Part of the MaxJazz strings series, bassist and composer Ben Wolfe's No Strangers Here is an ambitious project with music composed, arranged, and orchestrated by Wolfe for a core band, a string quartet, and guest jazz artists. The core band features Marcus Strickland (tenor and soprano saxophone), Luis Perdomo (piano), Greg Hutchinson (drums), and Wolfe (bass). The music straddles the territory between big band and ensemble music, perhaps I would agree with the creator's claim that the recording "was made with a true ensemble spirit."
The opening track, "The Minnick Rule," is a rousing trumpet and saxophone dominated piece of music, featuring Marcus Strickland and guest trumpeter Terell Stafford. The second track, "No Strangers Here," is the first strong introduction to strings; and this piece resembles the use of strings backing jazz musicians in the past, e.g., Bird and Billie, florid and flighty. Track three is a nice little swinger titled "Milo," and Branford Marsalis joins the production playing soprano saxophone. A marvelous piece. The next piece, "No Pat No," features Hutchinson and Wolfe and has great energy, particularly in contrast to the previous "Milo."
The pacing of this program well suits the comings and goings of the various musicians and the shifts from strong ensemble to orchestral playing. For instance, "Minnick" is around seven minutes long of straight ahead jazz; the next three tracks vary markedly in length, musical styles, or formats/musicians. "The Filth," another longer track, features a heavy bass opening that sets the tone. "The Filth" marks the return of Branford, on tenor this time, and the strings. The piece has a dark motif and a bluesy tinge. Branford improvises freely, it seems, on this one, with a few long riffs on notes and ideas. Then the mood of impending doom gives way to "Circus," colorful music with Strickland on soprano and the contribution of another guest, Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums. From the circus, Wolfe goes Ellington with 'Blue Envy" and brings in Victor Goines on bass clarinet. For many listeners, the slow, not quite dirge-like, "Envy" will conjure thoughts of things past that didn't quite end as one might have wished.
Where's Wolfe? "Rosy & Zero" features the string quartet and Wolfe's bass. The quartet established the piece and about midway the tenor joins the bass and piano with the strings becoming background and the tenor leading the way. Much more of Wolfe's sound, though, is displayed on the next track, "Jackie Mac," which makes such a tight segue to the final track, "Groovy Medium," that they seem as one. This last is, again, reminiscent of Ellington's compositions, with horns playing in unison and piano gently marking time and all keeping an airy attitude. More than dominating through his bass, Wolfe is the puppeteer, pulling strings.
And interesting CD, particularly during lazy, restful days.