Trombonist and composer Jeff Fairbanks was inspired by the convergence of cultures in New York City, especially around Mulberry Street where Little Italy intersects with Chinatown.He notes that in the south end of this street, some “Chinese-run funeral parlors, while conducting Buddhist ceremonies, maintain the Western brass band tradition established by their previous Italian operators. As a player in the brass band, my interest was caught by this unique and unlikely blend of cultures.” It is this blending of Asian (Chinese and Korean) and Western musical traditions that is the heart of the Fairbanks’ Project Hansori, a big band that explores his efforts at a musical fusion. “Hansori” is Korean for “one sound,” and Fairbanks’ ensemble attempts to bring distinct parts together in an original way on an new BJU Records release Mulberry Street. With his band is a special guest, Fred Ho on baritone sax, but the players are unfamiliar to these ears.
The opening selection is one of two he hasn’t composed, San Ma Da, by Jae-Hoon Park, is a Korean church hymn about the fall harvest, and Fairbanks makes an impressive solo statement followed by Remy Le Bouef’s slippery soprano and Linda Oh’s impressive bass. Fairbanks’ sophisticated arrangements adds atmosphere and texture for the lively performance. Woodside Story opens with Chinese flavor in the reeds (flute and clarinet) along with Chinese percussion before becoming a spirited performance incorporating the Chinese musical figures within the swinging big band performance with John Yao buzzing on trombone and Michael Webster on tenor sax constructing a marvelous solo.
Hoping For Hope is based on a certain rhythmic pattern in Korean Samulnori (“four objects sound”) music with Fairbanks stating the theme first against Francesca Han’s piano effectively making use of repetition, with the scoring of mostly clarinets against the brass very appealing here and guitarist Sebastian Noelle effectively working off the percussive center of this number with the horns playing building into a rhythmic frenzy. Han Oh Baek Nyeon/ 500 Years is a quartet rendition of an old Korean folk song with Fairbanks trombone along with Rami Selo on gayageum, Heun Choi Fairbanks on cello and Yosun Yoo on percussion with the cello expressing a somber tone reinforced by Jeff Fairbanks trombone. Bi Bim Bop is built on the spoken rhythm of the title and a 12-tone row that is constantly twisted and recycled to considerable effect.
The core of this disc is the marvelous Mulberry Street Suite, which, as noted, was inspired by the brass bands at Chinese-run funeral parlors. At certain funerals, both Western and traditional Chinese bands perform “often playing songs against each other in a tradition of using music to scare away evil spirits.” The suite is Fairbanks attempt to create “an abstract impressionism of these experiences.” Part 1: Entrance and Funeral March. is solemnly played as Han’s piano rings the tempo of a brass band entering the home and playing a dirge with a brief soprano sax interlude with Jason Wiseman trumpet solo exploiting the middle range.
Part 11: Scaring Away Evil Spirits with Joyful Sounds, has a contrasting mood after the initial incorporation of Chinese folkloric sounds and percussion as well as scoring soprano saxophones to suggest the oboe-like suona. Fred Ho takes a short baritone sax solo at the beginning while Erica Van Kleist takes a lengthier solo interlude on alto sax that is rooted in the lower register of the instrument followed by mesmerizing interplay between the various band sections. Part III: Releasing Grief is a portrayal of moments in a Chinese funeral of releasing all their grief. Fred Ho enters unaccompanied before the full band comes in playing both Buddhist and Christian hymns with Ho taking a lengthy solo reaching deep down as well as adding squeaks and squalls set against Fairbanks somewhat dramatic scoring. “Part IV: The Send-off, with a trombone solo by Mark Miller at the beginning, evokes the part of a funeral where the casket is brought outside several bands play simultaneously. To achieve this effect the band is split into five separate ensembles near the end playing separate melodies. It serves as a dazzling coda, not simply to the suite, but the album.
The composition, Mulberry Street was commissioned by the BMI Foundation Charlie Parker Composition Prize with other grant support for the project. With Mulberry Street, the Jeff Fairbanks Hansori Project has produced a fresh and stellar big band recording that has brought together various musical traditions for a fresh and dazzling musical experience that is likely to be among this listener’s best of 2011. Highly recommended.
My review copy was provided by a publicist for the recording.