How best to make a musical representation of a visual medium? That, in effect, was one challenge alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw faced when putting together The Soundtrack of Things to Come, the Philadelphia native’s rangy, accomplished third album as a leader. Four of the disc’s 10 pieces, all of which have Shaw heading his regular quartet, are the outgrowth of commissions he received from two New York museums to compose music inspired by artwork in their collections.
The assignment has resulted in intriguing work, with robust emotional content matched by highly sophisticated playing and writing. “The Wheel of Life,” the first of the art-inspired pieces, features a folkish melody atop a droning, chiming rhythm-section groove that later shifts to straight-ahead walking and, finally, a section featuring bassist Boris Kozlov’s soloing; the tune was inspired by a cloth painting, in the Rubin Museum, illustrating a Buddhist doctrine. Three others are related to pieces from the Brooklyn Museum: The nearly 12-minute long “Chroma” offers space for the exploratory improvisations of Shaw and pianist Lawrence Fields; “Sister” is a slow-moving ballad with a haunting theme; and the free-feeling “Faith,” the disc’s alternately meditative and rousing closer, is injected with gospel-blues flavors.
Other compositions grew directly from personal experiences, starting with opener “I Wish I Didn’t Know,” all searching melody and jagged rhythms. “Ballerina,” aptly, is a series of graceful declarations on soprano sax and then piano, and “Song for Sid,” for Philadelphia pianist Sid Simmons, also featuring soprano, is bright, midtempo swing. Things to come? Shaw’s in-the-present music feels like precisely the right shape and place for the saxophonist. The future can wait.