|SHAWN MAXWELL’S ALLIANCEThe alto saxist and composer Shawn Maxwell lives and works in Chicago, where a prodigious number of talented musicians have created a vibrant and impressive jazz scene – the largest (and consequently most crowded) aggregation of top-tier players in the U.S., after New York. Such an environment provides a great deal of stimulation, as well as the assurance of finding the resources needed to fulfill nearly any musical concept. But it also provides a lot of layers, under which even a player with his own strong stamp can get buried.
“There are so many great saxophonists in Chicago,” Maxwell muses, “and we’re all doing the same sort of project, with a quartet or quintet; it’s frustrating that we get buried in the pack. It’s hard to get noticed. And personally, I get frustrated doing the same thing myself. I wanted to break out; I wanted to try something completely
Mission accomplished. Times ten.
Maxwell’s rationale for this album is a bit misleading: in point of fact, his four previous albums, and particularly his last two (on Chicago Sessions), have shown continual growth and development, as opposed to “doing the same thing.” But you can still appreciate his desire to break the mold – to bust a 90-degree move off the path he has followed till now; to cast his musical ideas out the window and let them land as they might, like the I Ching, arranging themselves into patterns for new
interpretation and potential insight.
And sure enough, the music on this album bears little if any resemblance to his previous discs. For starters, many of the tunes are surprisingly short – bite-sized even. (You don’t squeeze 18 tracks onto an album by making any of them an epic; Maxwell himself characterizes some of these tracks as “sketches,” rather than full-fledged compositions.) What’s more, the tunes don’t swing, at least not in any conventional sense. They strut or brood, percolate or pogo, but no one will mistake the underlying beats for the classic rhythmic engine of hard-bop, or the streamlined pulse of more modern styles, or the energy bursts of the avant-garde. As for the instrumentation, it resembles an unholy alliance of several discrete sources: the translucent voicings of a little big band crossed with textures of what the 1950s knew as “exotica” – heavy on the woodwinds – and expressed in insistent unison lines, sotto voce counterpoints, and occasional touches of space-alien electronics.
Well, he did say “different.”
“I just think that the more I play and record, the more comfortable I get with myself – and more of the ‘real me’ comes out,” Maxwell says, building on previous statements about his earlier efforts to “fit into some sort of box of what I thought people wanted to hear.” So on Alliance, he allows, “I threw abandon out the window. It’s just what I heard in my head. I only put this group together to see what would happen in
rehearsals; I had no plans to record, but after hearing the music played live, I changed my mind. I was just digging it, and it sounded so different that I decided to just take this idea and run with it. Some people might hate it – but it might be unique enough to catch on.”
Unique to many contemporary listeners, perhaps, but not to veterans of the 1960s, or to those who have combed the bins of vinyl at second-hand record shops, where they could have come across the music of Philip Glass or Frank Zappa. The tonal palette employed here, with the high reeds and vibes leading the way, recalls the performing unit that classical composer Glass used during the 70s, when he burnished his minimalist compositions to notable popular success. And many of Maxwell’s tunes – with their jaunty, angular melodies, deceptive time signatures, and metronomic rhythm arrangements – sound as if inhabited by the ghost of Zappa, the brilliant and unorthodox rock composer, social critic, and master of humor as dark as it was wacky, who captivated the more musically astute rock fans of the 60s and 70s with such albums asHot Rats, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, and the mellifluously titled Waka/Jawaka. Zappa died in 1993, but his music remains a trove ripe for investigation and resuscitation, and you can’t blame Maxwell for carrying that torch into the present.
No, really – you can’t blame him for channeling Zappa, because he hasn’t.
“I wouldn’t mind the comparison,” Maxwell readily admits, “but I wasn’t trying to emulate Zappa. I’ve never really been a huge fan of his, though I have heard some of his music. But if I’ve done any of that” – i.e., if he’s infused this music with Zappa’s muse – “it’s really unintentional. Some other people have mentioned this, so I guess I should go back and listen to more of his music. But no, I wasn’t trying to sound like him at all.”
Many people reading that statement may choose not to believe it: Maxwell’s music has such strong similarities to that of his famous predecessors that you could well accuse him of lying about his influences, or of purposely forgetting deep-seated childhood experiences with their music. If he weren’t such a straightforward and self-deprecating sort, I might accuse him of such things myself.
So instead, let’s consider the biological concept known as convergent evolution. This is the process in which organisms that are not closely related – different species, or even different genera – independently develop similar traits. For one example, the Australian honey possum, a mammalian species, evolved to feature a long tongue, which it uses to draw nectar from deep within flowers – similar to the feeding tube known as the proboscisin butterflies and hummingbirds. There is no direct evolutionary line for this structure from insects to birds to mammals. Each species converged independently on this evolutionary trait; in layman’s terms, each reinvented this particular wheel. It appears Shawn Maxwell, in trying to break the mold of his own creative output, may similarly have discovered (or re-discovered) this sound on his own.
“This music was all bottled up inside me,” he continues. “But it also developed after I’d heard other artists going in a somewhat similar direction – trying something edgier, taking some chances, moving away from the typical head-solo-head thing. And I wanted something that was more orchestrated, but not your typical jazz orchestra – more of a ‘chamber band,’ I guess you’d call it.”
As for the instrumentation, any similarity to past music is entirely accidental – quite literally, because the tonal palette itself came together accidentally. Maxwell didn’t design this band to meet any pre-supposed notion of how it should sound: “I just thought of people who I wanted to work with on this experiment,” he explains. (Remember, he had no initial plan to record this stuff at all.) “So the instrumentation is really a function of the fact that my friends happen to play these instruments. I mean, the only reason there are French horns is that my wife plays that; the second horn is played by a friend of hers. And I wanted a vocalist, but didn’t want to write lyrics, so I had her sing with the horns. And the weirdness of this, as it fell together, made me think, Hey, this might just work.”
And that brings us around to the name.
“Well, since all the musicians are good friends, I originally used ‘Super Friends’ as the working title,” explains Maxwell, referring to the kids-TV franchise depicting the exploits of super-heroes drawn from the DC Comics world (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.). Then he changed it to “Rebel Alliance,” in homage to the scrappy heroes of theStar Wars cinematic saga, and eventually shortened that to just “Alliance.”
As you can see, Maxwell has a soft spot for cartoons, comics, and science fiction –but that was made clear in the superhero illustration that adorned his previous album and in several of the song titles as well. So in at least one sense, Alliance isn’t so different after all.
Actually, that’s the only sense.
– Neil Tesser