NDR Bigband - Tall Tales of Jasper County: The Double Doubles Suite

January, 28, 2015

Inspiration is a gift. A substantial work of art is undoubtedly the product of talent and creativity, with sweat and toil liberally applied to grease the engine. Yet inspiration, a source that shakes the imagination free, transforming inchoate ideas into solid form, is the lightning that every artist can only dream of being struck by. In this regard, the composer and arranger Dale Wilson is a lucky man indeed. His opus, “Tall Tales of Jasper County: The Double Doubles Suite” is the product of, yes, a double inspiration. The piece is first the outcome of Wilson’s significant musical relationship with a great winds player, Fiete Felsch, whose instrumental powers motivated Wilson to create a work spotlighting his virtuosic gifts. “Tall Tales of Jasper County” is, as its title suggests, also inspired by a locale – the rural Midwest – and the folklore associated with a family – Wilson’s in fact – that called that land home. It was this heady combination of individual artistry, regional pride and familial history that took root, bidding Wilson to mold his ambitious and deeply personal work.

Wilson’s own flavorful notes fully explicate the colorful family stories that inspired each of the suite’s movements, and how the project took on, in Lutz Büchner, a second featured soloist, ultimately altering the very nature of the suite. The richness and diversity of the work itself deserves further examination. A first take recording – testament to the second-nature unity of the NDR Big Band – “Brother John’s Vision” finds Felsch and Büchner already displaying their enviable prowess on multiple instruments, with Büchner taking on clarinet in addition to soloing on tenor saxophone and Felsch improvising on both alto saxophone and piccolo flute.

According to the composer, the John referenced in the title is his friend John Eckert, a respected trumpeter and leader of the New York Nine, an ensemble that Wilson has written for. “John plays beautifully inventive lyrical improvisations, as well as excellent lead trumpet–hence this piece’s quiet melody and high trumpet line. In the piece, ‘John’ morphs into a country preacher,” Wilson says.

“Fiete suggested that I foreground the strength of the horn section, lead by Thorsten Benkenstein, who must be one of the best lead trumpet players in the world. His line at the conclusion of the head goes up to an F#, which for many trumpet players is a difficult note to keep in tune. As with many of the pieces, percussionist Marcio Doctor plays beautiful interlocking patterns against drummer Gary Husband’s straight-ahead swing. I think Marcio and Gary’s interaction brought so much to the project.”

A salute to Wilson’s initial instrumental inspiration, “Major Fete” (a play on the name Fiete) is a major mode riff in two-voice harmony with Felsch on alto sax, and Büchner on tenor sax. “A lot of the record toys with 2 time against 3 time, or alternations between a 2 feel and a 3 feel,” Wilson says. “I like the way the band moved seamlessly from the 2/4 head into Lutz’s extended solo in 3/4. I wrote the slow 4/4 middle section to foreground Fiete’s gift for playing ballads.”

“Chloe’s Lamma” demonstrates the communal warmth and generous spirit that radiates throughout the NDR ensemble. Although the suite was constructed to feature Felsch and Büchner, both men urged that solo space should be ceded to fellow band members. Hence Ingolf Burkhardt on trumpet and Dan Gottshall on trombone are spotlighted, a providential readjustment that Wilson feels captures the spirit of the piece. “After the introduction, the melody is a duet between Fiete’s piccolo and Lutz’s tenor sax – three octaves apart. The band beautifully fills in the harmonic space between them.”

A dialogue between alto and tenor saxophones, “Havana” also displays some of Wilson’s most imaginative and subtle writing. Hear the well crafted introduction which makes deft use of a quartet featuring Felsch on alto flute, Büchner on clarinet, Frank Delle on bass clarinet, and Dan Gottshall playing trombone with plunger mute. The superbly constructed orchestral framework that Wilson weaves around his main soloists reveals his admiration and thorough integration of such prime influences as Gil Evans, Claus Ogerman and, of course, Duke Ellington.

As Wilson notes, “August’s Moonstone” is the piece that most fully utilizes his soloists’ doubles as well as the rich colors of the full ensemble. Of particular interest is Wilson’s integration of his formative musical education while living and working in Asia. As he explains, “It wasn’t intentional, but the background passages that I wrote for Fiete’s flute solo reflect my fondness for Cantonese music. In Cantonese opera, accompanists improvise variations of the same basic melody, but stagger their entrances, creating a textured ensemble sound that heightens attention to tone colors. I unconsciously used elements of this aesthetic in the backgrounds that I wrote for Fiete’s solo. Fiete improvises beautifully over the piece’s harmonies, even as he plays off of the echoing phrases in the accompaniment.”

Indeed, here we also recognize how fully both Felsch and Büchner have transcended their “secondary” instruments. Listening to each gifted soloist improvise on saxophones and then turn to, in Felsch’s case, the flute, and in Büchner’s, the clarinet, reveals no hierarchal status. Virtuosic command and unceasing creativity is equally and abundantly demonstrated on any instrument these exceptional musicians approach.

“Double Vision” is a “brother” piece to “Tall Tales’” opening movement, “Brother John’s Vision,” providing fitting closure to a most satisfying work. Appropriately, Felsch, Wilson’s original inspiration, struts in style. His ardent alto saxophone improvisation speaks to the passion and integrity of vision displayed by Wilson, Felsch and Büchner, and each of the extraordinary members of the NDR Big Band. Inspiration, it turns out, really does pay off.

-Steve Futterman
New York, NY

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