Composer/percussionist/bandleader Bobby Previte often likes to stretch out, whether leading his modern creative jazz ensemble Weather Clear, Track Fast, putting his own spin on Miles' fusion repertoire with the Horse, or kicking his avant bar band, Latin for Travelers, into high gear. On some of his best work, Previte builds compositions from initial core rhythms and adds layers of structure a bit at a time, taking ten or more minutes to assemble all the pieces into a final musical picture. The 23 Constellations of Joan Miró, recorded in New York during the summer of 2001, takes a completely different approach. Previte has handed himself a unique challenge -- shrinking the length of each composition to something approximating the size of the paintings in Miró's Constellations series, each of which measures only 15 by 18 inches. And so Previte has composed 23 pieces ranging from one and a half minutes to three minutes long. These miniatures represent Previte's emotional responses to Miró's colorful, whimsical, and sensual Constellations, paintings animated with abstract and symbolic images that have profoundly affected the modern art world since the Catalan artist committed them to canvas in France and Majorca during the early years of World War II. In taking on the challenge of musically interpreting a set of defining works in 20th century visual art, Previte has set a lofty goal for himself, one informed by the paradox of attempting to achieve greatness by thinking small (a bit counterintuitive to what one might expect from Previte when one considers some of his own major works of the past). And, simply put, his project is an unqualified success.
With an ensemble ranging in size from seven to ten musicians and comprising some of New York's finest artists in modern creative and avant-garde jazz, Previte has succeeded in creating music that suggests Miró and yet is uniquely his own. The compositions sometimes seem to float in stasis, but strong lower-register pulses and crisp, rhythmic ostinatos often enter with a flourish, infusing the music with enough energy to cause Miró's circles, squiggles, and stars to dance off their flat canvases. The ensemble features nearly conventional jazz instrumentation in the dual trumpets of Lew Soloff and Ralph Alessi, soprano saxophone of Jane Ira Bloom, flute of Michel Gentile, bass clarinet of Ned Rothenberg, keyboards of Wayne Horvitz and Jamie Saft, and drums of the leader himself. However, there is an unconventionally light, ethereal, and dreamlike quality to the music here, as most of the pieces prominently feature Elizabeth Panzer's harp and John Bacon's vibraphone, orchestra bells, marimba, and chimes, not to mention a bit of rubbery, squelchy electronics from Horvitz here and there. While the music seems quite thoroughly composed, with precise counterpoint, consonant harmonies, and an orchestral sense of timbre and texture, there is an overall feeling of buoyancy and freedom that is no more stilted and leaden than Miró's paintings themselves. If time could be envisioned as the canvas upon which musicians paint their melodies, harmonies, and rhythms, much of Previte's previous work would translate to mural size when contrasted to the miniatures in The 23 Constellations of Joan Miró. Yet, individually and collectively, these brief works create an indelible impression, as strong as the "blam!" Previte experienced -- as he describes in the liner notes -- when he first saw the Constellations in a Miró retrospective at New York's MOMA. These 23 Constellations, two and three minutes at a time, add up to Bobby Previte's finest hour. (All 23 paintings in Joan Miró's Constellations series are reproduced in the CD booklet.)