Jason Palmer – The Concert, 12 Musings for Isabella
(Giant Step Arts. 2 CDs. Review by Sebastian Scotney)
Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is, understandably but sadly, closed today. This happens to be the thirtieth anniversary of an art heist on 18 March 1990 which still stands, according to the museum’s website, as “the single largest property theft in the world”. In the early hours of the morning of that day, two thieves posing as police officers overpowered the guards and got away with thirteen major works, including a more or less priceless Vermeer. Because of a quirk in Isabella Stewart Gardner’s will, the museum has been obliged to display empty frames ever since. Trumpeter Jason Palmer has recorded a project about it “that is near and dear to me”. The two-disc set is released today, in commemoration of the anniversary.
Palmer remembers moving from North Carolina to Boston in 1997 to attend New England Conservatory, and going to a concert at the museum. The empty frames left an impression on him, and he found he was fascinated to explore the pictures that were no longer there. “After taking in the beauty of the works,” he says, “I decided to commission myself to write a piece inspired by each of those works.”
The ‘twelve musings’ are each inspired by one of the thirteen looted works, with the two sheets of pencil drawings by Degas, ‘Studies for an Artistic Soiree’, taken as one. For this recording, Palmer is among equals, in the company of stellar players: Mark Turner (tenor sax), Joel Ross (vibes), Edward Perez (bass) and Kendrick Scott (drums). The album was recorded live, and the whole project has been supported by the Jimmy Katz’s Giant Step Arts Foundation, and they had the good fortune to be invited by the InterContinental New York Barclay to make the recording in the luxurious Harold S. Vanderbilt Penthouse of the hotel, which opened in 1926.
The twelve compositions add up to a programme which is not much short of two and a half hours, with just one of the tracks coming in under eight minutes; and there are only unobtrusive reminders that it is a live recording with occasional ripples of applause.
Jason Palmer has provided detailed and thoughtful notes for every track. The (musical) writing can often be dense, intricate, challenging. I would say that the tracks which yield up their secrets most readily are tunes like Cortege aux Environs, remembering a Degas drawing, and in which Palmer and his cohort gently and spaciously conjure up the light texture of Degas’ pencil and sepia wash on paper.
Palmer has intriguingly described his composition Program for an Artistic Soiree (Degas) as “danceable and sleuthy”. I love the confidence and the angularity of Palmer’s and Turner’s opening salvoes, as a duet, on this track. There is also a strong bass solo with a highly memorable energy and fluency.
Palmer and Turner are ideal foils for each other and combine with infallible ensemble playing and flawless tuning. Joel Ross, on the vibes as the harmony instrument, brings a wonderful lightness to the texture. In his solo exploits, he has an impressive way of circling around a particular fixed idea, as if he is putting a section of a picture under a microscope.
This is a totally different world from the simpler, heart-on-sleeve candour and the easier approachability of Jason Palmer’s very recent and beautiful tribute to Anita Baker issued just a few months ago, entitled Sweet Love.
12 Musings for Isabella is a major piece of work and I certainly have the feeling I will want to go back (perhaps in less stressful times) to dig deeper and to explore more.
Categories: CD review