Jane Bunnett's Red Dragonfly (aka Tombo) is one of those rare projects that may not be original in conception, but in execution becomes a great achievement. Bunnett and her band -- Larry Cramer, trumpet and flügelhorn; Kieran Overs, acoustic bass; David Virelles, piano; Mark McLean, drums -- team with the Penderecki String Quartet on a set that almost exclusively features startlingly fresh jazz revisions of songs from various world traditions. Each tune here was chosen not for its ability to be re-created in the jazz idiom, but simply for its subjective meaning to Bunnett. Simply put, this may be the most personal recording Bunnett has ever issued. Originally conceived as a set of folk songs to be performed as a soprano saxophone showcase (which is all she plays here), the process mutated into something more. These tunes retain their melodies and their heart, but they also become something more in this rich, sonorous atmosphere with lush, adventurous harmonies and deep, focused lyricism and rhythmic invention. There isn't a weak moment on this disc, but there are some standouts. "Black Is the Color (Of My True Love's Hair)" nods to Coltrane's read of "My Favorite Things," with expansive modal strings just above the rhythm section. The title track is derived from Kosaku Yamada's 1921 standard with its haunting string and piano intro. When Bunnett enters with the melody, she strikes the balance between East and West. The band redoes "Divule Oni" from Spirits of Havana with a radically different arrangement, one that showcases the melody over the rhythm and allows the strings to paint the gap. The South African folk song "Nkosi Sikelel'i Africa," with its dirgelike cadence and the strings playing an extrapolated harmony in unison with Bunnett's soprano, is just plain beautiful. But the finest selection is her gorgeous and deeply moving version of the late Jim Pepper's "Witchi-Tai-To" (derived from a Native American peyote chant), with dynamite playing from pianist Virelles. Bunnett's restrained, understated use of the melody in the head and in her solo brings to bear all the history Pepper was drawing from in his composition, as the strings shimmer through the background. The effect is one of heartbreaking beauty and grace. In sum, Bunnett and her band have once again shown exquisite taste, and have upped the bar of artistic excellence and integrity with a simply stunning set.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek