AMN Reviews: Webber/Morris Big Band – Both Are True (2020; Greenleaf Music)

Saxophonist Anna Webber is an up and coming talent, perhaps one that can be said to have arrived. Her latest release, Clockwise, was one of the better albums of 2019, while her Simple Trio has a pair of brilliant recordings. Here, she teams with another sax player, Angela Morris. I’ll admit to being less familiar with the latter, but that probably has more to do with happenstance than anything else.

Webber and Morris lean into the experimental, and that certainly is not lost on Both Are True. An 18-piece “big band” recording, the album includes contributions from Adam O’Farrill, Patricia Brennan, Dustin Carlson, Marc Hannaford, Adam Hopkins, and Jeff Davis, as well as number of other musicians from New York’s younger improv crowd. Instrumentation comprises saxes, clarinets, trumpets, flugelhorns, trombones, vibes, guitar, piano, bass, and drums. All members contribute choral vocals (more on that below).

Big bands have been on the rise over the last decade and a half. While no longer financially amenable for much touring, not to mention the effort that the leaders / composers have to undertake in terms of writing and preparation, these large outfits have consistently produced some of the most notable recent avant jazz. Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, John Hollenbeck, Darcy James Argue, Satoko Fujii, Kamasi Washington, Brian Krock, Lauren Elizabeth Baba, Nathan Hubbard, Fred Ho, Dan Weiss, John Korsrud, and quite a few others have contributed notably to this loose genre.

In any event, on Both Are True, we have a horn-driven set of explorations that breaks down barriers while also giving a quick nod to pioneers of the past. From the outset, Webber and Morris take a multi-layered approach in Climbing on Mirrors. Saxes set forth a complex interplay while the rhythm section and remaining members offer harmonic pulses. This rapidly evolves into an intricate polyphony with both controlled themes and solos. The sheer extent of voices facilitates rich colors and textures. Themes begin, for example, on vibes, then are picked up by the majority of the horns while the remaining instruments present an overlapping harmony. And speaking of voices, the track ends with the aforementioned chorus adding yet another (wordless) element to the mix.

The title track is more of a playful and meandering piece, with lines wending this way and that over a gently stuttering rhythm. This boils down to something resemble controlled improvisation before breaking into a sax solo and then returning to multi-directionalities.  In contrast, And It Rolled Right Down begins with some outside blowing, then turns into something of a catchy romp albeit with odd timing and a bit of cacophony. Still, this is perhaps the most traditional track on a non-traditional effort.  Foggy Valley explores the outside in more detail with a sax drone accompanied by echoing horns in the background.

Above and beyond the massive pieces are a pair of duets between the leaders. The first is a nice contrapuntal bit, while the second is more subtle and atmospheric with hints of discordance.

Needless to say, it is difficult to capture all of the moving parts at play on Both Are True.  This is a singular and compelling recording.  And just like that, we have our first album of the year candidate.  Bravo.

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