Lester Bowie Brass Fantasy: When the Spirit Returns
Lester Bowie was finally ready to hook back up with his Brass Fantasy for a couple of recordings in 1997, so the story goes. The selections on When the Spirit Returns came largely from his then 15-year-old daughter, who offered up a few of that year's hits when asked by her father what he should think about playing with The Brass. Bowie should, among other things, be remembered for his desire to simply play music without judging it. Maybe it was because music was the spirit that moved him.
And so, Biggie Smalls gets celebrated alongside Babyface, Bob Marley, and TLC. Many will feel compelled to compare these interpretations to Miles Davis' lambasted take of Cindy Lauper's "Time After Time". Or thanks to the new standards approach adopted by Herbie Hancock and Joshua Redman, maybe the time is right for jazz to step into the new.
It is doubtful that Bowie would care either way. The only thing that mattered was finding material that inspired him and challenged him to hear melodies in new contexts. When the Spirit Returns features an arrangement of the TLC hit "Waterfalls" that feels like it could be played during a college homecoming game's halftime festivities by a top notch marching band and lead the charge into the second half. There is a puckish sense of humor at work in the interpretation, but never does it feel like Bowie and The Brass aren't taking the song seriously. Consequently, the track has an enjoyable swing.
Oddly, a number of the selections lean heavily on New Orleans-styled funeral marches. The opening "Player Hater", one of two Biggie Smalls tracks, has a mournful tone. The spoken elements and the bluesy adlibs speak of those lost through hard living on the streets and offer shout outs to musical giants who have joined the ancestors. There is more joyful celebration in the Bob Marley classic "One Love", but the triumphant march to glory is indeed still a journey made hand-in-hand with some measure of sorrow.
The lone Bowie original, "When the Spirit Returns", brings the march inside the church. Bowie's trumpet alternates between a slurred drawl and sharp shouts, while vocalist Dean Bowman finds the words to match the musical sermon. This one track captures the essence of the church that Wynton Marsalis needed two discs to summon with his septet on In this House, On this Morning. Marsalis slavishly attempted to replicate each element of a Sunday morning service, where Bowie, in less than ten minutes, simply lets the spirit work on its own.
In at least two cases, on "Unchained Melody" and "Save the Best for Last", Bowie and The Brass tackle songs that seemingly fit the more common conception of a standard, but the familiar "Melody" indeed gets unchained through Bowie's spitting growls and groans and a full-on assault by The Brass. And on the later tune, the solo-less take finds the band playing with one undeniably beautiful voice.
Although the standout performance, if forced to choose one, might be the second Biggie cover, "Biggie's Ride (Notorious Thugs)", which creates a New Orleans noir soundscape that could be the basis of a 1970's film version of a Robert Parker story, one of the Spenser cases that featured the street enforcer Hawke. Bowman scats and spits street poetry, while the music rushes down the dirty alleys in hot pursuit. There are no good or bad men, just different sides of the hustle on display.
Even when caught up in the spirit, Bowie never neglects the stories each song seeks to tell. There is an equal measure of humor and hard knocks in his version of life in 1997 mixed with the full range of musical experiences. The spirit will never fade.