Russ Kaplan + 7
The Ulysses Cycle

(Ropeadope Records)

Yep, at first I thought that what I had in front of me was the proverbial "perfect recipe for disaster", and I have to say I'm quite confident readers will agree with me here: The Ulysses Cycle is a "concept jazz" thingee of a very long duration (77', the equivalent of a vinyl double album from way back) based on... the Odyssey, complete with "narrative prose" (which luckily reveals to be of the written kind only, with no spoken parts whatsoever), where the line-up, quite large and definitely inclined towards a multi-style smorgasbord, is augmented by guest musicians of quite diverse background. Whew - don't you see already, written in bright lights, the word "pastiche"? Well, I'm glad I can say that my fears proved to be totally ungrounded: The Ulysses Cycle is a very fine work, quite accessible, which reveals its hidden jewels with repeated listening sessions.

It could be argued that there's no reason why a work of "concept jazz" has to sound ponderous and rhetorical, and sure thing I still remember the fine Charles Mingus piece titled Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956), and its "programmatic" nature. But, at about 10', the fresco painted by the genius bassist was relatively brief, it also left the listener free to "connect the dots". Here we're asked to follow the chapters of a story that's quite familiar to us all, Ulysses' myth being part of the foundation of modern western culture - could boredom be too far behind? The risk was there.

With the help of very good players, the + 7 (I really don't know if the similarity to tags like Gil Evans + 10 is due to chance, or if it's supposed to reveal hidden affinities when it comes to style and logic), keyboard player, composer, and arranger Russ Kaplan has produced a work that appears to be perfect for the stage - The Ulysses Cycle... on Broadway? - but which can work just as well when listened to on its own merits: when leaving their homes, or the theatre, listeners will find themselves whistling those tunes!

The music is splendidly recorded, by the way, with the bass drum hitting quite hard when needed, dry rimshots, versatile percussion, and double bass, reeds and brass being very expressive in their solo mode, and clear in their ensemble work. The album was produced by Adam Gold and Russ Kaplan, recorded and mixed by John Davis at the Bunker, in Brooklyn, and mastered by Randy Merrill at the famous Masterdisk, in New York. All this largesse comes at a price, of course, and here I'm glad I can say that the album was financed thanks to a Kickstarter campaign (there's also a thick booklet with many fine paintings, which comes with the CD).

Who played what dept.: Kaplan is on piano and keyboards (the piano sound is good, while the sound of the electric piano, which to me sounds like the fruit of synthesis, is a bit ho-hum). All good men, Wayan Zoey on drums, Rohin Khemani on percussion, Moppa Elliott on double bass (two tracks feature, on what to me sounds like a 5-string electric, John Davis), Tom Gavin on guitars, who's mostly featured on pt. II of the work. There's a fine wind section, starring Mike McGinnis on alto, clarinet, and bass clarinet; Jonathan Powell on trumpet and flugelhorn; and Kyle Saulnier on baritone and soprano saxophone and flute.

Kaplan has succeeded in assembling a whole which highlights his qualities as a composer and arranger. It's quite accessible music, which I believe can find its place in the home of those who still listen to music as an exclusive activity - well before it hits Broadway.

Let's give a quick look at those pieces.

Listen! opens the album, and starts the story. Opening for solo piano, a calm melody with a touch of melancholia. Restlessness appear, with cymbals and drums, overtones from winds - a touch of Mingus, perhaps? - announcing future developments.

The brief Nightfall has a piano riff, snare, fine toms elaborating on the riff, baritone sax, tutti.

The Sack has a fine backing by electric piano ("Fender"-style), electric bass, quite tense, then baritone, a figure which acts as an "ambulance siren", then it's time for a robust trumpet solo (through a plug-in?), which at times has the attack of a guitar, with a few spices from Bitches Brew. Theme by trumpet, with fine backing by keyboards. A solo for alto, then the trumpet - but listen to the bass drum, rimshot, and piano - brings the piece to a "cut". Riff.

