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CD Review

Alchemy

Dave Ballou, trumpet
Faustino Diaz Mendez, trumpet & trombone
Gustavo Rosales Morales, trombone
Adam Unsworth, horn
Meridian Arts Ensemble/John Ferrari
8bells Records 700261373546 46:56
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The Meridian Arts Ensemble is a chamber group consisting of five brass players and a percussionist/conductor (Jon Nelson & Tim Leopold, trumpets; Daniel Grabois, horn; Benjamin Herrington, trombone; Raymond Stewart, tuba; and John Ferrari, percussion). Based in New York City, they have performed on concert stages across the globe and made nine CDs for the Chanel Classics label. Their repertory takes in classical (from virtually every period), jazz, folk and much else. They do their own arrangements, although on this disc Dave Ballou and Adam Unsworth, who serve as guest artists here, contribute to the duties.

Here, on their own 8Bells label they are joined by four guest performers to increase the size of the group to ten. The repertory on this disc consists of arrangements of vocal music from Renaissance and Baroque composers, though some pieces here are fantasy-like take-offs based on the source work. The album notes are a little fuzzy about how far some of these efforts stray from the original work, but apparently the most faithful arrangements here are those of the Giovanni Gabrielli's Sonata Pian'e Forte and Orlando de Lassus' Eco and Providebam Dominum. Oddly, the arranger(s) for these three works are not credited in the album. Dave Ballou's arrangement of Arcangelo Corelli's four-movement Sonata VIII – Prelude, Allemande, Sarabande and Gigue – originally scored for violin and keyboard, takes considerable liberties. Indeed, the album notes suggest Ballou's effort is largely a new composition, using the Corelli piece as a springboard for inspiration. Elgar Howarth did much the same with Dufay's Pasce Tuos, basically turning it into something quite different from the original.

In the end, much of the music on this CD comes across as having a Baroque or early music flavor but with modern touches. Thus, the J.S. Bach works often divulge a mixture of contrapuntal sobriety and modern-day sonic colors: the clever scoring includes vibraphone, muted brass and inventive tuba writing. To those who might think the two Bach pieces make a mockery of the composer's music, the end results aren't garish or extreme at all but rather tasteful and quite individual. The Byrd Gloria, despite an opening that features a vibraphone, is rather somber and stately, in the end exhibiting a pleasing epic character. The brief Gesualdo Occhi del mio cor vita is a nice nugget here, but of more consequence is the ensuing Plorate filii Israel by Carissimi: it brims with a religiosity and serenity of great beauty.

The aforementioned Ballou takeoff on the Corelli Sonata certainly has a modern sound, but not aggressively so and the music is rather mellow and reasonably appealing. I wonder why the four movements are interleaved with other works on the disc: they appear on tracks 5, 8, 10 and 12, instead of consecutively. The Elgar Howarth takeoff on Dufay's Pasce Tuos is a slightly different story, however: paced very slowly, it is austere, bleak and restive, but a work whose rewards grow upon repeated hearings.

The performances by the Meridian players and their guest musicians are excellent throughout the disc. In fact, it would be difficult to find a significant weakness in any of their efforts here. The sound reproduction is quite clear and well balanced. The only caveat is the paltry timing of 46:56. In sum, if you like the sound of brass ensembles like the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble or the Canadian Brass, you may well find this disc to your liking. Certainly the music has charm (though purists may scoff at the arrangements) and the performances are quite fine.

Copyright © 2015, Robert Cummings

Trumpet