Though my mind sometimes likes to classify all “big band” jazz into that Benny Goodman/Glenn Miller/Paul Whiteman box, doing so ignores the innovations in working with larger groups brought by Fletcher Henderson, Sun Ra and, mostly prominently, Duke Ellington. Even today, Gerald Wilson is still injecting imaginative arrangements into the larger form, alongside a small but new generation that most notably includes Darcy James Argue. There’s contemporary of Argue’s who might merit closer examination, too, and his name is Shawn Maxwell.
A Chicago-based reedman who normally leads small groups, Maxwell decided to see what would happen when he cobbled together a collective of friends without regard to conforming to instrumentation structure or even formal styles of music. His resulting Alliance ensemble and the Shawn Maxwell’s Alliance record (out February 18 on Chicago Sessions Records) this special union begat is predictably unpredictable, too. In the best possible way.
First, it helps to explain how the Alliance is constructed: there’s Maxwell and his alto or tenor sax, or a clarinet. Chris Green adds a soprano sax. Stephen Lynerd is on vibes/percussion, Mitch Corso on guitar and Paul Townsend on drums. So far, that’s not so uncommon. But then there are two french horns (Rachel Maxwell and Meghan Fulton) and two standup basses (Stacy McMichael and Marc Paine). Keri Johnsrud adds her voice, not to deliver lyrics but a wordless vocal to add, in essence, an extra horn.
It’s not just the weapons used but how they’re deployed. Maxwell exploits selective layering and counter harmonies in tactful ways such that it doesn’t ever sound overly dense or cluttered; most of the time it resembles a small band plus. The songs often progress through several motifs to keep them dynamic and end well before they run out of steam. In fact, many run in the 1-2 minute range. It’s easier to think of these eighteen tracks as connected together in a multi-part suite.
The oddly catchy “Fun Five Funk” kicks off the uniquely appealing contrapuntal ways of the band, using a sharply definable theme balanced by interesting passages. It’s a composing style that calls to mind the approach John Hollenbeck uses for his Claudia Quintet, and that approach is prominent again on “Bitty Bitty Beep,” a song that sounds both very traditional and very modern. “Little Ninja Groove” paces at a 5/4 tempo, and following some call-and-response between subgroups, Maxwell lets loose a flute solo that gets down and raspy.
Corso’s rough-hewn guitar puts a rock undercurrent into the chamber jazz of “Iynes Crayons,” and after an extended introductory figure that delves into modern creative band jazz, a drums ‘n’ bass groove takes over on “Waiting Food.” On this song you can hear what an articulate, impassioned soloist Maxwell is, this time on an alto sax.
Even those brief numbers contain plenty of intrigue in them, some come with sophisticated layering and counter-harmonies. “Plaza” is among my favorite of them, just because the band takes a small break from structure to play a improv piece. On the opposite end of things is “Here Is Your Swing Tune,” played pretty much how you’d expect a horn-laden, ten-piece band to play. It’s almost as if they are winking at us as they play it.
The intricacies found in “From Parts Unknown” are especially clever. The main figure is played by tenor sax, soprano sax, voice and guitar each taking turns playing a different part of it in succession before different part of the band breaks out in separate units playing competing harmonies over the same chord progression.
There are too many ideas presented on the album to run through the entire gamut of them here, but you, well, get the idea. Shawn Maxwell’s Alliance is a large jazz band album that’s made for those skeptical about large bands.
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