The brief Listen! (ii), with "electric piano", and double bass played arco, rich with harmonics, is a reprise of theme 1.

Lotus Eater is a funny "Dixieland" interlude, very tongue-in-cheek, with clarinet, soprano, baritone, and percussion that reminded me a bit of Van Dyke Parks. Seth Fruiterman is on vocals.

Gouge: percussion, a piano arpeggio, double bass, give way to a fine melody played on bass clarinet, which has a good solo. There's an abrupt "dancing" transition, with baritone, trumpet, a "rock" cut, and a riff like the ones Nucleus used to play, with a great use of the bass drum. There's a fine trumpet solo, quite edgy-sounding, backed by baritone mumblings and "electric piano". Riff.

Introduced by bells and tablas, Windbag features a fine melody. Here the featured instrument is the violin, played by Judy Kang, with appropriate backing by tablas and piano. Something quite "Balkan"-sounding here. This is an episode that appropriately dilutes the tension.

Pigz In Space features a fine electric bass figure, and a beatbox, the theme here can't help but remind one of Herbie Hancock's 60s "funk" on Blue Note. Percussion, "electric piano", and an alto sax solo update the mood to Head Hunters' "funk". There's time for a trumpet solo, then a weird, almost "ethnic-sounding", vocal chant.

Prognostication is a funny rap, with vocals by Lonnie Carter. Percussion, flute, snare drum played with brushes, a unison for flute and double bass, it's not miles away from first-period Gil Scott-Heron, with Hubert Laws on flute.

Siren Song starts with solo trumpet, then winds, playing "largo, rubato". The piano introduces the theme, then percussion, "jazzy" double bass, winds.

Kalypso is a... calypso which reminded me a bit of Sonny Rollins, even though the long fine solo here is played on baritone. Tiny percussion in solo-transition mode, the theme again. Then, it's double bass and drums that play a nice backing to a... "synth".

The first part of the album ends here: it's longer, and definitely more "jazz-related" than Pt. 2, which sounds more pianistic, with fine use of guitar, and a suite-like configuration.

Listen! (iii) is a brief reprise of the theme, for piano.

Homeward features a double bass ostinato, piano, fine cymbals, and an electric guitar arpeggio. The theme is shared by piano and guitar. A fine "neo-classical" episode for solo piano takes us to...

Recognition: the guitar starts the piece, then there's a fine melody for piano and guitar. There's a delicate, melodic guitar solo, which gradually increases its roughness quotient, with backing by piano and rhythm section. Then it's back to the fine melodic theme.

Intruders opens with the double bass playing percussive-slide. A bass figure, excellent bass drum to the fore, a "jazzy" piano, nervous-sounding winds. There's a "marching-band" theme, a baritone solo with shouting and handclaps, a very fast pizzicato on double bass, the whole sounding quite a bit Mingus-like. Theme.

Penelope starts with piano chords, and a fine melody. There's the clarinet, drums played with brushes, the whole gradually sounding like a bossa. There's a fine clarinet solo, with arpeggios, very thematically-related.

What's Mine starts with "noisy" guitar. Big drums, the double bass played arco, resembling a cello. Theme, a "Prog" air, and a guitar solo not too far from Robert Fripp. Theme, snare-toms, a martial air.

Back Together is (obviously) a relaxed 3/4, with backing by acoustic guitar and the cornet in the middle register, then playing a bluesy-sounding solo. Theme.

The Trial is a brief, tense interlude, with nervous snare drum.

It's Not Too Late brings the album to its close. Fine melodic intro by piano and rhythm section. A joyous uptempo, a solo on soprano sax, a guitar solo, a solo for alto sax. Theme again, then the trumpet with echo (a very good sonic touch, this), while reeds and piano play a melodic ostinato. The music fades out, then strange voices appear.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2013 | Aug. 11, 2013