Bel Air Jazz Ensemble / David Sherr

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If a contemporary composer can be said to have arrived when musicians from other genres are creating covers of his or her classical pieces, then Olivier Messiaen has made it. The Bel Air Jazz Ensemble uses Messiaen (Le merle noir and several movements from the Quartet for the End of Time), as well as a Bach cantata, as the basis for its improvisations. Composer/arranger David Sherr pushes the boundaries of jazz in his surreal take on the second bass aria from Bach's Cantata 56, in which he has speakers recite the line "… then have I the eagle's powers, then soar I up from this world," repeated in a variety of languages, with an instrumental improvisation based on the tune. Le merle noir gets a straightforward, if somewhat lackluster performance before Sherr's inventive riff on it. Au revoir merle noir is scored for an ensemble in which the trumpet, viola, string bass, and vibraphone feature as prominently melodically as the flute. It may be a little abstract and tonally obscure for fans of traditional jazz, but it's an intriguing take on the piece for anyone familiar with the original. The composer gracefully plays the clarinet solo, "Abîme des Oiseaux," from the Quartet for the End of Time, before launching into an improvisation on the following movement, "Intermède," which all the instruments play in unison in the original, but which is freely interpreted here. The CD may have a relatively small niche market, but it could be attractive to fans of new music who like the idea of having twentieth century classics transformed by jazz improvisation.

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