Most jazz fans in the city have heard Frank Glover in a small-group setting, whether with his new fusion band Kihlo or a more traditional acoustic ensemble. So perhaps it's the arrangements for big band and strings on Politico that are the most surprising and impressive.
Self-released in 2005 but making its national debut this year on Owl Studios, Politico deserves to be heard by as wide an audience as possible, and has a chance to make a mark in a world where jazz clarinet players - particularly those playing something beyond Dixieland - are far outnumbered by saxophonists.
Three ensembles are featured on the album: three pieces given over to a quartet consisting of Glover, pianist Steve Allee, bassist Jack Helsley and drummer Bryson Kern; two compositions labelled as film music for Glover with a small string orchestra; and one piece for Glover and a jazz orchestra constituted similarly to a typical big band.
In the quartet, Glover and Allee seem perfectly suited to each other, Allee with a bright and light approach that matches the timbre of the clarinet, both with an adeptness and flexibility that allows he and Glover to match each other step by step, or break free and do their own thing. His work with the quartets give Glover more time to improvise than on the more structured writing for larger ensembles, and it's a pleasure to hear - free of cliches or anything resembling Dixieland, capable of octave leaps and breathy ascensions into the stratosphere, busy without being manic, and, of course, technically flawless. His three-part, 17 minute "Concierto para quarteto" maintains some elements of the concerto form, prominently featuring Glover's clarinet, recalling throughout themes introduced at the beginning of the piece, varying rhythm and mood for each movement. It's an ambitious piece that doesn't announce it's ambition, and seems most inventive at the close, where it grinds to a complete halt before playfully rolling out of control towards the ending.
Glover's writing for orchestra is thick and lush without being melodramatic, moving between consonance and dissonance with each new riff, giving over the forward momentum and melody to the clarinet, which plays lyrical melodies that resolve themselves against the shifting orchestral lines only to discover newfound tension in the next measure. The two pieces with strings - "The Last Blue Tang" and "A Thousand Ships" - sound like conventional film music, introducing a memorable melody then backing away to make room for the next scene (both pieces are only three minutes each), and setting a definite tone - elegiac, solemn, a little mysterious, but still composed and elegant, the perfect mix to add resonance to any dramatic situation.
While each piece on Politico is self-sufficient, thoughtful and, well, good, "Plastic Trees" suggests that Glover might pursue more work as an arranger for big band. This eight-minute piece layers voices like a Mingus arrangement, brings those voices into a complex relationship like a Gil Evans piece and has the modernity and ingenuity of the work of a modern master like Maria Schneider. The tune has a slight samba feel, and characteristic of Glover's pieces for the album, opens with just the barest of elements, a repeated one note phrase on the piano as each section enters, following its own logic. (One hears a similar sensitivity to dynamics earlier in the album: "Politico" emerges from the ether with a building drum solo, drops out after a busy clarinet solo and finally runs out of gas at the close, with Glover blowing a few exhausted notes before leaving entirely. If the title imparts meaning to the piece, then perhaps his clarinet is a politico running out of hot air after delivering several hurried and busy speeches.)
I look forward to hearing Glover's first new release on Owl, because if there's any drawback to the music on Politico, it's that there isn't more of it - an album's worth of his film music or big band arrangements, maybe a concerto for clarinet and orchestra.