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Randy Sandke and the Metatonal Big Band: The Subway Ballet

The name “Metatonal” in the title simply refers to chords that lie beyond the scope of traditional harmony and conventional chord symbols (about which Sandke has written a book). Best known as a swing trumpeter (he worked with Benny Goodman’s final band in 1985 and ’86), Sandke is a musician whose artistry stretches from early jazz to the avant-garde. This album, scored for traditional big-band instrumentation with vibes replacing the piano, leans toward the avant-garde, but it avoids the chaos, tedium and excess commonly associated with the genre.

The ballet depicts a New York subway trip by mother-and-daughter en route from Brooklyn Heights to Lincoln Center. Sandke paints vivid musical portraits of the places and characters they encounter: Downtown punks, Wall Street brokers, career women, Harlem… The performances avoid the trap of sounding self-consciously arty. The rhythms are strong (this is dance music, after all), the orchestral colors are more basic than pastels and the solos are bold. You may hear brief echoes of Duke Ellington’s writing in Sandke’s juxtaposition of instrumental sections, riffs and accents. But the metatonal harmonies add tart notes beyond Ellington.

On “Pas de Deux,” Scott Robinson’s soprano saxophone provides a lovely, lyrical voice for Sandke’s melody. On “Dance of the Hassidic Diamond Merchants,” David Krakauer’s clarinet wails a bent-note klezmer melody. Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon roughs things up here and there on the CD.

“Music From 1988,” a set of four tunes Sandke recorded 18 years ago, completes the album. “Happy Birthday Berlin” and “Realization” include a layered electronic sound. Sandke plays guitar on the former. An intriguing album.

Originally Published