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Charles Pillow: Pictures at an Exhibition

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You don’t really have to know anything about Modest Mussorgsky (one of the innovative, earthy Russian nationalist composers of the late 19th century) or “Pictures at an Exhibition” (his most popular work) to appreciate the sprawling, absorbing arrangement of it on Charles Pillow’s new disc. The saxophonist uses Mussorgsky’s idea of a pictorial suite, his memorable melodies and his basic harmonic framework to create a kind of tribute that stands on its own.

At times, the proceedings stray pretty far from Mussorgsky, like when “Bydlo” erupts with a riot of klezmer. But some elements hint at Pillow reinterpreting Mussorgsky for our time. Frequently, drummer Tim Horner and bassist Chuck Bergeron lay down rock beats that drive the musical narrative, similar to the way Mussorgsky tapped his country’s folk vernacular for inspiration. The novel, delicious sonorities Pillow’s band produces, like his solos over Ben Monder’s grinding guitar in “The Hut of Baba Yaga” or the gauzy swells of Jim Ridl’s synths on “Catacombae,” resonate with the wildly inventive harmonies of the original. Most important, like the original, Pillow’s arrangement feels like a set of distinct but subtly linked pieces, and they’re filled with adventurous, insightful playing from all involved.

This is an exhibition packed with fancy, grotesquerie, charm and wonder, and one well worth attending.