Portland, Oregon-based composer/arranger Ezra Weiss means well with his latest recording. He leads a 17-piece big band that is joined by a nine-member choir in a program of originals and a sterling cover of the Wayne Shorter classic “Footprints,” and the pieces are strung together as a suite written as a letter to his young children about the word today. In this context, the recording promises to be a bit like a jazz version of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me or even Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele, both meditations on what parents can tell their children about the world around them.
Unfortunately, it isn’t. Through several spoken passages, Weiss announces his dismay and exasperation with the world in the Age of Trump. He belabors many by-now-familiar issues, barbarism at the border, police brutality, and the manipulation of truth; one piece is a sly, um, spin on an Oliver Nelson classic, here renamed “Blues and the Alternative Fact.” The music provides a healthy primer on contemporary orchestral jazz, with moments that evoke bands led by Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, Maria Schneider, and even current rising stars like Miho Hazama. In their pithy solos, reedmen John Nastos and Renato Caranto make a strong case for further investigation of the Pacific Northwest jazz scene.
Weiss offers a pushback against the populist surge in the title track, which takes its lyrics from an 1853 hymn by George Rawson. Weiss’ assertions that there is no “other” feels well-intentioned but bland. Oppressive attitudes in America didn’t begin with the 2016 election. At some level it feels as if he’s made exasperation his endpoint rather than his start. If, as Weiss passionately intones, he doesn’t have a song for Eric Garner, does he have one for the Squad?