Such Sweet Thunder
This is a strangely beautiful album. Strange because it seems to be going nowhere; beautiful because of David Berger's excellent composing and arranging. Marlowe is made up of two suites, "Windows on the World" and "Marlowe," spread across 17 tracks-so you know some of the sections are short. Such brevity is usually a clue to motivation. In the case of "Marlowe," which comprises the final dozen tracks, it was intended as a ballet for Alvin Ailey's American Dance Theater, but Ailey died in 1989 and the project was sidetracked. It was obviously created to underscore visual action, be it ballet or movie, and the music has a hard time standing on its own. There's no denying the suite is extremely cinematic, however, which explains the many "cues" and the motivic and rhythmic glue that holds the individual tracks together.
The same criticisms-positive and negative-can be made for "Windows," which was the name of the restaurant atop the World Trade Center. Again, Berger has created a montage of subjective reactions that cry out for visualization. But there is only one outright weakness: the jazz waltz "Heroes," sung by Aria Hendricks (Jon's daughter). Berger's melody, trying to match Jim Ferguson's poetry, puts unfair demands on the voice. Hendricks struggles valiantly and emerges a true hero.
The Sultans of Swing have been together since the late '90s, and their familiarity with each other shows. It's a well-disciplined 17-piece unit, and Berger's colorful writing reveals Ellington's DNA. It's a great combination overall, just not consistently so on Marlowe.