Monday, September 25, 2006

Steve Wiest’s Excalibur

The Steve Wiest Big Band
Arabesque Recordings (see special website price)

Typically, jazz looks to the future, but for his new big band project, Steve Wiest looks to the legends of yore, particularly Arthurian legend and the otherworldly fantasy of Robert Silverberg. Mixed with standards and other originals, Excalibur is a fresh big band recording from a veteran of the Maynard Ferguson band.

The title song “Excalibur” features interesting mood shifts, between a darkly martial motif and Randy Hamm’s bright, even sprightly soprano. While Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur provided inspiration for “Excalibur” the next original tune suggests T.H. White, in name at least, as “The Once and Future Groove” lays down a nice one, with Glenn Kostur’s baritone on top.

Returning to the fantasy motif, Wiest’s “A Night in Pidruid” takes inspiration directly from Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle. Uniting some quirky themes to tell its story, “Pidruid” has a vaguely Mingusian feel and some fine tenor work from Ed Peterson.

Excalibur is a darkly hued affair that recast frothy old standards like “Cheek to Cheek” and “Green Dolphin Street” in very different colors than one would expect. While the assembled musicians from the Midwest may not be household names, they mesh together quite well, rising to the challenge of the demanding music. Wiest himself proves to be very articulate here, both with his trombone and his pen.

There has not been a long tradition of jazz artists drawing inspiration from fantasy literature—only Australian John Sangster’s Lord of the Rings records come to mind. Based on Excalibur, one hopes Wiest will continue to draw literary inspiration for future big band outings.