Monday, July 10, 2017

Bren Plummer - Moldy Figs (2017)

Employing sonic simplicity hand-in-hand with harmonic complexity, Bren Plummer makes chamber music conceived in a vivid imagination and founded in rigorous musicianship. His imagination extends to the titles of his compositions and descriptions of the pieces.

The name “Sycophantic Chanteuse” echoes an uneasy truce maintained by musicians and singers for decades. “It’s a difficult relationship between instrumentalists and vocalists in jazz,” Bren says. “As far as singers go, I’m really into Sarah Vaughan. She’s my favorite of all time.” Having established that high standard, he observes of the title, “I’m not actually mad at anybody. It’s just a code name for a tune.” 

Preparing for the recording, Plummer wrote parts that could have been adapted to a variety of instrumental combinations. When he decided on vibraphone as one of the chordal instruments, he researched possible players. “Susan Pascal’s name came up,” he said. ”She is a really good reader, her touch is amazing; her dynamics, her sense of balance. The musical choices she made were delightful.”

“Yellow 5, Yellow 6” is another code-name title. It captures a feeling Plummer had when he was hotel-bound in a strange city substituting in the bass section of a symphony orchestra. “It’s like what you might see on a painting’s title card at a museum,” he said, “so it’s reminiscent of fine art, which is one of my great passions.” 

Plummer assured the album’s drummer that the title “Albin DeVonne” has nothing to do with him. It’s the name of a character Bren imagined—a con artist with a fake name based on syllables meaning “of” that are adapted from various languages. There’s nothing fake about the piece’s expansive feeling, its suspended chords and openness. 

In jazz, “Moldy Figs” is what beboppers once called traditionalists and then, ironically, what boppers themselves were sometimes called as musical trends changed. Not easily categorized, Plummer’s “Moldy Figs,” goes its own straight-ahead way with rewarding solos and a stimulating exchange of four-bar phrases between Bren and guitarist Frank Seeberger. They were students at the New England Conservatory when Plummer was earning his bachelor’s degree. “Frank played in one of George Russell’s bands and I played in the other,” Bren recalls of studying with the great composer and arranger. His master’s and doctorate are from the University of Washington.

Plummer and Thomas Marriott have known one another since middle school, when they were both members of a Seattle Public Schools all-star group. Later, both were in the Garfield High School band that over the years Clarence Acox has led to championships in dozens of national and international competitions. Of Marrriot’s burgeoning success, Bren says, “I moved away for college, but when I’d come back for the holidays and seek Tom out, he was famous. He’d walk into a room and get a standing ovation, and he wouldn’t even have his horn with him. Tom can go to New York to play for a week then come back here, and he’s accepted equally in both places.” 

Scott Brown’s Roosevelt High School jazz program is the counterpart of Acox’s across town at Garfield, equally successful in competitions. Plummer says, “Stuart McDonald was the ace tenor at Roosevelt High when I was at Garfield. ‘Wow,’ we used to say, ‘this guy is really good.’ He and I have been playing a lot lately. He’s still totally killer.” 

Of “Hard Time,” Bren says, simply, “It’s a hard tune, hard to improvise over.” The ascending melodic line emphasizes the tune’s character. “There may be a bit of extra-musical narrative in the title,” he grins, “but I’m not doing anything that would wind me up in prison.” “Cockroach” came to Bren after he watched a gritty movie about a Harlem gang war. “ILK” tells how he feels about his wife, Kathryn. “Maitasun” is the Basque word for love. 

—Doug Ramsey

Doug Ramsey blogs about jazz and other matters at Rifftides,

Sycophantic Chanteuse
Yellow 5, Yellow 6
Albin Devonne
Moldy Figs
Hard Time
Maitasun Itsasoa

Bren Plummer: double bass
Thomas Marriott: trumpet
Stuart MacDonald: alto saxophone
Frank Seeberger: guitar
Susan Pascal: vibraphone
D'Vonne Lewis: drums