The worth of a thing is not only to be found in its bottom-line value. That’s the idea at the heart of Canadian artist Emily Carr’s painting “Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky,” which depicts a solitary tree, rejected by loggers who have clear-cut its neighbors, stretching improbably but majestically into the heavens.
It’s a sentiment that resonates deeply with pianist/composer Renee Rosnes. On her new album, Beloved of the Sky – which borrows its title and cover art from Carr’s painting – Rosnes explores the beauty and wonder to be found in life’s more elusive, intangible joys. The album’s nine pieces ruminate on pleasures and inspirations that don’t come with a price tag – the splendor of nature, the mysteries of the universe, the comforts of home, the treasured memories of lost loved ones, the simple warmth of an inside joke.
Beloved of the Sky (due out April 6 on Smoke Sessions Records) also celebrates the chemistry and discovery made possible by a band of truly remarkable musicians, each one a master of their instrument: saxophonist Chris Potter, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Lenny White. “The beautiful thing about working with such masters is that when we play new music, they all bring their wealth of experience, taste, skill and imagination to the music,” says Rosnes. “It’s exciting for me as a composer to write something and then see how it blossoms, because inevitably it’s going to sound a little different than what I imagined – in a great way.”
In the artwork of Emily Carr (1871-1945), Rosnes finds a kindred spirit – not just in their mutual concern for humanity and the environment, but also in their common origins in western Canada. Carr’s work often depicts landscapes familiar to Rosnes from childhood, and a shared fascination with the villages and artifacts of indigenous people. “Having grown up on the west coast of British Columbia, Carr's paintings evoke a strong emotional response in me,” Rosnes says. “Her canvases of coastal landscapes and deep woods are familiar territory. There are several Carr paintings that display her concern for the environment, and specifically the clear-cutting of the forests. Her work feels like home to me.”
That feeling comes across in the painterly scene-setting of Rosnes’ “Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky.” Potter’s soprano and Nelson’s vibraphone combine to lead the listener along a winding path that stretches skyward with the same stoic beauty as Carr’s lone pine. Rosnes’ piano brings the nurturing warmth of the sun, Potter’s darting solo the aspirational reach, and Nelson’s resonant vibes add a regal defiance.
The title track is preceded by the bristling “Elephant Dust,” which in its forceful momentum suggests a thundering herd of the massive beasts. The title actually comes from a family member, who suggested they just be allergic to “elephant dust” after suffering a violent reaction – requiring a rush trip to the hospital – after one of the animals passed by during an event. Equally strong, if far more constructive, reactions fuel the urgent interaction between Rosnes’ pointed playing and Potter’s burly tenor.
Originally composed for the SFJAZZ Collective to feature Bobby Hutcherson, “Mirror Image” pays tribute to the legendary vibraphonist, who passed away in August 2016. Nelson ably steps into the master’s shoes to engage in an elegant dance with Rosnes. Hutcherson wrote the lovely and loving “Rosie” for his wife of more than 40 years, Rosemary, who died almost exactly one year later. On that very day, and before the news had reached her, Rosnes says that she “came across Bobby's handwritten chart of the piece and sat down to play it. Later on I thought about their spirits being reunited, and knew I wanted to record ‘Rosie’ in honor of them both.”
Reprising the passion for scientific investigation that was central to Rosnes’ lasprevioust Smoke Sessions release, Written in the Rocks, “Black Holes” casts its eyes – and its music – to the cosmos. Jim McNeely had arranged a version of the same tune for the Danish Radio Big Band several years earlier, but in this smaller incarnation the quintet manages to sound just as formidable – and interstellar. They then compact for the meditative “The Flame and the Lotus,” a tranquil take on the blues (or a bluesy take on tranquility).
The cascading melody of “Rhythm of the River” vividly depicts a flowing stream – whether a literal one in nature or a figurative life force coursing through all things remains intriguingly vague, but a case could be made for either, or both. Potter’s lively flute is buoyed by White’s joyfully chattering cymbals, launching the leader into an ecstatic solo.
Rosnes discovered Alec Wilder’s rarely-revisited “The Winter of My Discontent” through Helen Merrill’s recording with lyrics by Ben Ross Berenberg that seem tragically relevant today: “The world is full of dissonance / The scheme of things is wrong / The air resounds with the resonance / Of a harsh and spiteful song.” Rosnes’ stark, moving solo intro wrings out that turbulent emotion without the need for a word to be sung. Finally, a memorable line from Maurice Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are – “Let the Wild Rumpus Start!” – unleashes the band for a gleefully anarchic finale, driven by the propulsive pairing of White’s roiling drums and Washington’s ardent, vigorous bass.
Washington and Rosnes share a partnership that dates back more than 30 years, to the pianist’s arrival in New York City. “There’s a wonderful history and a depth of knowledge that I think contributes to the way we communicate with one another musically,” Rosnes says. Potter was also an early collaborator, appearing on a pair of the pianist’s mid-‘90s Blue Note releases. She calls the saxophonist “a towering musician: a virtuoso with an endless imagination. It’s thrilling to get back into the studio with him.”
White is an acquaintance of more recent vintage, though Rosnes has long admired his playing with many of the music’s most legendary figures. “Lenny has played with many of my heroes,” she says, adding that the legendary drummer “brings great architectural beauty, swing, and power to the music at all times.” Nelson also appeared on Written on the Rocks, and Rosnes praises him as “a technically beautiful musician. who also has a lot of heart in his playing. We have a wonderful rapport and he really surprises me with his explorations and his playfulness.”
Like Carr’s “scorned” tree, Rosnes and her quintet stand apart from the clamor, crass commercialism and self-interest that surrounds them. Beloved of the Sky is a gorgeous yet defiant statement that aspires to the heavens while staying firmly rooted to the earth, bold and striking in its unique beauty.
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