The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra was the brainchild of composer/trumpet player Mark Harvey back in 1973. Since its inception, the orchestra in its various incarnations has thrilled audiences in its native New England with its brand of big-band avant swing and improvisation, hosting guests such as the late Jaki Byard and Jimmy Giuffre. This set, recorded live in four different locations from 1990 through 1996, features the orchestra in numerous configurations to suit Harvey's individual compositions. In addition to the group's already large roster of 25 players, there are an additional eight performers on the fourth track, "Psalms." The themes for this recording are simple enough, consisting of three elegies for figures who were highly influential -- in Harvey's own case, iconographic -- and who have passed on: multi-instrumentalist and composer Don Cherry, for whom "Don Cherry's Song of Beauty" is named; theologian and social theoretician James Luther Adams, the inspiration behind "Other Angels/Other Voices"; and the martyrs at Tiananmen Square, to whom the "Tiananmen Elegy" is dedicated. The final piece, "Psalms," is a celebration of the epic in life, both physical and spiritual. Harvey's compositions, though large in scale, begin very intimately, allowing the listener a comfortable place from the very beginning. "Don Cherry's Song of Beauty" is almost a chamber piece at its commencement: Harvey's trumpet, a trap kit and bassline are the only instruments that usher it in. Whispering lines of angular melody -- that suggest Cherry's own work with Codona -- usher in the rest of the band a fragment at a time; the musicians carry overtones in their hands to change the work's tone and direction no less than six times with improvisation landing squarely in the middle, floating over the changes in mode and rhythm. Throughout, there is a spatial elegance in the manner in which Harvey writes; he carries enough room in his pen to allow each player to both stretch and to feel the other members as they expand into the architecture created in the score. On "Psalms," where trumpeter Frank London guests, everything is amplified by two and even three: dynamics, color, texture, rhythm, modes, and micro and polytonal dimensions. This is celebratory music that invokes the divine as its source of inspiration and makes "a joyful noise unto the Lord." The improvisation that takes place is furiously party-like in its bleating, squawking, and screeching. An engaging disc from beginning to end, though one might wish label owner Leo Feigin, God bless him, would pay more attention to the digital mastering process. The sound bleeds through so much that some of the fidelity is lost.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek