Arranger/Bandleader Mark Masters Reimagines the Music of Iconic Jazz Composers Charles Mingus and Gerry Mulligan
Blue Skylight, out Feb. 17, features singular arrangements for the Mark Masters Ensemble, with veteran players Putter Smith, Gary Foster and Gene Cipriano
"Mark Masters is an accomplished arranger who comes up with hip, unusual ideas for jazz concerts and recordings." – Thomas Conrad, JazzTimes
"Masters is leading the charge as one of the great arrangers of our time.” – Brent Black, CriticalJazz
With that in mind, both Mulligan and Mingus would no doubt approve of the reimaginings that Mark Masters has made of their compositions on Blue Skylight, out February 17 on Capri Records. The word “arrangements” doesn’t quite do justice to Masters’ approach; these eleven pieces are vivid acts of recomposition, each vividly rendered and finely tailored to fit the gifted and distinctive players of the Mark Masters Ensemble.
As trumpeter Tim Hagans (a gifted and inventive composer and arranger in his own right) puts it in his liner notes, “arranging is composing and if the arranger’s voice is highly personal and developed, the original composer fades in function against the arranger’s musical opinion.”
The particular pieces that Masters chose for Blue Skylight are not the obvious selections, the marquee compositions that have been rendered by band after band, year after year, in the decades since they were written. “I prefer the more obscure music,” Masters insists with a self-deprecating chuckle at his un-salesmanlike instincts. Regardless of how familiar a listener is with these composers’ catalogues, though, it’s not likely that Masters’ takes will ever sound well-worn or predictable. As Hagans points out, Masters is a true composer; his initial spark may be a pre-existing tune rather than a stroke of inspiration from the clear blue sky, but his palette is a pool of highly skilled, deeply expressive musicians from which he culls his namesake ensemble.
“It’s all about the players,” Masters says. “There are very few people who can be successful writing music without knowing who’s going to play it. The overriding factor for me is creating a framework for the players to be successful in.”
Blue Skylight was born of a pair of 2015 concerts performed by the ensemble in Palm Desert, California: a “Gerry Mulligan Songbook” evening and a program entitled “Blues by Mingus.” Both prominently featured a trio of undersung elder jazz statesmen that Masters wanted to feature and celebrate: bassist Putter Smith, who has played with such icons as Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey and Duke Ellington; tenor saxophonist Gene Cipriano, a studio veteran who worked with Henry Mancini, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, Miles Davis and Gil Evans, and Frank Zappa, and provided the sound of Tony Curtis’ sax playing in Some Like It Hot; and alto saxophonist Gary Foster, who has played on countless TV and movie scores while playing in big bands led by Toshiko Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin, Clare Fischer, and Louis Bellson.
The seven-piece ensemble (slightly different for the Mingus and Mulligan selections) is filled out by some of the West Coast’s most in-demand musicians, most of whom have enjoyed long relationships with Masters. The longest-serving among them is saxophonist Jerry Pinter (Woody Herman, Stan Getz), who has been working with the bandleader for nearly three decades. Masters has high praise for each player, though, including baritone saxophonist Adam Schroeder, trumpeter Ron Stout, trombonist Les Benedict, pianist Ed Czach and drummer Kendall Kay.
Masters was intrigued by different facets of the two legendary composers’ music. To begin with, in order to make these pieces truly his own, he had to forego being too deferential or awed by their looming status in the jazz world. “There was no sense of staying true to Mulligan or Mingus or capturing the spirit of either one of them,” he says. “I don’t want that to sound egotistical, but I had to do what I was going to do regardless of who the composer was.”
In Mingus’ case, Masters was drawn to the master bassist’s unique harmonic structures. The album kicks off with the burly swing of “Monk, Bunk and Vice Versa,” from Mingus’ culminating masterwork Epitaph. Masters also chose the Dolphy epitaph “So Long Eric,” which opens with Smith’s emotive bass; “Peggy’s Blue Skylight,” which gives the album its title and fits the mysterious, elusive tone of the Edward Hopper painting on its cover; the tenderly aching ballad “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love,” highlighted by Pinter’s yearning tenor; and the dusk-lit “Eclipse,” featuring standout solos from Foster and Benedict.
The lesser-known Mulligan pieces include the swaggering “Out Back of the Barn,” featuring a bluesy, moaning turn from Cipriano; the delicate “Wallflower,” from which Czach wrings a particularly hushed and heartbreaking solo; “Strayhorn 2,” on which Schroeder gets to step into Mulligan’s shoes in a captivating duet with Czach; the percolating “Apple Core,” with Pinter and Foster going head to head; “Birds of a Feather,” a bop-fueled early tune penned for Gene Krupa; and finally the more familiar “Motel,” closing the album with another bravura run by Schroeder.
Long recognized as one of the great jazz arrangers of the last few decades, Mark Masters formed his first ensemble in 1982. He’s gone on to found the non-profit American Jazz Institute and has recorded tributes to Jimmy Knepper, Clifford Brown, Dewey Redman and other greats, leading ensembles featuring some of the music’s most revered performers, including Billy Harper, Tim Hagans, Gary Smulyan, Peter Erskine, Steve Kuhn, Ray Drummond, and Oliver Lake.