The Maritime Jazz Orchestra, under the direction of saxophonist Greg Carter, have steadily been acquiring a reputation for large group playing that is "advanced" but not unduly intimidating. This set, which draws once more on the talents of Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor, and Norma Winstone, is probably their most accomplished and demonstrates that there is more to contemporary big band jazz than merely revisiting past glories.
Genuinely "Orchestral" rather than simply "Big Band", this music does require space and time to fully appreciate its many merits. Mere toe dipping won't work, I'm afraid. Full immersion is required. Don't panic though. With musicians such as the above you are in safe and seasoned hands. The Canadian-born (but London-based) Wheeler is at the heart of this project and he alone brings almost fifty years of experience with him. His English cohorts, John Taylor and Norma Winstone, are nowadays part of the avant-garde establishment (and that is not as oxymoronic as it sounds). They have a long association with Wheeler (as part of Azimuth) and share the same sense of adventure coupled with a belief in solid musicianship. Such is the very solid platform on which this ambitious project is built.
Now and Now Again consists of four sections. Wheeler contributes three of these, with Taylor making up the difference with "Pure and Simple". The latter owes much of its poetic charm to the vocals of Norma Winstone, who elsewhere takes rather a back seat. Her singing style is something of an acquired taste and a little frosty for me, but she has an empathy with Taylor's rather oblique approach to the piano that is mutually beneficial. Wheeler's "W.W." and the title track are two melodically inventive and typically articulate affairs, but it is his opening effort, the lengthy "Sweet Ruby Suite", which dominates the session.
More tightly structured than the other pieces, the "Suite" has a grandeur to it that is suitably imposing. Happily, it is also awash with colour and so avoids any austere haughtiness. Thelonious Monk-derived, of course, it has at times a Gil Evans feel and at others a cinematically impressionistic quality. These three factors give it an immediacy that the subsequent, looser and more fragmentary, experiments lack. It doesn't exactly swing (the major drawback to the album as a whole) but it is dynamic enough to ensure that its thirty minutes duration positively flies by.
In that time there are some truly meaty solos. Mike Murley on tenor sax and Wheeler himself on flugelhorn are perhaps the pick. Guitarist Alan Sutherland adds bite and the soprano sax of Kirk McDonald manages to avoid the clichés usually associated with that instrument. In the end though it is the ensemble sound that makes or breaks a big band and "Sweet Ruby Suite", perhaps because of its more controlled arrangements, is the piece which allows the full orchestral strength of the 19 players to shine through.
Urban yet oddly spacious, rich in tone and texture, the results are satisfying in a way the shorter compositions (which are not actually that short) don't quite match. Although adequately open-ended, it is carefully crafted and varied in mood. The other tracks don't exactly pale by comparison, it is just that "Sweet Ruby" would stand out in almost any company.
I don't think this is music simply for aficionados, complex as it sometimes appears. Anyone at all drawn to orchestral sounds, be they classical, Ellingtonian, or Hollywood inspired, will at least appreciate the intentions and scope of the Maritime endeavour. Long-standing Wheeler devotees will be particularly gladdened to hear their hero still in such strong voice, both as performer and composer.
There is something of a revival of interest in the larger group format lately and this recording should find a more ready audience than it might have done ten years ago. Its pleasures are a little rarefied and the modernisms a little too fractured for mass appeal perhaps but it is by no means a purely academic exercise. It is thoughtful, it is contemporary but, crucially, it aligns the imaginative freedoms of the players to the traditional textural strengths that an enhanced personnel allows. As such, it does what it sets out to do -- to show the continuing validity of the big band in a twenty-first century context. Which, in my opinion, is no bad thing.