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Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra : Port Chicago

One of the most difficult undertakings is to write a tone poem in the language of jazz. What unfolds here is a 14-movement suite based on the Port Chicago explosion of 1944, near Oakland, Calif. An explosion of undetermined origin killed more than 320 men, mostly African-American sailors. The very gifted composer/arranger/bassist Marcus Shelby attempts to capture the segregated conditions under which the sailors worked, the horrific explosion itself, even the mindset of the ill-fated survivors trying to cope with mutiny, court-martial, the lack of full exoneration, and the injustices of racism.

Ambitious, but it can’t be done. Hearing this hard-swinging, 15-piece band without consulting track names, it’s nearly impossible make the connection to specific events. Even with the titles available, there are only occasional hints. But on its own merits, there is much to recommend here: “Opening Dance,” a spirited shouter featuring pianist Adam Shulman, tenorist Rob Barics and trumpeter Dave Scott; the 7/4 “Work Routine 1,” with trombonist Dave Grewen and trumpeter Scott; and “Work Routine II,” with flutist Evan Francis, and a tenor battle between Barics and Evan. Bassist Shelby keeps rushing the tempo steadily to reflect the white officers who would bet on the speed of the black sailors at work, one of the more successful programmatic tracks.

Originally Published