Chicago-based modern-jazz saxophone composer Shawn Maxwell has put together a record of a different sort, one based on his classical (clarinetist) roots, James Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” and time signatures driving an evolving, thematic mood in Story at Eleven (Cora Street Records), his 11th album as a bandleader.
Laid out in four long-form movements, lasting between eight and over 11 minutes, the March 24, 2023 release features Maxwell on alto sax, Collin Clauson on keys (Rhodes, Wurlitzer, B-3), Michael Barton on electric bass, and Greg Essig holding up the rear on drums.
Together, they hammer and wave, split and sync up, on four moving tracks that loosely glimpse a mostly internal narrative of shifting moods.
Maxwell leaned on the 1939 fantasy flick, “The Wizard of Oz,” as his side inspiration, which explains why you can listen to the tracks while doing just about anything, and somehow, the music fits the mood.
Think of Story at Eleven as the elevated classical-jazz version of running the movie with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon playing in the background. Only we’re in the Emerald City with Dorothy and Maxwell’s band is eerily syncing up with our internal soundtrack.
This is a record you can put on while doing a mindless chore — vacuuming, writing your resignation letter, scrolling for a long-lost love amongst the meme-and-selfie wreckage, even reading a book you’ve put on the shelf for far too long.
Musicians will readily take to the clever employment of time signatures and thematic variations to tell an experimental, atmospheric story. The rest of us can marvel at how in tune each movement seems to be with our vibe, as the day goes by.
Story at Eleven loosely follows James Campbell’s archetypal “Hero’s Journey” found in storytelling, with the calling, the mission, the trials, the “Belly of the Whale” turning point where it’s almost too much, the climax, where doubt is overcome and dragons are slayed, and then, the triumphant finale, as the conquering hero returns.
“I was kind of thinking as a classical clarinetist originally, a guy who didn’t touch a saxophone until I got to college, I was thinking more of like a classical tune that would have three or four movements to it…” — “Around Town with Mike Jeffers,” Chicago Jazz TV, Episode 051
Each track begs for repeated listens until the twinkly, shedding notes of the argonaut matrix gets under your skin and becomes a part of you.
“Appointment With…” (10 minutes) was originally going to be “Appointment With The Wizard.” The tune begins with the musical equivalent of the hero taking in the quiet landscape — the moon and the stars, the desert of his awakening mind — before heading off in ginger steps, full of hopes and dreams, and just a hint of unease.
Clauson’s keys shoot twinkling stars. Maxwell weaves an expansive leap of an incantation, grinding his sax almost to the bone with pure will and a semblance of a melodic song.
The theme, or the hero’s ginger advancements, lifts off in a time signature of four, which propels the band and the record through the varying stages of euphoria, despair, doubt, and finally, euphoria of a different matter.
“‘Appointment With…’ starts our journey with a piano ostinato in a time signature of four,” Maxwell explained in the liner notes. “The melody works with — and against — this recurring theme; moving us forward while suggesting apprehension beneath.”
“Internal Rift” (11:20) happens when the hero meets up with the outside forces meant to keep him from his appointed rounds, or at the very least, get in his way. It’s as internal and brooding as “Appointment With…” was assertive and bright.
Essig’s multi-beat wonder asserts its twists and turns underneath a duality of purpose — doubt fighting strength of will — in Maxwell’s saxophonic meanderings and Clauson’s keyboard flurries.
Drums hint at the doubt, while the hero — represented in the ups and downs of the sax and keys — nevertheless presses on, holding onto the characteristics and belief through the plaguing doubts that all will be right in the end…stopping and starting now and then for a self-check.
That the band mixes and matches musical styles inherent in and specific to each of the instruments — organ for example — protruding 1960s psychedelia, rising in the arches, with modular, grainy sax strains of another, golden order…is just what Maxwell naturally does so well.
The theme goes from ambient to edgy and jagged to smooth and fluorescent, all reflecting the hero’s inner conflict and rise to the occasion.
Jazz albums tend to fall into one of two camps: clunky, mincing repetition, with nowhere to go, caving in on itself, or easing in and out of repeat themes for maximum effect. Maxwell’s always falls in the latter category.
There is so much movement within each elongated, emotionally-rife track that the listener never loses interest.
“A groove in 10 is the backbone of ‘Internal Rift.’ The gray mood reflects the inner conflict — as does the time change to seven for the sax solo. Just when the path seems clear, it modulates and diverges.”
Soulful, tuck and jive lyricism haunts the first third of the third track in “Near Surrender” (10:30) — a surprising, welcome change. This is the part where the discouraged hero feels the weight of his journey, and yet, Maxwell never harps on that downward dirge. Instead, he raises the platform to make surrender and all its despairing components strangely alluring…the essential, inspiring membrane of the journey — and the keystone to the saxophone artist’s heart.
An urgent, pleading squall — an abrupt seesaw court — interrupts the soulful navel-gazing, before turning the tables on turmoil entirely in another kind of track halfway through.
Of all four movements, this one’s the most musically complete, accessible, and satisfying, from Barton’s bass asunder and Maxwell’s shifty saxophone sequencing, to Essig’s galloping percussive splash reminiscent of ‘70s rock encores and Clauson’s keyboard disposition in answer to no one.
Essig beats the drums in a linear fissure from awareness and dismay to complete surrender in various styles through the ages.
Blessed with the most interesting movements within a movement, “Near Surrender” succeeds as an evolving thematic signature stamp of approval in the entire process, one that’s never felt more alive. If a turning point could have a musical moment, it’s this.
“‘Near Surrender’ comes back to seven with a disheartened feel in E flat minor. Still, hope is suggested in my solo, which returns to four; harkening back to the beginning.”
Flowing seamlessly into the final track, “Answer & Arrival” (8) returns to the uplifting, hopeful theme of the intro, but bigger and broader. The tune gives into Maxwell’s inescapable, helpless exuberance, as he fully imbues every note with warmth and contrasting color, embracing/absorbing the highs and the lows, the good and the bad into his thematic excess.
Essig flash-forwards the hero’s exuberance with show-stopping flare. Bam! Bam! Bam!
Stylistically, think of the band in a throwback to the burgeoning rhythm orchestras of the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, a cross between British prog rock and good old American jazz-rock fusion, brimming over with electronically-enhanced romantic-realism.
A true “Gregory’s Girl” send-off, as we leave the accidental couple to count stars and kisses at a neighborhood park…the hapless hero-knight having found his Guinevere at long last.
“As we approach our ‘Answer & Arrival,’ we find ourselves in 13 with a propelling rhythm. The Rhodes solo is, fittingly, in 11, and continues to elevate the mood. In three, our destination is reached; triumphantly, together.”
Shawn Maxwell’s Story at Eleven, all four lengthy movements, jazz, funk, and classical elements altogether, is definitely a journey we can all get behind — and feel good about.