CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Remy Le Boeuf: The Shadows Know

The saxophonist is spreading his wings (and casting shade) as a composer

Remy Le Boeuf
Remy Le Boeuf (photo: Levi Mandel)

If you ask saxophonist Remy Le Boeuf about his fascination with shadows, you receive a characteristically thoughtful answer. “I like the metaphor of the absence of something having substance,” he says. “We tend to put a lot of value on substance, but I think the absence is very powerful.” That line of thinking has yielded a modest amount of art in the past for this rising star, including various personal poems, lyrics, and music. But it’s become an even greater impetus in the present, firing Le Boeuf’s imagination and undergirding one of 2019’s most absorbing large-ensemble releases—the self-titled debut from Remy Le Boeuf’s Assembly of Shadows.

A finely honed work steeped in fantasy and stacked with some of New York’s most impressive players, the album draws attention, rightly, to the leader’s considerable composing and arranging skills. Composition has been a longtime interest for Le Boeuf; he delved into the subject early on with trumpeter Ray Brown (of Stan Kenton fame), studied it from a modern classical perspective with J. Mark Stambaugh at the Manhattan School of Music, investigated various other aspects through the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop, and gleaned some wisdom over the years from his piano-playing twin brother Pascal. In the end, Le Boeuf’s writing helped birth his current band.

“Long story short,” he explains, “I was approached by somebody at Keio University in Japan, and they wanted me to write a piece for their big band: the Keio Light Music Society. I had such a wonderful time writing this piece—‘Strata,’ which is the opener on the Assembly of Shadows’ album—so I decided I wanted to do more of this.” Using the Keio Society’s recording of the piece to apply for various grants and funding sources, Le Boeuf soon found himself fully invested in composing. The work kept on coming and, before he knew it, he had more than enough material for an album.

Comprising three commissions—two standalone works plus the title suite—Remy Le Boeuf’s Assembly of Shadows is nevertheless a coherent statement; each piece simply adds to the bigger picture. The aforementioned “Strata” offers a fascinating initial glimpse into Le Boeuf’s writing, building off a fugue-like intro with layered levels of construction and diatonic mirror imaging. Both resounding and playful, and offering ample space for trombonist Eric Miller and flutist Anna Webber to unspool their respective thoughts, it’s a model of fanciful focus. Then there’s an expansive take on Ornette Coleman’s “Honeymooners.” Written at the behest of multireedist Ted Nash for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s “Celebrating Ornette Coleman” program in May of 2018, it takes the rhythm-heavy original from 1988’s Virgin Beauty in a very different direction. Encouraged to take creative liberties, and having studied some of Prime Time guitarist Chris Rosenberg’s personal bootleg recordings of the piece, Le Boeuf developed a prismatic arrangement that finds his own soprano saxophone navigating varied states of solidity and uncertainty.

The remainder of the album, given over to the title suite, commissioned by the American Composers Forum through the Jerome Foundation, follows the thematic arc of a Grimm-like fairytale. A brief “Introduction,” inspired by Benjamin Britten’s choral pieces for children, sets the scene: a forest, in which a young girl gets lost. A dawning “Assembly of Shadows” and angular-turned-angry “Shapeless Dancer” evoke the titular gathering and capering in fluid forms. “Transfiguration” plays the child against her own shadow, with Le Boeuf’s light-minded alto sax and Carl Maraghi’s dark, bubbling baritone representing “the inner struggle of the character.” We end on a sensitive note with “A Light Through the Leaves,” as the shadows lead the girl back home, where she awakes in her bed. Reintroducing the opening theme of the suite at its conclusion, Le Boeuf closes out his parable with full-circle finality. There’s a strong long game in his writing.

With the arrival of this innovative work coming on the heels of Le Boeuf’s leader debut—2019’s sextet-focused Light as a Word—it would appear that this multi-hyphenate has reached a new stage in his career. After spending a solid decade focused on wide-ranging Le Boeuf Brothers projects in league with Pascal, Remy has quickly and successfully deconstructed the frequent—and wrong—characterization of the brothers as two artists possessing a single voice. “People have a way of putting you in a box and not really distinguishing between two people when they’re twins, so we both felt it was important to focus on our own individual projects for a while,” he notes. With a pair of first-rate albums under his belt and another Assembly of Shadows date due in the fall of 2020, it’s highly doubtful that his identity will be confused—or fused—with another’s again.

Dan Bilawsky

Dan Bilawsky has been involved in jazz journalism for 15 years. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, JAZZed, and All About Jazz, among other outlets. In addition, he’s penned liner notes for artists on Red, Capri, HighNote/Savant, Ropeadope, and other respected imprints. A band director with 20 years of teaching experience, he holds degrees in music from Indiana University, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, and Five Towns College.