The thing I love about the ‘new big band’ music like Chisholm’s is that it combines small ensemble open-ness and intercommunication and large group harmonic structure and depth of composition. The title track is a great example – The opening uses the full effect of the large group to build the dramatic effect then breaks out to allow a nice collaborative improvisation until the main theme takes over.
In fact, regardless of the size of my portable iTunes Library (I was restricting myself to 10GB on my iPod for a while) I always have the title song Radioactive at the ready. It joins songs like Jason Parker’s ‘Summertime/Footprints’ as a song that isn’t just cool … it is one of my favorites of the last several years.
So … with that build-up and lofty expectations, Dave Chisholm has released a new album called Calligraphy. Let’s take a look and see if Chisholm remains one of my favorite young artists!
Summary: Calligraphy was ‘officially’ released on November 30th, but as Dave said it was a loose release date, and sent me over a copy before it was publicly available. Without spoiling my whole review, I liked it enough that as soon as I could grab it on iTunes … I did!
As I listened to Calligraphy for the first time what struck me was that in spite of being jazz by genre classification, my first description would be ATMOSPHERIC. That was the exact same term my son used when he heard it in the car last week, and thought it might be a soundtrack to something … telling the life of someone in crisp detail, with the trumpet as the first person voice. As we drove and listened he made observations on the rise and fall of the music and what might be implied with each statement and phrase.
For some, being told that a record is ‘atmospheric’ and ‘might be a soundtrack’ could be a negative, but when your album notes say your have created a “forward-thinking and cinematic album” … then it is a mark of success!
The group on the album includes Dave Chisholm on Trumpet, Noah Berman on guitar, Nick Weiser on piano, Ben Tiberio on bass, and Aaron Staebell on drums.
Starting off with ‘A Fitting Combination’, it is clear that neither ‘a jazz record’ nor ‘atmospheric soundtrack music’ are sufficient. In fact, the title of the song seems right on the mark. The infectious guitar riff by Berman takes you in a mysterious direction that builds and grows until almost two minutes in Chisholm cues a new motif that completely changes the feeling of the song, yet we are not surprised when the original theme returns under the improvised trumpet solo, and by the end there is harmony between the two themes as they flow from one to the next.
‘And Now We Wait’ reminds me of a pop song and I could picture it being reworked and having Florence Welch or Amy Lee from Evanescence singing a haunting theme as the song builds its charming hook slowly over the first few minutes. Yet I find that through nuanced phrasing Chisholm is able to infuse a greater depth of emotion and later a feeling of powerful resilience than any set of lyrics could state. This is one of those songs that is a ‘slow burner’, starting slow and introspective but by the end you are swaying and nodding your head to the statements of the lead.
Returning to the earlier thought of the soundtrack, by now the central voice of Dave Chisholm makes it clear just who this story is about – and I love how it flows. This isn’t background music – it is the story of his life, told with raw emotion and clarity of purpose.
But don’t let that make you think it doesn’t both swing and rock! The next song, ‘Plant a Seed’ has that mid-tempo pop-rock feel for the first few minutes with an easily singable melody against a straight-forward backdrop with some cool tape-loop effects in the background that give it a bit of a jam-band feel. The production is tight and ethereal and the spartan background makes Chisholm’s statements even more effective.
One concern I had initially was that an entire album based around a single voice might turn into a bit of a bland ego trip, but that never happens here for several reasons. Primarily, the compositions are at the core of the record, with strong statements and themes and harmonies requiring strong contributions from all members. But there are also the personalities of the players – Chisholm may be the lead, but he is generous with space and his structures allow for strong teamwork and interplay, so all of the individuals stand out at one time or other, and always stand out as a unit.
The song ‘Whisper’ is largely a conversation between Berman and Chisholm, and it is gorgeous. If you have ever heard the Billy Bragg CD ‘Don’t Try This At Home’, you might hear a familiar style of communication at work with this song. It is intimate and personal and a shared feeling, and when Nick Weiser brings a bell-like keyboard to the mix it helps enhance the story-telling. I particularly love the close-miking of the trumpet here, as the breathiness just makes you feel even more connected with what is happening.
