesting, drawing upon experiences and opinions from differing ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations. Surprisingly, it does not appear to be as diverse as expected as all the contributors seem to have similar affluent, intellectual backgrounds. Maybe I am nitpicking here and of course, middle-class voices need to be heard too!
The sheer size of the band, the gravitas of the concept and the length of this release, it is apparent that this is a labour of love. This ambition of the project and sincerity of the performances is admirable and refreshing. A welcome addition to the standard big band sound is the prominent use of electric instruments and influences from soul, r&b and rock. An exciting and largely successful re-imagining of the big band for our times.