Shawn Maxwell’s Alliance – Shawn Maxwell’s Alliance [TrackList follows] – Chicago Sessions CS0021, 61:56 [2/18/14] ***1/2:
(Shawn Maxwell – alto and tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet; Chris Greene – soprano saxophone; Keri Johnsrud – voice; Stephan Lynerd – vibraphone, percussion; Mitch Corso – guitar; Rachel Maxwell, Meghan Fulton – French horn; Stacy McMichael, Marc Piane – bass; Paul Townsend – drums)
It is hard to get noticed in a large jazz community. Take Chicago, for instance. It probably has more jazz musicians than anywhere else in the U.S. except for NYC. Which means good players can fall under the radar. Enter multi-horn artist Shawn Maxwell (alto and tenor sax, flute and clarinet). To be spotted, Maxwell knew he had to do something distinctive. He admits “I wanted to break out; I wanted to try something completely different.” Maxwell usually leads small groups, but on his fifth release, Shawn Maxwell’s Alliance, Maxwell has super-sized his ambition. For starters, the 62-minute album features ten musicians who use sax, vocals, vibes, guitar, percussion and more to negate expectations. Instead of focusing predominately on extended arrangements which might have given lots of room for each instrument, Maxwell shaped several shorter musical sketches which often emphasize woodwinds, sometimes in a moody approach and other times with swagger. There are not many moments where bop or post-bop is employed: Maxwell prefers careful layering and counter harmonies. And vocalist Keri Johnsrud’s voice is used to generate horn-like tones rather than typical jazz vocals. In a promotional video, Maxwell explains why he aimed to create a bigger musical canvas. The video also includes excerpted music.
The result of Maxwell’s work is 18 tunes, which range from over eight minutes to just over one minute in length. Maxwell opens with the jaunty, catchy “Fun Five Funk,” which offers likable contrapuntal statements, and a brisk theme amid appealing passages which accentuate sax, woodwinds/electric guitar interplay, and a complementary contemporary character. Another stimulating number is the dynamic “Iynes Crayons,” where rock-slanted guitar adds a ragged undercurrent below a chamber jazz arrangement. The effect is reminiscent of Frank Zappa’s 1969 Hot Rats material. During the track, nonverbal vocals, flute, a solid rhythm section and a recurrent melody furnish memorable portions to the whole. Another longer cut, “Bitty Bitty Beep,” offsets conventional components with modern ones. The woodwinds forge something which has recognizable, traditional elements. You might not have heard the music, but it seems like something you have experienced before. On the other hand, the sax has a post-Coltrane tone and the electric guitar and vibes have a secondary funk bite, which provides a forward-looking inclination. Eventually, the tonal palette on “Bitty Bitty Beep” becomes more experimental, although the band by no means abandons a feeling of familiarity. Everything on the CD has some sort of intricacy, sometimes discerned at the forefront and sometimes on subsequent listening. For example, “From Parts Unknown” includes a central motif played via Maxwell’s tenor sax, Chris Greene’s soprano sax, Johnsrud’s wordless vocals and Mitch Corso’s guitar. They switch off performing the melody and then the rest of the band presents opposing harmonies over the same chord development. It is a bit tricky to pull off, and also wondrous to hear.
There is also an appreciation for humor which comes and goes in delightful directions, especially on the briefer nuggets. “Here’s Your Swing Tune” has a pleasant pizzazz, and swings with slight dissonance. The unpredictably elaborate “Plaza” dispenses with formal structure to display spiky improvisation, and balances discord with a wavering wit. The droll “Shadowbox” commences with Maxwell on buoyant clarinet, which is marked with a mist of melancholy, then moderated percussion and sax enter, and a puckish rhythm maintains a lighthearted disposition.
Throughout his album, Maxwell mingles jazz genre fundamentals but never in a fragmented manner. His visible and recurring phrases increase his project’s conceptual solidarity, and he deftly steadies compositional orchestration while allowing the artists their personal freedom. Those are some of the things which have put Maxwell outside the pack. Additional kudos to Nick Eipers, who recorded, mixed and mastered at Chicago’s Hinge Studios. He expertly organized the audio to showcase major and minor instruments in an equaling engaging framework, where lighter sounds from flute or voice are paired with louder instruments such as drums or electric guitar. It is not an easy task to do that with 10 players, and a total of 14 instruments.
TrackList: Fun Five Funk; Iynes Crayons; EGOT; From Parts Unknown; Song for Something Else; Plaza; Waiting Food; Pistols N’Tulips; Bitty Bitty Beep; Quartan; Radio Hit Number Four; Here’s Your Swing Tune; Little Ninja Groove; Perpetual Day One; Looking for Alex; Full Count; Shadowbox; You Alright? I Learned It by Watching You!.