Essay: Aquarelle, a CD by Big Bend RTS & Samuel Blaser

Aquarelle
The composition “Aquarelle” is named after the painting of transparent watercolors. The arrangement and solo on this title track are examples of Blaserisms: lustrous sound pure and simple. In historical terms, the composition is immediately reflective of a master who started his artistic career as a painter, Ellington, and his arranger and co-composer Strayhorn. Blaser’s compositional integrity, delicacy, and musicality leads straight back to precious songs like “Azure,” “Passion Flower,” “Chelsea Bridge” and “Blood Count” (Strayhorn’s living-with-death last composition written in hospital) designed for alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges as soloist. Although they are worlds apart in space, time, and instrument, Blaser’s attack is uncannily akin to Hodges’ clean lines, lyricism, romanticism, modulating tone, and red-zone emotion.

The song opens with gentle chords from pianist Ivan Aleksijević and guitarist Goran Potić, a simple resonating line from bassist Milan Pavković, a lullingly soft trombone melody from Blaser. The entry of the orchestra is subtle and penetrating, the lower end voicings impelling the swell of the music as Blaser improvises around the melody.

Mr. Blaser never sounds anything other than unruffled. He is serene and uncomplicated no matter what the tempo or exigent demand of the music, the quality of his sound commanding without overwhelming. He possesses the virtue of reducing the most complex possibility to the simplest approach with the greatest emotional impact.

The take has two sections, fairly repetitive in structure and ends with a fade of Blaser’s second solo. In spite of the elegance of the music, the fade out on this short (3:48) track led to disappointment, the feeling of being short-changed. The conceptual beauty and the lentissimo swing of the piece begged for an extended version, including solos by other members of the band.

Spooky

The third track for discussion in this essay is “Spooky”, originally titled “Murderers Home,” and recorded on Blaser’s Early in the Mornin’. This composition has its own musical and historic tale to tell. Blaser’s inspiration was a paper-backed tape recording made in 1947 by Lomax at Parchman Farm, a complex of the then segregated and chain gang Mississippi Prison System. Blaser took the melody from the original prison recording, chopped it up and based the new composition on a new chord progression.

Parchman Farm at that time was a replication of the post-slavery, plantation-model Jim Crow Deep South. Depending on their level of incarceration, prisoners farmed the land to supply the food which made up their diet. Lomax’ Blues in the Mississippi Night records musicians talking about the kind of slop the inmates ate, the better parts of any meat and vegetables having been sold on the market as profit for the prison system and the White captains & overseers. Parchman Farm had even had the benefit of a mobile electric chair which rotated among Mississippi prisons between 1940 & 1954. 

Consider this: the Lomax recording of “Murderers Home” was a forty-seven second song excerpt rendered by a man named Jimpson and unidentified others singing a cappella. It has the cadence of work song, men able to walk only in slow-paced unison, their ankles bound by iron shackles, legs collectively connected by chain. There were plenty of places to run through swamp and forest for escape if the men could get out of the shackles, but even then the Cap’n, horse-mounted, had a rifle and pistol to keep them under control. Jimpson’s chant is a lament, a wail of despair, the words in a Black lingo largely indecipherable to my ears except for “Pray for me, I got a long time before I go free.” Freedom for some meant their eventual release back to Jim Crow or sitting in the chair that would boil their blood and fry their brains.

The RTS “Spooky” version takes the song into a cadence similar to that of Jimpson’s but in a different emotional direction, a dwelling somewhere in the realm of solemn, contemplative, and ceremonial, implying that within sight was a spiritual deliverance but a steadfast pace must be maintained to get there. Ivan Ilić’s arrangement begins with a chord progression rendered by pianist Ivan Aleksijević, C-Db-A-Ab. This progression and its sustained orchestral echo anchor the song steadily pretty much throughout, the voicings imparting a disorienting and ethereal buoyancy. With the exceptions of the orchestral flourishes, the body of the composition is subtle, processional, mysterious with tints of diaphanous trumpet and trombone notes the startling duration of a meteor entering atmosphere, periods of near silence far north of the deepest indigo, an ultraviolet way beyond Hank Williams’ “the silence of a falling star that lights up a purple sky”. Embellishments on guitar, what sound like elegant and restrained electronic effects, add to the eerie atmosphere. Blaser as the soloist rides through all of this slowly and methodically, the resonance of the trombone frequently echoing the melodic voicings of the band.

Arranging involves tricky concepts for a big band such as sight-reading versus collective improvisation, voicing different sections with each other, voicings within a section, and the relation of the ensemble to the lead improvising voice. The first structures of “Spooky” have a density that might be termed simple, such that the sections of the ensemble are brought to bear quite selectively and for short durations to sustain the spooky. 

Just at 5:35, the ear detects a high point in Blaser’s solo indicating it may be time to wind down to the coda. Such a coda have been quite satisfying. Instead an unexpected extraordinary happens. The arrangement continues into what becomes a crescendo, a musically and spiritually powerful ensemble uplift. Consider how a tsunami becomes manifest. Deep in the ocean there is an earthquake, the energy released from a tectonic shift becoming hydraulic pressure with the resulting wave-forms hardly visible at the surface. Within the ocean sub-surface body there is a flux, a movement of liquid continuity across vast ocean-space that is felt but may not be recognized until it converges at the steep slope conjunction with the land to overwhelm gravity and overwhelm the land. 

A similar surge in “Spooky” begins at 5:41 with the µ-second transition the RTS is adept at. First comes the subtle massed forces of the trombone and saxophone cohorts voiced at their lower ends. With this  increasingly powerful undercurrent and the drums entering full-force, the trumpet section crests the movement with the melodic theme, Blaser reaching for the high notes of resolution, glory bound.

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