Monday, September 15, 2008

Across the Crystal Sea

Across the Crystal Sea
By Danilo Perez, Arranged and Conducted by Claus Ogerman
Emarcy Records

Some top arrangers in jazz have had enough prestige to lead their own sessions, without ever picking up an instrument, aside from their pens. Gil Evans would be the classic example, but Claus Ogerman can also lay claim to that distinction. Recording an entire session of such an arranger’s charts is often a career highlight, which is why jazz pianist Danilo Perez’s Across the Crystal Sea, arranged by Ogerman, is sure to receive quite a bit of attention in the jazz press.

The fitting cover, John Marin’s Maine, 1914, comes courtesy of producer Tommy LiPuma’s art collection. While certainly representational, but with a dreamy abstract (dare say impressionistic) quality, depicting the wooden coast and tranquil sea beyond, it makes quite an appropriate image for the music stored within. Likewise, Ogerman’s charts, consisting of six of his originals (five of which are based on classical themes) and two standards, also have an ethereal, leisurely quality that can be either a blessing or a too-much-of-a-good-thing curse.

Probably the disk’s strongest selection is the opening title track, based on a theme from German choral composer Hugo Distler. The prominence of Luis Quintero’s percussion really helps propel the track, keeping it from being overwhelmed by the strings. Perez’s also takes an extended solo that shows true improvisational fire. Likewise, Lewis Nash on drums sets a solid groove for “Rays and Shadows” (after Jean Sibelius) that preserves a sense of momentum. Again, Perez takes a legit solo, as the rhythm section locks in beneath him.

The two standards are feature spots for guest vocalist Cassandra Wilson. Both are moodily gorgeous, but from a programming perspective, might be a bit similar in terms of tone and vibe. Of the two, “Lazy Afternoon” is probably superior to “My Heart Sings,” with Wilson’s hauntingly expressive vocals perfectly suiting the lyrics on the former, whereas the strings and chimes are more prominent on the latter.

“Purple Condor” (after Manuel de Falla) also gets the balance about right between piano, percussion, and strings. However, sometimes Crystal can sound a bit over-arranged, with the strings soaring too highly, or just conversely sounding just a little too sedate, as with “If I Forget You” (a la Rachmaninoff) or “Another Autumn,” the original Ogerman original.

There are some quite lovely moments on Crystal, even for hardened jazz ears, but it is certainly a quiet, late-night kind of spin. It is actually the kind of thin-edge-of-the-wedge release that might conceivably bring in new listeners for Perez, and jazz in general by extension, because it is truly accessible for all audiences.