New England Jazz Ensemble – Peter and the Wolf Review

by Bea Willis

The New England Jazz Ensemble is a large ensemble jazz orchestra comprised of regionally based artists. The ensemble features original and contemporary jazz arrangements and compositions. Much of the band’s material is generated by the ensemble’s members. It is a performance group as well as a composer’s forum. The group is likewise a non-profit organization based in education through the jazz medium, to reach culturally diverse audiences and to educate the public about jazz. Their sixth album Peter and the Wolf is a concept album with original pieces augmenting the original Serge Prokofiev’s score for an overall refreshing listen featuring guest artist Giacomo Gates as the narrator.

It would be unfair to do a review of the New England Jazz Ensemble’s album Peter and the Wolf and not talk about the main Serge Prokofiev composition, certainly it would miss the point of the project altogether. This large jazz ensemble provides the opportunity for arranger Walt Gwardyak to bring Prokofiev’s mid-1930s composition into the modern era and bring it into the world of jazz, in all of its glorious hipitude.  Gwardyak takes the composition and creates a compelling reworking of the orchestration and rhythms to introduce audiences to the jazz style and genre all in one extended work.

Focusing on the different jazz styles, such as: swing, jazz waltz, New Orleans jazz and cool jazz, other styles are additionally touched on, including: blues and salsa. As with the original, the various instruments or combinations are used to represent the characters in the story. Vocalist Giacomo Gates composed a new version of the libretto, which lends additional stylistic interest and accessibility to the work. The New England Jazz Ensemble’s playing is perfectly pristine and swings with verve, each section is balanced, the feel changes are executed seamlessly, and the solos are engaging and melodious. This ensemble obviously has a deep understanding of both the jazz and classical tradition and the inner workings that make both magical.

Inspired by things lupine, and often based on melodic lines of Prokofiev, trumpeter and composer Jeff Holmes brings us “Wolves,” a track that has an orchestrative personality with its primary character.  This again is a testament to the ensembles ability as a whole and as individual soloist to bring to life, an adaptation worthy of Prokofiev’s themes. Holmes solo is equally expressive and floats over the hip background figures. The ensemble passages are remarkable, well-written and played with character and subtlety. The composition’s form takes the listener on a journey of new feels and exhilarating sounds of music from around the world. Gwardyak’s accordion solo is exceedingly enjoyable. The star of the show though is the writing, wonderful voicings, flowing counterpoints and most importantly, stunning melodies that float everywhere in this seven minute and twenty-three second mini-suite of a compositions. Great job Mr. Holmes!

Many of us grew up on the Peter and the Wolf oeuvre. It is Prokofiev’s most frequently performed work, and one of the most frequently performed works in the entire classical repertoire. It has been recorded many times. What makes this version so special, is the leap forward into the under-charted territory of jazz, adding the imagination of Gates and the mastery of the Gwardyak’s arranging skills and the compositional acumen of Jeff Holmes and John Mastroianni, this might become the definitive jazz rendition that others look to in the coming years.

Tracks to sample first: “Peter and the Wolf ,” “Wolves” and “Power Serge.” The song to take a chance on is “Waltzin’ with Wolves.”

 

 

 

Peter and the Wolf

  • Release Date: April 22, 2018
  • Label: New England Jazz Ensemble
  • Copyright: ℗© 2018 New England Jazz Ensemble
  • Total Length: 1:05:06

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