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The Common Root
Morgan Powell/Phoebe Legere
Einstein Records

Embedded in the conservative Midwest like antibodies are composers surviving on grants and teaching,quiet subversives whose subtle manipulations of craft deny them the hype lavished on more fashionable experimenters.

For composer Morgan Powell Common Root should finally be the disc that puts him and his collaborators in the front rank of musicians who find drama in that tricky zone where free improv and scored classical traditions meet. Unlike many musicians who blast noisy dissonances in broad strokes Powell uses noise in almost discreet ebbs and flows,supporting and commentating on the singspiel of Phoebe Legere,who glides through tricky changes with the comedic assurance of a master sax player,her vocalizations searching for ever newer valleys and peaks in Powell’s music and her lyrics that use Beat and saga forms-laced with vaudeville humor-to repair the rift between hard science and art.

There’s brittle flash and then there is substance. Powell,Legere and supporting artists the Tone Road Ramblers have for too long suffered because the network of press and industry can’t tell the difference.

-James Hopkins

About The Morgan Powell Jazz Album
(Chicago Lakeside Jazz) – continued

“Pianist and big-band leader Jim McNeely says that the music on this large ensemble’s session ‘exists without conscious reference to the past or future.’ Featuring the compositions of Morgan Powell, these mostly long form works side step the customary swing and bebop references, opting for disjunct rhythms and freely evolving ensemble textures.”

— Mark Holston
   Jazziz October 1999

“Jazz — or what we call creative improvised music — and contemporary European art music are like yams and sweet potatoes. On the surface they are similar, but they are really products of two distinct evolutionary lines. Here at our local state U., which has active composition and Jazz programs, the two forms seldom if ever meet. Certainly there are those working on cross-pollination, but still not enough, given the promise such mixing holds.

“Which brings us to Morgan Powell’s experiments in this direction. Powell has been at this sort of thing for a few decades as demonstrated here by pieces which date back to his undergraduate days in the 1960’s at North Texas State University, where he incidentally roomed with future best selling author Larry McMurtry. It’s frankly wonderful to hear a college ensemble — the University of Illinois Jazz Band conducted by Thomas Shabda Noor, also a North Texas buddy of the composer’s — tackle such progressive material. It’s not unusual to hear collegiate bands take on material with advanced harmonic language, but seldom do they engage in the kind of rugged interplay that Powell’s charts call for.

“Certainly the wild concluding track, ‘Free solo, big band style,’ takes this to a beautiful extreme. With the ensemble screaming, literally at points through the opening ensemble, leading to a softer section featuring piano that calls on them to chuckle. The piece just grows from there. The largest-scale piece, ‘Light and Shadows,’ calls for both big band and orchestra. It is a dense amalgamation of classical gestures and broad impasto improvisatory strokes — and it deserves to be taken up by other ensembles. Powell enlists the assistance of professional musicians as soloists, including Jim McNeely on the orchestral piece, saxophonist Howie Smith on three tracks and trumpeter Ray Sasaki, an associate from the group Tone Road Ramblers, on several.

“One track, ‘dafunkaMonkus,’ from the Tone Road Ramblers demonstrates the possibilities of blending the sensibilities of new music improvisation and composition. This chamber piece adds another dimension to an already rich, varied and recommended recording.”

— David Dupont
Cadence, January 2001

“…Powell’s music sits at the intersection of the experimental jazz tradition and the classical avant-garde, but the languages at his disposal defy thumbnail description. Powell’s sound world encompasses serialism, post-John Cage conceptual game pieces, and jazz from Ellington and Charlie Parker to the whole of post-Ornette Coleman free improvisation.

“Most intriguing is the organic way in which the jazz and classical references recombine and reinvent themselves in each piece, always channeled through Powell’s impish personality.

“‘Light and Shadows,’ played by a remarkably mature University of Illinois band, is a tour de force of stylistic cross-breeding and the blend of written and improvised materials. The textures shift between transparency and opaqueness the way Willem de Kooning rend red women in the gestures of abstract expressionism, painting pictures that fade imperceptibly between representation and abstraction.”

— Mark Stryker, music critic
   Detroit Free Press, Sound Judgment, “Music Redefined”
December 5, 1999

“I have known Morgan Powell since 1967, beginning with my undergraduate study at the University of Illinois. Thirty-one years later, I am absolutely convinced of what I merely suspected back then: Morgan Powell is a true visionary in American music. For years he has been combining elements of jazz and contemporary classical music into a genre of his own making. This process is not a simple pasting of one tradition onto the other, á la many so-called Third Stream efforts. It represents the emergence of a truly American music, combining the rhythmic developments of post-WWII composition.

“One of Morgan’s ensembles of choice is the big band. His writing for this type of group has been ‘stretching the boundaries’ for years. He uses a broad palette of colors, textures, harmonies, and rhythms, very little of which sounds like traditional big band music. Like all great jazz composers, from Ellington through Gil Evans, he strikes the perfect balance between composed and improvised material. His music is full of surprises; I find that I am constantly asking myself, ‘What’s going to happen next?’ when listening to Morgan’s music. I must also confess that, as a writer with a reputation of being on the ‘cutting edge’ of the jazz arranging/composition scene, I am always surprised when I listen to any of Morgan’s music. It seems that many of the ‘innovations’ putatively introduced by myself and other writers like Bob Brookmeyer, Muhal Richard Abrams and Maria Schneider were already thought of long ago by Morgan Powell.”

— Jim McNeely, jazz pianist/composer, 1998

“…Morgan Powell’s The Morgan Powell Jazz Album confounds expectations by scrambling jazz and classical. It demands the listener’s engagement and insists on being heard over and over again. It’s that good — According to the loving informative liner notes (by everyone from fellow Texas native novelist Larry McMurtry to fellow Big Band composer Jim McNeely), Powell is a veteran trombonist who, like many of the more avant-garde academicians writing non-mainstream jazz these days, matriculated from the fabled North Texas State jazz program in the 60’s — he’s clearly favored among jazz musicians of similar bent a bravery — Powell has crafted a jazz-based oeuvre long on surprise and stimulation. In an era in which commercially successful jazz must hew to formula (easy on concept, tune length and originality, long on star-making machinery), the Morgan Powell Jazz Album pushes — makes that explodes — the envelope.

— Carlo Wolff, critic
   Goldmine October 8, 1999

Third Eye Jazz

I think it’s the third eye that [Powell’s] music engages, deep inside the head. Despite its frequent magnitude and volume, it is essentially introspective music, and will trick only the inattentive or fearful into thinking it extrovert.

On The Morgan Powell Jazz Album, the most vertiginous improvisations are embedded between or over passages of swingingest swing. Because, when Powell “experiments” he composes, simply. I, at least, detect no distinction. In composing, he uses everything available, without label, prejudice, or celebration. So swing, group improvisation, the voices of a string orchestra placed alongside a big band’s—all are equally brought to jazz. Powell is as deeply responsive to traditions and heroes of the past (“All Gone’s” homage to Bird, Dizzy, Miles) as to his private sources of invention, as available to conventions of beauty (“Reflections”) as to what will disturb some as being “chaotic.”

I find the “chaotic” passages of this CD the most affecting (as in “Volume XII,” or the opening of “Free Solo.”) There is a kind of primal fear—or, perhaps, awe—that affects me physically. When loud, up-tempo group improvisation begins, I feel pulled apart. My mind tries to pull me back to a center; it refuses the unhinging.

But the senses concentrate me. I work to grasp at the reality in this music: to hear, and so to steady myself in the emerging individual voices, to detect the sudden new way time exists. Concentrating, I perceive the disciplined, new order that the old has split open briefly to admit and reveal. I am an army of one, working as many fronts as it takes to follow as far out as I can. When the improvised passage ends and I float back into my usually compounded self, I seem to take up more room than I did before.

It would be self-indulgent to recount such a personal reaction in a review did I not think that it reflects something about the way Powell works. The eclectic combination of musical elements he wields will induce such heady moments. Not only does he create great sound, he scrupulously orders sound elements to make intense reactions available when they are unexpected or even resisted. Thus he composes in a large sense—composing, proposing, and suggesting to the listener possibilities for idea and emotion.

— Ann Starr

About Live Performance of Cleveland Chamber Symphony

“…[In] Morgan Powell’s Red White and Black Blues, he explores motivic fragments and subtle expressive gestures. The interest is maintained through tension, stillness and a fascinating interweaving of lines. The ending is a surprise: A percussionist slowly tears some paper. No act of criticism, it is but one arresting detail in an imaginative tapestry.”

— Donald Rosenberg, music critic
The Plain Dealer, September 23, 1992

“The night’s most bizarre opus — and the most fun — was Morgan Powell’s ‘The Waterclown,’ in its world premiere. Set to a text by Phoebe Legere that suggests the characteristics of water with absurdist wit, the work is a kitchen sink blend of wild and crazy ideas. Legere, performing as blonde-bombshell soprano soloist, speaks, sings, slides and scoops the text, much of which is hilariously platitudinous.

“Powell’s music mirrors the narrative in cheeky instrumental colors and feisty rhythmic figurations. Along with Legere, who did her thing with what must be termed virtuosic allure, the score received animated solo treatment from trombonist James Staley, percussionist Steve Butters and saxophonist Howie Smith. Edwin London and his merry ensemble were fiercely committed to the weird demands.”

— Donald Rosenberg
The Plain Dealer, September 27, 2000

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