Justin Mullens: Justin Mullens and the Delphian Jazz Orchestra

Duke Ellington’s famous characterization about music being “beyond category” immediately springs to mind when considering the highly personal art of Justin Mullens. His latest release, Justin Mullens and the Delphian Jazz Orchestra (Fresh Sound New Talent), devotes 74 minutes and all 10 tracks to the legend of Beowulf. The writing, all by Mullens, is excellent; voicings for the 15 pieces and occasional wordless doubling by vocalist Judith Berkson are challenges the musicians feast on. The solos are exceptional, particularly the leader on trumpet, who also doubles on French horn. Other standouts include the rich trombone choir behind Berkson on “The Trifler,” the work of saxophonists Chris Cheek, Matt Glassmeyer and Dave Barraza, bassist Masa Kamaguchi and the kinetic support of drummer Danny Weiss.

It’s not possible to listen to Mullens’ tone portraits and say, “Oh yeah, here comes Grendel” or “That must be Wiglaf and the dragon.” It may happen occasionally in classical music with motifs for Peter and the Wolf, but it doesn’t work that way in jazz. This is just good big-band writing, from occasional straightahead or modal sections to solos based on scales to completely free sequences, combined with vocalese from a singer who fearlessly attacks awkward intervals and boasts a range that’s hard to believe. The band should be heard-but not necessarily at weddings or bar mitzvahs.