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Michael Mantler: The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Update

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Michael Mantler organized the original The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra album in 1968, as a manifestation of his and then-wife Carla Bley’s activities in the new jazz scene in New York. The music, all penned by Mantler, featured dense, long-toned backdrops (inspired by European avant-garde classical works) layered with improvisations by Don Cherry, Larry Coryell, Roswell Rudd and Cecil Taylor, among others. Saxophonist Pharoah Sanders created the most brutal piece, shrieking for three minutes over a relentless march pattern that suggested Bernard Herrmann’s theme from Psycho.

While digitizing his numerous scores recently, Mantler hit upon the idea of updating those early works for performance. The 19-piece Nouvelle Cuisine Big Band essentially maintains the same instrumentation, while an amplified string quartet and guitarist are both added. Mantler also plays several trumpet solos, something he’s rarely done in recent years. The tracks-all labeled “Updates” and numbered to evoke their original “Communications” number-are more concise, with nothing over eight minutes. They lack the brutality of the original album, with the ominous lower brass traded out for more expansive arrangements of sound. Harry Sokal’s tenor saxophone does seem to evoke Gato Barbieri’s wails on the original. But on “Preview,” Sanders’ showcase, radio.string.quartet.vienna’s sawing sound is mixed lower, putting more emphasis on the ensemble’s staccato punches.

None of this means Update pales in comparison to its predecessor. These works are equally rich in the way that the ensemble’s instruments intertwine or clash with each other. The recording, captured live in Vienna, has a sonic clarity lacking in the original, thereby ultimately bringing out the nuances in Mantler’s writing. In all, it feels like a new set of music rather than a recreation of an older one.

Listen to or download this album at iTunes.

Originally Published