The Mark MASTERS Ensemble – Blue Skylight – Capri 

The Mark MASTERS Ensemble – Blue Skylight – Capri 74143-2, 48:33  (2/17/17)  ****½:

(Gary Foster; alto sax/ Jerry Pinter; tenor and soprano sax/ Gene Cipriano; tenor sax/ Adam Schroeder; baritone sax/ Ron Stout; trumpet/ Les Benedict; trombone/ Ed Czach; piano/ Putter Smith; doublebass/ Kendall Kay; drums )

Outstanding small concert-band arrangements of Monk and Mulligan compositions played by the American Jazz Institute house band. 

Mark Masters is the president of the American Jazz Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting jazz. The Pasadena-based group maintains an orchestra as well, featuring veteran West Coast players. Perhaps their most vital work, though, is related to archiving the rich lore of jazz composition and promoting new works for performance. What we have in this recording is a collection of tunes by Monk and Mulligan, arranged by Mark Masters himself, and performed by an ensemble under his name. In effect these tunes, are newly-realized pieces rather than gussied up standards. However, plenty of the musical character of the original composers comes through as well, even as the charts are reassembled.

On the opening track, Monk, Bunk, and Vice Versa, a lesser known Mingus tune, the head is subjected to polyphonic elaboration. It stops just short of becoming fussy, the tight ensemble playing imbued with swinging energy. Excellent solos follow–especially fine is the trombone playing of Les Benedict – but the heart of it reflects remarkable arrangement. It sets a high standard for what must follow, and for the most part, each track testifies to the great skill of the arranger Mark Masters. (According to the liner notes, the composer agonizes over every voicing and spends a lot of time at night out on the “star lawn,” seeking answers from the cosmos as to whether he should use a flat nine or a sharp nine. This care for detail shows.)  The musicians, too, must be given credit for a hard won achievement of mastering the complexities involved without sacrificing the expressive power of the music.

In the tradition of jazz arranging, Gerry Mulligan is one of the great Law-Givers. Mark Masters takes up six Mulligan originals (alternating with Mingus tunes). Two of these tunes amount to tributes, with a minimalistic ensemble adding color. On Wallflower, a Putter Smith bass solo is followed by the first solo by Gary Foster, whose alto voice is a thing of rare beauty. Mr. Foster’s two choruses, played so simply but affectingly, would be more than enough to send listeners in search of a spectacular Foster’s duo with the bassist, Perfect Circularity, which is available on the American Jazz Institute’s own label. On Strayhorn 2, Adam Schroeder does a convincing Mulligan impersonation on the baritone. But on Mulligan’s Applecore, the ensemble takes the spotlight as they maneuver through dazzling unison; short exchanges between the horns are just resting points in the sweep of the splendid chorus.

The Mingus ballad Eclipse balances lyrical beauty with an almost comic woefulness, the ensemble adding some splashes of vinegar. In the old days, no one ever wanted to follow a Stan Getz solo. The same conundrum presents itself here: Gary Foster again plays a resplendent solo, after which a muted trombone and an especially noisy Putter Smith solo lose altitude, landing with a thud.

The final two Mulligan tunes rely on mid-tempo swing and ebullient ensemble backing. It is impressive how much is squeezed into the two-minute Motel. Perhaps the economy is suggested by the title. In fact, all of the tracks are short by normal standards, and that is probably a good part of the impression of artistic perfection that they make.

This group is quite fine, and the work of the AJI can be highly commended. It is easy to imagine other projects in which Mark Masters continues to enrich the tradition of jazz arrangement. It is also quite clear that we do not have enough recordings by Gary Foster.  The benevolent AJI institution might wish to broaden the exposure of this remarkable musician.

TrackList: Monk, Bunk; Out Back of the Barn; So Long, Eric; Wallflower; Peggy’s Blue Skylight; Strayhorn 2; Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love; Apple Core; Eclipse; Birds of a Feather; Motel

—Fritz Balwit

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