Large Ensembles, Review

‘Last Works’ ~ Tom Pierson

Serendipity, by its very definition, denotes the uncontrived. It is a felicitous happenstance which brings unexpected joy. Last week, a serendipitous package fell my way. It began as many good things do in a small Jazz Club. I was hardly through the door when Roger Manins the club coordinator handed me a package with a Japanese postmark. I glanced at the address and smiled. It was addressed to me care of The Creative Jazz Club, Backbeat Bar, Aotearoa, New Zealand. That appealed to me greatly, an improbable address which found me in a city of nearly two million people. Apollo and Artemus clearly had a role in guiding it to my hands as the address on the label no longer exists. Within days of delivery it hit its mark.

I shoved the package into my bag and promptly forgot about it as the live music demanded my full attention. The next morning I was fishing for something in my bag and I located it again. The return address gave few clues as to its origin as it was in Japanese. Inside was a handwritten note in English and the words, ’Dear John, I hope you will be curious’. It was signed, Tom Pierson. No writer worth their salt lacks curiosity and I am no exception. I love riddles and musical riddles are the best of all.

Inside the package was a double album titled ‘Last Works’. The cover, plain in multi-hued claret and to one side, in a discrete white font, that simple title. Understated cover art is an act of confidence and in this case, no wonder. The first track, a long-form piece titled ‘Abandoned’ offered a compelling foretaste of the musical journey ahead. ‘Abandoned’ is a brooding and captivating piece, with splashes of bright light illuminated against a dark textural background. I put it on and sat down as it was impossible not to be drawn inside the music. As I listened, every fibre of being told me that I was hearing a monumental work. A work to experience without distractions; a grab a cup of coffee, hang a ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door sort of experience.  

That opening sequence of ‘Abandoned’ set the tone for me. My attention was immediately drawn to the lower register, its bass trombones and baritone pumping out an earthy pulse. Each utterance hitting my solar plexus with an angel punch. Oh yes, I thought, this music is visceral. The strong bass presence and the uncluttered mid-range gifted the winds airy freedom. The track titled 45/8 is another gem. It unselfconsciously gathers up all Jazz; a history lesson in one breathtaking sweep.

I have seldom heard charts like this and it is little wonder that Jazz greats like Gil Evans drew attention to Pierson. Evans described him as ‘the best unknown composer I know’. I hope that changes as this musician deserves wider recognition. Writing orchestral charts can be a time consuming and lonely occupation. And if you have exiled yourself to a country far from your old home, all the more so. Perhaps that is why the humanism shines through the music so strongly. The orchestral voicings resonating so deeply; capturing the bittersweet sounds of modern life while communicating the hope that a better way could be found.  

The orchestra is a sixteen-piece ensemble and it’s clearly a multi-national affair. A name that stands out is the inimitable Lew Soloff. Sadly, Soloff is no longer with us, and poignantly, this was his final recording. He is impossible to miss on the disks with his stratospheric high notes, growls and that edgy harmonic-rich bite (especially tracks 4 + 10). In truth there are many great performances on the album as Pierson has selected a stellar line-up. I hope that the title is tongue in cheek as ‘Last works’ can be read two ways. Last as in final, or last as in recent. I hope it’s the latter.

There are thirteen tracks on the album and thirteen reasons to buy a copy. Go to Bandcamp/Tom Pierson and purchase the download in a high-quality audio format. Listen to a few tracks first and reflect on the artistry. If you do, you will surely make a generous contribution when asked how much you are prepared to pay. Not a lot of musicians make orchestral charts of this quality and without our continued support, they could easily vanish. 

The musicians: Tom Pierson (leader, arranger/composer, piano), Blue Lou Martini, Mark Vinci, Stu Enomoto, Neil Johnson, Michael Lutzeier (winds + reeds), Dominic Derasse, Mike Ponella, Tim Leopold, Lew Soloff (trumpets), Ben Harrington, Robinson Khoury, Dan Levine, Jeff Nelson (trombones), Tom Pierson (piano), Kanoa Mendenhall (electric bass), Pheeroan Aklaff (drums), recorded at Systems2 Brooklyn

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