It's Too Hot For Words
You won’t need to get very far into this disc – about 75 seconds, I’d say – to know why the Metropolitan Jazz Octet and Dee Alexander seem made for each other. After the rarely heard verse to “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” Jim Gailloreto’s arrangement swirls the horns together into a bebop Dixieland of collective improvisation; and yet, each one emerges with high-def clarity. So does Alexander when she re-enters; she becomes another instrument in the mix.
I think Tom Hilliard would approve.
Hilliard was the Chicago saxophonist and arranger who formed the original Metropolitan Jazz Octet in the 1950s and later taught at DePaul University, where his students included three musicians on this disc: saxophonists Gailloreto and John Kornegay, and pianist Bob Sutter. When Hilliard’s health began to fail in the early 2000s, he bequeathed his MJO charts to Gailloreto, who revived the concept to create the current band. (Call it MJO 2.0.) At first, they assembled just to play through Hilliard’s arrangements. But by the time they recorded The Road to Your Place (their 2018 debut), they had new music, written by Gailloreto, Kornegay, and trumpeter Doug Scharf – all inspired by Hilliard’s work.
The octet format is something unique: in the jazz zoography, it counts as neither fish nor fowl. Hilliard departed from some earlier bands of similar size (led by Miles Davis and Shorty Rogers) by eliminating the lower brass instruments that made those bands more “orchestral”; instead, he reveled in the translucent textures he could weave from a more traditional array of trumpet, trombone, and saxes. Bob Sutter describes it as “both a big small band and a small big band. It’s more like a ‘chamber big band.’ Tom used to rave about the octet,” which recorded just one album, recalls Sutter; when he finally got to play some of Hilliard’s charts, he understood why.
But the truest measure of artistic respect doesn’t lie in repeating previous innovations. It comes from building upon and extending those concepts, as the MJO has done here – not only in the use of updated harmonies and more sophisticated rhythms, but also in the addition of strings on several tracks, expanding the range of colors and textures at the arrangers’ disposal. Gailloreto uses these for appropriate gravitas in his masterful take on ”Strange Fruit” – which Alexander sings with appropriate drama. On the other hand, he combines the strings with gorgeous woodwind writing to craft a spring-day setting for “Things Are Looking Up” (marked by Alexander’s breezy paraphrases); meanwhile, in Kornegay’s chart for “I’m a Fool to Want You,” they provide sweet, sweet romance.
Even without violinistic augmentation, the MJO remains potent and intoxicating, at too many junctures to fully describe here. The delightful “Twenty-Four Hours a Day” has a music-box piano intro that fits the lyric, and Alexander luxuriates in its tango-tinged bridge. “I Wished on the Moon” highlights Peter Brusen’s baritone sax in the opening chorale, and later, Russ Phillips’ dancing trombone solo. “Somebody’s On My Mind,” an obscure torcher, blooms with counterpoint; and on the title track, Gailloreto solos over a surging montuno, as Alexander’s scatting transforms a saucy trifle into a sumptuous dessert.
The decision to add Alexander – the pitch-perfect, improbably versatile Chicago vocalist, who works in settings that run from intimate trios playing the Great American Songbook to jazz orchestras presenting the Great Black Music of the AACM – came easy. Like most arrangers who encounter Alexander, Gailloreto knew immediately that he wanted to work with her. Only later did he realize that 2019 marks the 60th anniversary of Billie Holiday’s departure from the planet; that’s when he suggested they pay homage with a mix of Holiday classics and lesser-known items from her expansive repertoire. Alexander, whose work as a nationally syndicated jazz radio host has put her in touch with lots of back catalog, jumped at the chance. And when the studio sessions began, the members of the MJO quickly fell in love with their guest, an ego-free diva who relishes at the chance to place her voice in service to a larger concept.
Alexander never considered imitating the timbre or phrasing that still make Holiday so instantly recognizable. “I would be a laughingstock if I tried to sound like her,” she says. (I’m not so sure about that, since she has reliably imitated birds, trumpets, monkeys, insects, and even a didgeridoo on previous occasions). Neither do the MJO’s arrangements attempt to mimic the similarly sized septets and octets that backed Holiday’s early work. Instead, the album becomes a multi-generational time capsule: sterling musicians of the 21stcentury, building upon an octet sound crafted 60 years earlier, to revitalize songs that Holiday began recording in the 1930s.
It also serves as a springboard for the one aspect of Holiday’s work that Alexander does mimic. Sutter puts it this way: “Dee does what 90 percent of singers don’t do: instead of just singing the song, she tells a story – like Billie.” And all the while, the MJO spins evocative stories of their own: wordless but equally literate narratives to complement the human instrument invited into their midst.