Trombonist/composer Morgan Powell (1938, West Texas) is notable for having taken a background in jazz improvisation and integrated it into the context of the small art music ensemble. Powell began playing trombone early and by his teens was playing regionally in professional jazz bands. After studying music education and composition at North Texas State College with Ed Summerlin and Samuel Adler, Powell entered the doctoral program at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where his teachers included Salvatore Martirano, Kenneth Gaburo. He taught there from 1966-1994 and was chairman of the composition/theory division from 1978-1983.
In this compact book, some of whose chapters have appeared in New Music Box, Perfect Sound Forever and elsewhere, Ann Starr offers a personal, impressionistic account of Powell’s work augmented by biographical information, interviews (with Powell and with trumpeter Thomas Wirth), reviews and liner notes, and a profile of the Tone Road Ramblers, the collaborative improvisational sextet in which Powell plays and for which he writes much of his music. The book is accompanied by a CD containing nine tracks, two of which were previously unreleased, representing work written between 1972 and 2008.
As evidenced by the CD selections, Powell’s background in jazz orchestration would seem to come through in the instruments he’s written for. There are solo works for trumpet, trombone, tuba as well as duets for flugelhorn and percussion, trumpet and alto saxophone, and flutes and percussion. Also included is an improvisation by the Tone Road Ramblers, whose instrumentation—percussion, flute, clarinet, trombones, and trumpet—carries the flavor of a scaled down jazz big band. The music is appropriately multifaceted. Alone (1972), performed by Ray Sasaki on trumpet, begins with an echo of Varese’s Integrales and then turns ruminative, the instrument often taking on a vocal quality. The whimsically titled Triptych in Five Parts (2000), performed by the Ramblers, is a texturally-varied improvisation with a well-balanced, constantly changing blend of timbres—a remarkable thing to do unscripted. Destiny and Desire (2003) for trumpet (Sasaki) and alto saxophone (Howie Smith), is a contrapuntal work of emergent dissonances interspersed with solo passages. The single work for a string instrument, the expressive Sonny’s Songs (1999) for solo violin, is performed by Dorothy Martirano and seamlessly incorporates extended string techniques–bent phrases, microtones, and left-hand pizzicato—into an expansively lyrical framework.