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(Published: September 06, 2012)

Ezra Weiss has one of the most active and creative imaginations of any under-40 jazz musician. He was one of the select few nominated in the latest Down Beat International Critics Poll, and discerning jazz fans know Weiss can be counted on to make superior albums. They also know there's nothing predictable about the album themes or settings that Portland, Oregon-based Weiss uses to showcase his considerable strengths as a composer, as an arranger, and as a pianist.

Weiss' debut Five A.M. Strut showcased the ample gifts of the then 23-year-old Weiss with an all-star band. His Persephone album (2005) addressed Greek mythology, and his Get Happy (2007) concerned the pursuit of happiness. Alice in Wonderland (2009) was a jazz musical based on, of course, the Lewis Carroll book, while The Shirley Horn Suite was his fond salute to a past master of jazz singing. All of these stellar recordings featured Weiss with small groups. His new release Our Path to This Moment showcases Weiss' big band compositions. The album features 17 musicians led by saxophonist Rob Scheps, who once worked with big band titans Buddy Rich, Mel Lewis, and Gil Evans. World-class trumpeter Greg Gisbert is a special guest, appearing on three of the seven tracks. Our Path to This Moment, to be released September 4 on the Roark label.

Weiss has wanted to record his own charts with a professional big band since the early 2000s, when he attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. The country's oldest music school awarded him a bachelor's degree in Jazz Composition. Throughout the years, he has written and composed for various college and high school music departments, but only now has he had his charts recorded by seasoned musicians. Happily, he is well served by The Rob Scheps Big Band, which carries an air of radiant energy.

Weiss's titular composition "Our Path to This Moment" merits repeated plays. Pathos mixes with a yearning spirit in the assured trumpet solo contributed by Gisbert, and the level of poise displayed by Scheps' soprano saxophone in his solo is similarly attractive. But for warmth and depth, it's hard to beat the two-and-a-half minutes of orchestral music at the song's beginning and heard during the interlude between soloists. This song immediately shows Weiss' unfailing instinct for placing soloists within preordained outlines. Moreover, the colors and textures he achieves from the interplay between sections of the big band illuminate his considerable emotional investment in writing and scoring.

First appearing in a small group arrangement on Peresphone, "Rise and Fall" is another winner. Gisbert's trumpet crackles with life and Robert Crowell's baritone saxophone kicks up bluesy dirt as the reed and horn sections combine in projecting a winning familiarity about how to regulate tension. Weiss works wonders compositionally on the introduction and the closing segment. And take note of the strong bass playing by Tim Gilson, one of the leading jazz performers and educators in the Pacific Northwest.

Exuberant "It's You or No One," a Sammy Cahn-Jule Styne tune identified with the nonpareil saxophonist Dexter Gordon, has arranger Weiss channeling the collective power of the large ensemble in music. His arrangement is at once refreshingly entertaining and indicative of the polish of his high craft, with his artistry extending into playing piano on this song. With its origins in Weiss' graduate studies at Queens College in New York, "Kunlangeta" sports an especially fascinating melody that trombonist Tom Hill develops with admirable creativity. Compositionally, Weiss says he was inspired by Wayne Shorter's "The Three Marias," found on the 1985 album Atlantis. Ever trustworthy, Weiss writes and arranges with lyrical ease.

Connecting to Weiss's studies in composition at Oberlin is "The Promise," where his writing is deep and confident. David Valdez, playing alto, conveys honest feeling in his well-paced solo, and the big band spends seven minutes exploring feelings both subtle and pronounced, ranging from tenderness to exasperation. The romanticism particular to "Jessie's Song," a song Weiss composed for his wife, is thankfully free of sentimentality. For this stirring homage, Weiss submits a richly textured composition with musical prose that captures a painterly mood; the big band is on top of its game. Playing the black and white keys, Weiss' sensitivity to the subject of the song informs the clarity of his phrasing.

The well-traveled old spiritual "Wayfaring Stranger"- introduced to Weiss by Wendell Logan, his highly regarded composition professor at Oberlin - contains a level of emotional sublimation that too few jazz musicians offer these days. The solemn introduction displays Gisbert's impeccable phrasing. His fiery solo has commanding presence, as does a questing, helter-skelter solo by Scheps on tenor saxophone. Driving the big band, drummer Ward Griffiths and percussionist Chaz Mortimer, also have feature spots. Weiss, gifted with innate musicality, makes sure his arrangement for the big band is characterized again by a full, strong sound.

Ezra Weiss has led small groups in performances at many of the leading jazz clubs in the States, among them Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola (NYC), Chris' Jazz Café (Philadelphia), The Triple Door (Seattle), The Catalina Bar & Grill (LA), and Ryles (Cambridge/Boston). Formerly based in jazz epicenter New York City, he has played with renowned musicians including Billy Hart, Antonio Hart, Michael Philip Mossman, and Dennis Rowland. As an arranger and composer, Weiss has ably served Billy Hart, Leon Lee Dorsey, Thara Memory, Stan Bock, Renato Caranto, and many others. He has won the ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Award three times. Weiss currently teaches at Portland State University.

More Information: http://ezraweiss.com

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