Upon reading the extraordinarily powerful short stories of James Baldwin, drummer H. Benjamin Schuman, under the auspices of his non-profit organization JazzReach, approached five exceptional young jazz composers with the idea of writing new music inspired by Baldwin's work. The Metta Quintet, JazzReach's "resident ensemble," was formed to bring the eight resulting compositions to life. Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mark Turner, Brad Mehldau, Larry Goldings, and George Colligan were chosen for this innovative task: to take a particular Baldwin story and wring a piece of music from its devastating prose. Mehldau and Goldings don't play on the record, but their contributions are beautifully rendered by alto/soprano saxophonist Mark Gross, with Colligan, Schuman, and bassist Joshua Ginsburg in the rhythm section. Rosenwinkel and Turner join the same rhythm section on the remaining five tracks. "Chico & Harriett," Rosenwinkel's three-part epic, marks his second piano performance on record (the first being the title track from The Next Step).
Baldwin's cutting psychological insight makes his stories almost painful to read. Pain, in fact, is his chief concern: family pain, romantic pain, the pain of racial injustice, of religious coercion, of addiction, of unfulfillment. It's bleak but beautiful stuff. Only "Sonny's Blues," a story interpreted by Turner, deals directly with jazz, and among its literary merits, it contains uncommonly astute and moving passages of music criticism. Turner had to come to grips with this line: "I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument." It is Goldings, however, who probably had the hardest task: a musical portrayal of "Going to Meet the Man," a tale of horror in the truest sense of the word. If you read one James Baldwin story, read this one. When you find out who "the man" is, he'll be etched in your brain forever.
Schuman, in the album liners, hints of more to come from the Metta Quintet in various incarnations. The group is off to a tremendous start with this provocative encounter between music and literature, pointing the way toward new programmatic ideas for jazz on disc.