Matt McDonald (trombone)
Sebastian Noelle (guitar)
Thomson Kneeland (bass)
Danny Fisher (drums)
Eliza Cho (violin)
Maria Jeffers (cello)
When I opened the mailer that contained Vicious World Plays the Music of Rufus Wainwright, I questioned the prudence of this recording decision before I even had the shrink wrap fully removed. I mention this just in case your anti-muzak instincts are already telling you something similar. For those open-minded enough to wait until you actually hear a bit of it before making such a judgment call, well, you’re less jaded than I am.
As it happily turned out, this was not at all an ill-conceived, maybe we can trick people by way of association, kind of outing. As soon as I saw Aaron Irwin‘s name topping the roster of musicians, I began to hope for good things (he also arranged quite a few of the album’s charts; Matthew McDonald handled the rest). Irwin’s earlier albums for Fresh Sound/New Talent are the kind of discs I keep around with a note reminding me to keep track of the artist’s future efforts. As soon as I started listening and reading the media materials that accompanied Vicious World. . . I was intrigued by what this album might represent. “With all due respect to the grand masters of the Great American Songbook,” the one-sheet suggested, “it’s high time that current jazz artists seriously investigate the work of contemporary composers as a vital source of inspiration.”
The song catalog of Rufus Wainwright, as it turns out, is a rich one to mine in this way. Irwin has assembled a sort of jazz chamber ensemble consisting of himself (saxophone/clarinet/flute), Matt McDonald (trombone), Sebastian Noelle (guitar), Thomson Kneeland (bass), Danny Fisher (drums), Eliza Cho (violin), and Maria Jeffers, (cello). The players are clearly familiar with the source material, and the resulting performances add a new timbral palette and tight, well-considered improvisations (no track exceeds the seven minute mark) into the mix.
The interpretations remain true enough to the spirit of the original compositions that they will likely appeal to even longtime Wainwright fans. The emotion—that reach right into your chest and twist connection—that the songwriter is deservedly celebrated for is on display here as well, albeit with a distinctively jazz subtext. When the trombone steps in to croon the main line, such as on “Nadia,” the intonation is a little loose; it’s on point for the main notes but plays dirty getting to them in a neat mimic of Wainwright’s nasal, wait-and-reach-for-it delivery style. The strings maintain the fragility carried by many of the original “man and his piano” works while the winds and brass play around the vocal lines and ornament the material in fresh ways. Sebastian Noelle’s work on guitar deserves a special shout out for the commentary his playing adds to the arrangements—at one turn bone china delicate and at another a white gloves off, full-on strut.
In a way, the absence of the original lyrics allows a certain subtlety to emerge, as Wainwright’s tales of love, loss, and torment lose their specific targets in the sway of “Dinner At Eight,” or when “This Love Affair,” here coated in more sass and aggression than lamentation, grinds the melody into the room.
As an album, the tracks hang together as a beautiful songbook, contemporary without ever feeling gimmicky. Most importantly, perhaps, these musicians succeed in selling their argument that the source material for new standards is rich and waiting.
Rufus Wainwright’s original “Going To a Town,” for those who would like to revisit: