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Andy Middleton: Reinventing the World

To put on this album is to suddenly realize that there are not enough octet recordings. No doubt, economic factors play a role in this scarcity, and CDs by trios and quartets and quintets come in waves. But little big bands, like Andy Middleton’s octet, open otherwise unreachable possibilities of scale and texture and complexity while remaining nimble enough to stay out of the way of the soloists.

Middleton’s writing creatively and carefully exploits the resources of the octet format, with a satisfying poise between 21st-century currency and listener-friendly accessibility. Yet Reinventing the World is a title that does not seem to fit music that is neither radical nor revolutionary.

The title, it turns out, refers to Middleton’s overarching theme, which is a meditation on the world’s threatened ecology. A committed environmentalist, his first recording is called Acid Rain, and this new album includes titles like “Three Mile Island.” While the motivations and inspirations underlying the music are interesting, they are not essential to its appreciation. In fact, Reinventing the World is overall so bouncy and bright that its relationship to ecological laments, much less catastrophes, is not obvious. But the performances stand well on their own. Middleton’s charts smoothly blend eight instruments into an airy, ever-evolving organism. If there is limited contrast in color and tone and even tempo, the hues are always rich, and the active contexts are stimulating for soloists. Most of the players here are not well-known. But Sheila Cooper and Darcy Hepner on reeds, Nils Wogram on trombone and Henry Hey on piano all make the most of their allotted moments.

Middleton himself is an articulate, understated spokesman for his own cause on soprano and tenor saxophones. The one big name here is trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, who plays with more aggression than usual, though with his customary intuitive taste.

Originally Published