Continuing a prolific streak over the past two decades, saxophonist-composer-arranger Andrew Rathbun premieres three new suites of moving, meaningful music on his triumphant large ensemble debut for Origin Records. Two of the suites, "Two Islands" and "Power Politics," are set to the evocative poetry of Margaret Atwood, who has enjoyed a rediscovery in the wake of the popularity of the Golden Globe-winning original series on Hulu, The Handmaid's Tale, based on the Toronto native's darkly dystopian and some would say prescient novel published in 1985 set in a near-futuristic totalitarian society. Rathbun's extremely ambitious 2-CD set, Atwood Suites, includes music from a third five-movement suite. Recorded in just three days in New York, it documents the composer's most accomplished and compelling writing to date, performed by a stellar crew of the Big Apple's finest, many of whom are leaders and composers in their own right. Anchored by drummer Bill Stewart, who's propulsive drive and interactive instincts color the proceedings in wholly unique ways, this mammoth undertaking features the brilliant flugelhorn playing of Tim Hagans and showcases the wistful, alluring vocals of Rathbun's longtime collaborator Luciana Souza, who breathes new life into the Atwood poems "Excerpt From Circle/Music Poems" on the "Two Islands" suite and "We Are Hard On Each Other" on the "Power Politics" suite. "Luciana does such a great job," he said. "The project really can't be realized without her in a lot of ways. Of course, she did a record of poems by Pablo Neruda and another set to the poems of Eliza- beth Bishop, so she really knows what's involved. She's a pivotal part of this recording."
The composer thanks his mother, an English teacher, for initially turning him on to the poetry of Margaret Atwood. "I had read 'The Handmaid's Tale' but knew nothing about her poetry. My mom just sent me a photocopy of a bunch of different things, a couple of which I actually set to music for my True Stories project in 2001, which also featured Luciana."
Regarding his main muse for this project, fellow Canadian Atwood, the Toronto native and Professor of Saxophone and Jazz Studies at Western Michigan University recalled, "We've met twice. The last time was after a lecture she gave on her book "Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing" in New York. I was just really lucky again this time around again to get her blessing to use her work. I was a bit concerned this time around, due to the fact that the Netflix series has been so popular, but luckily it all worked out."
The roots of this latest Rathbun project go back to 2001, when the saxophonist was asked by the great Canadian trumpeter-composer Kenny Wheeler to write some new material for an engagement at the Birdland nightclub in New York City. He came up with the three-movement "Power Politics" suite, which was performed by Wheeler's big band at Birdland but never recorded. "I wrote those with Kenny in mind," he explained. "One of my dreams was to get to get to record that with him but it just wasn't in the cards. I've been working with Tim Hagans a little bit lately and thought he'd be great for this. He's got a whole other thing, this incredible slippery chromatic language that he brings to the table, which I adore.
Hagans figures prominently on the two Atwood suites contained on the first CD. As renowned big band pianist-composer-arranger Jim McNeely points out in his liner notes to Atwood Suites, the flugelhornist's "lyricism ranges from thoughtfully introspective to wildly expressive." From his bracing solo on the first movement to "Two Islands" to his golden tones on the achingly beautiful second movement to his surging exclamations on the swinging section of the third movement, Hagans presence is deeply felt on this outing. Likewise, he delivers an attractive flugelhorn solo in the first movement of "Power Politics," navigates the churning 6/8 groove of the second movement and delivers a bristling solo over Stewart's interactive pulse and guitarist Nate Radley's rich voicings on the third movement. Trombonist Mike Fahie, tenor saxophonist Dan Pratt and alto saxophonist John O'Gallagher also contribute potent solos throughout the highly charged "Power Politics" suite.
Rathbun conceived "Two Islands" during his residency at the Atlantic Center of the Arts artists' colony in Florida during the late 2000s. "I brought a couple anthologies of Margaret Atwood's work with me and just and started experimenting with that poem. And after a couple of weeks I had sketched most of the suite. There was a composer there at the same time named Lewis Spratlan, an amazing Pulitzer Prize winning composer. He was really helpful in bouncing ideas off of during the writing, frequently offering sage suggestions. And the things he'd say about music were really inspirational to me."
The other pieces on this 2-CD set, including the aggressive "Fractured" (inspired, as Rathbun notes, "by the continued political divisions that have plagued this county for the last decade and seem to get worse rather than improve") and the majestic three movements, "V" "I" "II," utilize the soaring wordless vocals of singer Aubrey Johnson. "I used her voice more like an instrument," Rathbun explains. "She's got this beautiful sound, with a light and flexible vocal quality, which blends really well in the ensemble. She sang some of my other vocal music, and I thought she would be a great addition to this project."
Rathbun has similar kudos for Stewart, a remarkably flexible drummer who has been a longstanding sideman to guitarist John Scofield. "He's not normally known as a big band guy, but I was curious to see what it would sound like if he was put in the middle of all this stuff. His beat and his phrasing and the way he sets things up are incredibly contagious and also different than anyone who, for lack of a better term, is more of a big band drummer. So I was really excited to get him into the mix. He just brings this propulsion to the music that is one of a kind. He's not only got great time and feel but he's also an incredible listener. He knows exactly how much to contrast what the soloist is playing and how much to complement."
All the elements of churning rhythms, attractive melodies, exquisite textures and rich colors come together in stunning fashion on Atwood Suites, Rathbun's crowning achievement to date. Meanwhile, the composer is "clearing the decks" to create his next opus. "My writing has taken on, I hope, some new characteristics that I do want to document in the future. So I was determined to get all this stuff that I've written out of the way and next time around start with a blank-slate. I want to put the things that I've already completed in the rear view mirror now. Let's look ahead and see what comes next." Stay tuned. There's more to come for this important voice on the modern jazz scene. - Bill Milkowski