New York based composer Ben Stapp released a notable two-album operatic jazz cycle last year. While lauded in writings since then, the Myrrha’s Red Book suite should have garnered much greater attention. With any luck, we can change that here, at least to some modest extent.
Stapp plays tuba and composes, the latter of which is his main role on these recordings. The Zozimos is an extended jazz band, including Satoshi Takeishi on percussion, Stephen Haynes on cornet and flugelhorn, Oscar Noriega on clarinet, and Rebekah Heller on bassoon, among about nine other performers. Not unlike recent efforts by Darcy James Argue and Dan Weiss, this is modern big band jazz with a heavy compositional focus. Additionally, the two vocalists (three on Act II) play the several characters. Thus, comparisons could easily be made to the Trillium operas of Anthony Braxton as well.
The story told here is one that questions the nature of reality, with the main character, Myrrha, struggling to determine which of her memories reflect reality. Intertwined are references to Greek myths, as well as explorations of the nature of the human psyche. The myths seem to serve as the archetypes for the psychological aspects, with the work as a whole making a clear reference to the Red Book of Carl Jung.
The supporting music, while clearly preconceived, also includes space for group improv, as well as subsets of the big band playing somewhat independently of one another. The overall effect is similar to the unraveling of the characters’ minds, and the multiple realities in which the story exists. Unlike some operatic recordings, the vocals on Myrrha’s Red Book do not dominate the foreground. The singing blends with the instruments, and is quite pleasant in nature even if the subject matter is disconcerting.
One could try to categorize these recordings as free jazz, opera, classical, or avant-garde performance art. Regardless of such pigeonholes, Stapp has produced a singular work that reflects today’s increasingly bent genres, and provides an unapologetically intellectual approach. Bravo.