An ambitious project for a first timer, multi-reedist, composer and bandleader Joshua Kwassman made Songs Of The Brother Spirit from a set of intricately scored music based on some reflections on his young life, to thoughts about mortality to facing tragedy head-on. In these eight, often extended pieces, Kwassman’s subjugates his own role as an instrumentalist (though he flashes moments of that ability) in order to tell a story through the moody but melodic songs that flow more like a running creek than Western conventions of rhythm, but does resemble the delicate cadence Western Classical music. The folk-like melodies evoke the Brian Blade Fellowship and early Pat Metheny, but the construction of these through-composed songs also bring to mind Maria Schneider or Vince Mendoza.
Such ambitions in composing might suggest a large band to fulfill such grand designs, but Kwassman gets it done through a much smaller band with him invariably on saxes, clarinet, flute, melodica and even piano. There are two full time pianists, Adam Kromelow and Angelo Di Loreto, though not at the same time. Gilad Hekselman is the main guitarist, while Jeff Miles fills in for one tune. Craig Akin plays bass and Rodrigo Recabarren handles drums and percussion. For the final touch, Kwassman asked his classmate at the New Music For Jazz and Contemporary Music to provide wordless vocals, the opera-trained Arielle Feinman.
Hekselman, with that acidic tone of his guitar and its voluminous sonic footprint, is a key component in Kwassman’s orchestral sound. Feinman’s role is also a focal point, as her voice serves the role of a second horn player. Kwassman’s elaborate arrangements often pairs up lead players in various combinations, and has the pianists perform with more flourish. Kwassman himself pops up at key points in a song to give it a boost, such as his alto sax solo in the middle of the moody “Our Land” or blending in his clarinet nicely with Feinman’s vocal on “Mediation.” “The Nowhere Trail” three part suite is the high water mark for Kwassman’s ambition, especially on “Part I,” where Kwassman’s melodica provides a rustic element to gently flowing melody, but in what has by then become the standard procedure on this album, the song moves through brief dense parts juxtaposed with moments of space and peace, with ideas picked up, disposed of and eventually returned to. The song like so many on the album is a circular journey.
Thus, Songs Of The Brother Spirit really does sound much like a Fellowship record, except that the conciseness of Blades’ songs are traded in for a wider sweep and longer harmonic progression. An astonishing reach and fully realized conception coming from a newcomer as a recording artist, Songs Of The Brother Spirit transcends the notions of what’s considered jazz and made a record that puts the rookie on an entirely different career track than one that has him jamming to twelve bar blues with a jazz swing. Nothing wrong with jamming, but the jazz world could use a few more of the guys who can compose with such detail and lead a band to perform them, and do both well. Guys like, well, Joshua Kwassman.