Ted Nash’s “Presidential Suite” (Motéma 203) is subtitled “Eight Variations on Freedom”, and is based on the words of eight famous political speeches. Specifically, Nash created his main themes based on the speech rhythms and vocal inflections of the speakers. And so, John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech is miraculously transformed into a stomping blues. Each movement is preceded by a reading from the speech by a prominent politician or celebrity, and while readers like Joe Lieberman, Deepak Chopra and Douglas Brinkley do their best to retain the speaking styles of JFK, Nehru and Reagan respectively, it might have been better to use the original historical recordings. Except for Chris Crenshaw’s vocal on the final track, Nelson Mandela’s “The Time for the Healing of the Wounds”, the connection between words and music is not always obvious. However, the music is quite extraordinary on its own (and Motéma includes a second disc in the package, which offers the music alone). Nash has created a suite that covers a great deal of musical ground, utilizing elements related to each original speaker (for example, a delightful Burmese pattern in the woodwinds throughout “Water in Cupped Hands”, a piece inspired by the words of the Myanmar political leader Aung San Suu Kyi) and capturing the essence of the words (as in the melodic urgency on “The American Promise”, Lyndon Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech). “Four Freedoms” uses changes in both the musical styles and the soloists to illustrate the concepts in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech. In the hands of a lesser composer, this could be a rather obvious gimmick, but Nash makes the idea work in a purely musical sense, and that makes it art for the ages. Nash’s soprano sax solo on the grooving 7/4 “Spoken at Midnight” bursts with emotion, and the orchestral background bites and gnaws like a hungry lion. Nash has assembled a magnificent band to realize this score, and the soloists, including trumpeters Ryan Kisor, Greg Gisbert, Kenny Rampart and guest Wynton Marsalis, trombonists Vincent Gardner, Elliot Mason, and Chris Crenshaw, saxophonists Walter Blanding, Sherman Irby, and guest Joe Temperley (was this his last recording?), pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson, all provide strong solos that do not override the emotions present in the composition. This album celebrates freedom in all forms, and reminds us that freedom is far from a partisan issue.
“Real Enemies” (New Amsterdam 81) is Darcy James Argue’s 13-movement composition which delves into the thorny world of conspiracy theories. As the subject matter indicates, it is a deeply unsettling work, and Argue uses 12-tone technique to keep the music free of standard cadences and familiar chord sequences. Even when he introduces a repeating funk riff—as on the second track, “The Enemy Within”—the orchestration is nervous and edgy, which makes John Ellis’ solo tenor sax seem like an adversary to the band, rather than one of their own. Instead of using Nash’s approach of including speeches isolated at the beginning of the tracks, Argue drops sound bites into the score when they are most effective, as when JFK’s “Secret Society” speech is integrated into the orchestration on ”The Hidden Hand” (special kudos to Jon Wikan, whose drum patterns match Kennedy’s to the syllable!) “Cassus Belli” and “Crisis Control” mark the apex of the work, as they deal with the threats of terrorism. The sound bites are recent—and frightening. The anxiety of the music echoes our uncertain times. While Argue admits that film scores were one of his inspirations for this suite, what elevates this music beyond the cinema is the overwhelming intensity that Argue’s orchestra brings to every phrase. This music could not be the soundtrack for a film because the music captures our attention better than any celluloid image. In “Best Friends Forever”, the ensemble heaves and moans like one of Charles Mingus’ big bands, and throughout the album, the soloists (including trumpeters Ingrid Jensen, Nadje Noordhuis and Matt Holman, trombonists Ryan Keberle, Mike Fahie and Jacob Garchik, saxophonists Sam Sadigursky, Dave Pietro and Rob Wilkerson, pianist Adam Birnbaum, guitarist Sebastian Noelle and bassist Matt Clohesy) enhance Argue’s composition with thoughtful but emotional improvisations. Argue is to be commended for this remarkable composition. It is a brilliant manipulation of the big band medium, and it offers striking commentary on the issues of our time. Like the other albums in this review, this music will remain relevant long after the current election cycle.