The 10 original tunes on composer Ken Schaphorst’s sixth big-band release, How to Say Goodbye, largely follow a consistent framework: Spacious opening passages segue through solo features into busier, densely packed climactic statements. In lesser hands, such uniform structure could become monotonous after just a few tracks, but Schaphorst’s melodic variety keeps it fresh, as does the playing of an ensemble full of longtime colleagues and former students at the New England Conservatory, where Schaphorst has chaired the jazz studies department since 2001.
This album is at its most engaging when Schaphorst tackles more bittersweet registers. Chris Cheek’s biting tenor saxophone lends tension to “Green City,” while pianist Uri Caine and drummer Matt Wilson rumble ominously under the early moments of “Global Sweat,” before giving way to plangent trumpet lines from Schaphorst, backed by cacophonous ensemble-horn exhortations. “Amnesia,” a tribute to Schaphorst’s late grandmother, combines dramatically shifting dynamics with disarming lyricism from alto saxophonist Michael Thomas. Another lost loved one, trumpeter and educator Herb Pomeroy, is saluted in the earthy “Blues for Herb,” powered by the beefy tone and pliable phrasing of tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin.
The album’s lightest moments, the twin tracks “Mbira 1” and “Mbira 2,” as those titles imply, evoke traditional African instrumentation and rhythms. The first offers an optimistic Rhodes intro from Schaphorst and striking Philip Glass-like unison horn figures, while the second is sparked to life by the shimmering sophistication of guitarist Brad Shepik. “Take Back the Country,” a paean to the music and political commitments of trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, struts forth with verve and muscular back-to-back solos from trombonist Luis Bonilla and baritone saxophonist Brian Landrus. “Descent” ends the recording on a powerful note, with Caine and trumpeter Ralph Alessi pushing their instruments to the breaking point as Wilson and the horns surround them with intense harmonic thickets.