David Sanford Big Band “A Prayer For Lester Bowie”

Building an album around a composition for Lester Bowie is immediately going to pique my interest. Bowie always didn’t simply seek out new ground, he created it, invented it through sweat, erudition, and sheer brilliance. David Sanford is cut from the same slab of marble as he pushes big band into new and exciting directions, imbuing it with a surprising modern edge.

Opening this hot set with a piece called “Full Immersion” is spot on. From the opening rhythms tapped out on Theo Moore’s congas, David Sanford Big Band gets its claws in and doesn’t let go for the next 70 minutes. Sanford guides this band effortlessly through a suite of original compositions (plus a Dizzy Gillespie tune) with an assist from Hugh Ragin on the elegiac title track, setting up killer solo after killer solo while the rhythm sections grooves in tight spaces, but still finds enough room to spread some seeds.

Getting back to “Full Immersion,” it’s a slow build, but once it takes off there’s no stop until we leave the atmosphere. The various horns dance in layers, hopping along the raucous bass flow and fluid rhythms. Anna Webber and Geoff Vidal both rip absolute belter tenor solos, spiraling through the sonic cloisters like a ballet dancer spinning across the stage. After a quick breather, where it seems like the party might be over, Sanford brings the band back with increased force. The horn solos keep flying and flying until they go supernova, all backed by the rock-solid rhythm section. Just when it seems like they can’t push the pedal down any further, they find another gear and keep it going. “Full Immersion” is pure magic. It doesn’t get any better than this.

One thing that makes Sanford’s work stand out is the timbral diversity and the way he intertwines different moods. A Prayer For Lester Bowie gets lost in a lot of different forests, but nothing is out of place. “Woman in Shadows” is slow, contemplative. Etched in smoke across a dark room, bassist Dave Phillips plays with a warm expressiveness, adding an aching undercurrent to the moving piece. Ted Levine’s alto solo is whimsical and full of longing. While it may be the polar opposite in tempo and bombast to “Full Immersion,” it hits just as hard.

Where songs like “Full Immersion” and “Woman in Shadows” get the headlines, Hugh Ragin’s title track is the keystone. Ragin’s mournful trumpet solo is spacious and poignant, a call to order for a brief, quiet moment of remembrance. When the rest of the band comes in, the same spirit saturates the widening palette before the cadence explodes into a cinematic curtain raising. There’s a sense of grandeur embedded within the sprawling might of “A Prayer For Lester Bowie,” a piece that does its namesake proud. Once it ignites, though, it goes. Ragin, who also acts as conductor, lets it ride when it needs to ride and pulls the breaks to bring it all back home. Damn what an incredible tune.

A Prayer For Lester Bowie is a crucial piece of modern big band. David Sanford’s chops are unquestionable, but even for talent as mammoth as him, this album is on a higher level. Once its energy is unleashed, it flows without abandon, breathing complex new life into all the corners and crevices of this genre. A Prayer For Lester Bowie is essential listening.

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