After the first half I already loved this record … but it is the last three songs that turn this from a really good album to one that amongst my favorites of 2011 (though you’ll have to wait for my list to see if it made the ‘Top 10′).
The title track ‘Calligraphy’ is ready to carry the weight of the entire recording. My younger son said ‘I can practically SEE this song’ – and I agree. There is a somber and reflective tone at the beginning, one that alternates major and minor tonalities and seems to threaten to break out at any second. You can feel it building – building in terms of volume, contribution from the entire band, and intensity of emotion. After about 5 minutes it seems like the song just can’t take anymore, and then the listener is rewarded by the song opening up and you realizing that your entire body has tightened up in anticipation and you are now swaying and basking in the the gorgeous exchange between the band. None of the intensity is lost, but everything is different as things shift and slow and refocus.
As a rhythm section player growing up, I have always been lured by songs like ‘Nefertiti’ that had a fairly stable lead section and left the intensity to the rhythm section. ‘Aeroplanes’ is such a song – there is a strong lead, but it is stable throughout. The piano, guitar, bass and drums have just SO much going on that I found myself repeating the song again and again to catch the undercurrents of improvisation that played so well against the deft improvisation in the middle of the song – everyone is improvising simultaneously yet there is a completely solid feel throughout. When you listen, try focusing on a single instrument and you will see what I mean – for example, how Ben Tiberio tries to insinuate a new harmonic structure halfway through Chisholm’s solo without compromising the core song elements. Oh, and the chorus section just completely rocks.
‘C-Minor’ is the song I have heard talked about the most, and with good reason: it is a great song. As I keep stating, there is a single-voice focus to the record, and so it is appropriate that the finale starts with Chisholm making a statement before the rest of the band joins in a sweet and pretty ballad very much in the jazz tradition. Then … it happens. A fierce blast opens the song wide, and for some reason you are more excited than surprised. This intense journey has been leading to this, so you feel one with the explosive force of the whole band reaching a new level and settling at an equally fierce plateau before dropping back to a ballad led by Weiser on piano playing gentle figures coaxing Chisholm slowly back to the fore. My older son said he loved the entire evolution of the song, that he felt connected to what was happening and also felt committed to seeing it through with the soloist who had laid it all on the line, pulled back, and then slowly regained confidence in his voice and convictions. It is an amazing way to close ANY album.
I mentioned the contribution of the rest of the band at various points, and it is critical to note that this project would have failed if not for the stellar playing and intimate communication between the entire group. There are so many examples, but perhaps none better than the mastery of ‘Calligraphy’, which called for intensity without excessive volume or tempo or improvisation, and it succeeded on an amazing level.
‘Calligraphy’ surprised me by how much I liked the entire thing. With Radioactive I enjoyed the album, but only truly fell in love with one song that has stuck with me for more than 18 months and countless new releases crossing my iPod. ‘Calligraphy’ has a uniform excellence in composition, playing, and overall execution that will keep it on my iPod and recommended listening list for a long time to come. I can’t wait to see what Dave comes up with next.
Choice Track (and why): ‘Calligraphy’ – this was a tough choice, but also an easy one. The entire story of this record is held in this one song, one of a singular journey but one that cannot be undertaken alone. Every element is critical, each voice is completely necessary, and the whole is larger than the sum of the parts.
You Might Love This If: If you want to experience modern jazz that brings with it everything from a big band feel (with a small group) to rock to soundtracks to swing and beyond. It is always approachable but never bland, and is an intensely emotional and communicative recording that everyone I have played it for has enjoyed, regardless if they are a fan or pop, techno, rap, or jazz.
Where to Buy: iTunes Music Store – $6.93
Here is a one-minute sample video from the album:
A more recent review of Calligraphy from AllAboutJazz included a new link to a live performance at the Bug Jar in Rochester of the song Calligraphy: