A record like this was inevitable. COVID-19 shut down our lives, outlets, schools, businesses, real conversations, music, art…things we took for granted in a free world.
Chicago-based saxophone composer Shawn Maxwell did what many creative artists did to cope.
He created, reflecting an inner and outer world in turmoil, reaching for happiness and hope regardless, holding onto the moments that distracted, focused, and despaired from the consequences of this one life on this one lonely planet — buffeted relentlessly with the byproduct of technology, ego, and creature comforts.
Maxwell and his gifted contemporaries touch on death’s vast, unpredictable scepter, social and economic injustice (George Floyd and BLM), climate change, political warfare, and immense pain in 17 disjointed, beautiful, and wondrous original tracks under the instrumental jazz umbrella of Expectation & Experience.
The upcoming May 21, 2021 album, Maxwell’s 10th, brushes virtuoso, versatility, and stylistic diversity with a depth of feeling — restlessness buttressing bursts of defiant, eloquent strains of full-blown, vibrant music almost literally dying to get out.
“This album consists of 17 original tracks that I composed in reaction to all that happened in 2020,” he explains. The tracks are short and impressionistic, one to four minutes in length, dribs and drabs, translating the energies and emotions of the instantaneous into a staccato rhythm that yearns to become more — and in certain places — does, with broiling momentum, clarity, and defiance.
The album features Maxwell on alto/soprano sax and clarinet, with 29 of his fellow musicians, all in charge of lifting spirits, reflecting the times, and getting as close to the listener as possible — forbidden, and thus, precious, now — the musical equivalent of touch.
The musicians included trumpeter Chad McCullough, vocalists Keri Johnsrud and John Stafford II, pianist Brenda Earle Stokes, drummer Ernie Adams, and bassist Stacy McMichael. Everyone recorded remotely from their homes.
They conjure the disjointed, the beautiful, and the wondrous through atmospheric tension, spherical movements, odd time signatures, and tone manipulation to answer the question: What would living in a global pandemic sound like?
Sometimes, glorious. Sometimes, scary. Inescapably infuriating. Suddenly sublime.
Sometimes, all of the above.
The ping-ponging schism between extremes is always at play here, whether tip-toeing through minefields, riffing off an insistent, anticipatory beat, or launching spectacles off miniscule crumbs.
“Expectation’s” intro sees Maxwell at his best, performing a sinewy, sensual solo — one found in every jazz ballad, wanting to sink into Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me,” yet never getting there.
“J.C. Jones” follows in lockstep — a natural evolution from standard to snazzy. The tune dedicated to “a great man and a good friend, James Calvin Jones, who passed away just before the pandemic took hold,” begins to veer slightly off-track, obsessed with a strengthening horn inquiry, and buoyed by violinist Marielle de Rocca Serra’s razor-thin classical/free jazz margins. Laughter and flow, Jones’.
Tim Seisser’s funk bassline swallows and subdues — in big, velvety gulps — the jumpy undercurrent of keyboardist Collin Clauson’s twinkly Mercury retrograde. Maxwell’s sax carves out a melody reminiscent of the pleasant, barbed-wire Muzak piped in elevators and supermarkets in the “Mad Men” era of plenty.
Such is “Empty Shelf,” a 3:46 lesson in false satisfaction, having the rug pulled out from under you from every direction, something we experienced in droves.
Maxwell also takes on the rhythmic narrative of an innocent “trip to the store…,” high-stepping along “in protective gear, dodging other human beings,” as Clauson’s ridiculously upbeat retrospective returns in a hyper state, an ominous turnaround, softly driving home the punchline — humming busily, “…only to stare at an empty shelf.”
The thoughtfully rendered ¾ ballad with 4/4 sections, “Quiet House” — for another friend, Evon House Thompson — is as lush and complete a musical tune as “The Great Divide” — about the ever-failing two-party system of political buffoons — is not.
“Quiet House” offers respite from the storm, a back-and-forth dance between wavy seas and a bed of daffodils to fall back on, and interstitial differences, a heart skipping a beat, love at first sight, a sea change that keeps us knock-knocking on heaven’s door. Guitarist Zvonimir Tot and Maxwell respond well together, setting the beatific scene for a nice compliment and tribute.
“The Great Divide,” however, is not as complimentary/complementary, and that’s intentional. Maxwell has tenor saxophonist Alex Beltran on the case, as the timing seems constantly off from one sax to another, neither really listening to the other, both in filibuster mode, leaving discord, noise. Politics as usual, while people die.
“Alternative Facts,” jittering along in 5/8 and 6/8, predictably follows the same discordant, jumbled time juxtaposition with weird-sounding instruments, harmonica (Howard Levy) straining and screeching for nothing. Credit bassist Steven Hashimoto and drummer Greg Essig for holding that unsettling, but dominating line.
Maxwell and his band go from harmony to discord, depending on the subject matter, but never lose the technical control.
Even in “The Great Divide,” “Alternative Facts,” and “Feeling Remote,” about the “anxiety and disconnectedness felt by teachers and students” in virtual learning…the off-beat staccato feel of the pieces are always enhanced with musicianship; nothing’s ever played wrong.
It’s the equivalent of a great opera singer trying to sing badly for effect. Jean Stapleton’s Edith Bunker in the “All In The Family” TV intro comes to mind.
“Breathe” takes a look at George Floyd’s death by going slow, poetic, poignant, pairing piano (Brenda Earle Stokes) with soft sax…choosing to focus on the sorrow of a tragic, senseless loss, on the gentleness of Floyd (by all accounts), rather than the brute force of another cop’s thin blue line.
“Every Day Is Monday” presents the mind-numbing effects of “Ground Hog Day” type repetition, when “customary markers of time are absent. The concept of days and weeks becomes obscured,” and only an ominous sense of foreboding (on Maxwell’s time-marking sax) is left. Mark Nelson (keys, programming) does a bang-up job of interweaving and layering compelling fills into a patchwork-quilt soundtrack. 1:42 plays like an entire inner-dystopian soundtrack.
“No Peace Without Justice” demands human voices. Keri Johnsrud and John Stafford II provide those voices, in bass time and light melody. Guitarist Craig Elliot serves as a musical drone, gazing admiringly upon crowds of protesters of all colors banding together all across the globe for BLM, and change.
“The Show Can’t Go On” cuts off music mid-stream, one by one, a frustrating, destructive Domino turn of musical events, and reality for countless working musicians counting on the next gig, often planned months, years in advance. Interruption in real time.
Maxwell next plays a 1:20 solo on the “Empty Stage,” infused with emotion, mostly loneliness, regret, helplessness, and yet, renewed appreciation for what was. You can picture countless musicians alone, doing the same, playing to an empty room or computer screen with pixelated faces — the ultimate echo chamber.
The second-to-the-last track brings in more musicians, as they feel their way around “The New Abnormal”…bass and drums to sax, growing more animated, pouring more of themselves into the spontaneous combustion, letting go of distractions, freeing themselves in this soulful jam session — as if it’s their last.
Tuning out to tune in. Bliss personified.
Maxwell blends his soulful twisting, turning signature into a climbing, grooving melody in “The New Abnormal,” as keyboardist Matt Nelson, drummer Greg Artry, and bassist Jeremiah Hunt build a home around a corrugated mess, find their own footing again.
Bittersweet, balladic “Experience” bookends the album on borrowed time, sax and bowed bass (McMichael), slowing the tempo down towards its inevitable conclusion, looping on a moving, spinning scale, one that never truly wants to resolve. Long after the bass splits off, Shawn Maxwell holds on, willing the notes, the groove, the music to keep going.
Expectation & Experience is available now.
Artist quotes from promos and liner notes.
Review, May 8, 2021
Carol Banks Weber