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Nobody who’s heard Dan Roberts’ work—in the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra, with the U.S. Army Blues, or on his own jazz albums—can doubt the pianist’s supreme gifts as a composer and arranger. Hence, his new album, November Suite, is exciting before one hears a note. It features five new Roberts originals, four of them movements in the titular suite, and two fresh arrangements.
Of course, that kind of ensemble can be a recipe for bombastic disaster. Yet Roberts handles it with kid gloves. His understatement is hard to overstate, but consider that the Invoke String Quartet’s album-opening eight-bar vamp on “Praia” is its high-water mark. After that it’s used for color and drama: While it’s prominent in the third movement of the suite (which uses a different string quartet), it remains in accompaniment to Roberts’ piano playing. The strings shimmer on “November Suite: I” during Roberts and flugelhornist Griffith Kazmierczak’s solos, and it’s their best moment.
Sparing use of strings, however, doesn’t dilute the album’s ambition. It deploys its instrumentation with similar organization to a big band. Kazmierczak and singer Lena Seikaly, performing wordless vocals, form the gorgeous front line, with Roberts just behind. Then come the strings. In the back are bassist Tom Baldwin and drummer CV Dashiell, who, despite having sturdy, complex rhythm lines, remain in the background and in fact make their remarkable work seem more subliminal than it is.
The ambition is obviously deepest in the entire “November Suite” itself. “I” unfolds multiple sections in its 11 minutes, while “II” has three stirring melodies, fast-slow-fast. Both feature killer flugelhorn and piano solos, with Kazmierczak and Roberts trading expressive eight-bar improvs on “II.” Seikaly is featured on the second movement, a glorious event that gives her otherwise soft delivery a chance to flourish. And “III,” with its romantic setting for strings and piano, holds the suite’s full supply of melodrama—although its keystone is an up-tempo rhythm so strong that it’s a surprise when neither Dashiell nor Baldwin enter on it.
“IV” is the most accomplished. It develops out of a set of clockwork polyrhythms that, taken together, never quite state Brazilian grooves outright, but the implication is powerful enough. Kazmierczak’s quote of Jobim’s “Waters of March” (in the midst of a counterpoint improvisation with Seikaly) is spot on. There’s also, in a curious but memorable moment, a brief waltz break with Roberts playing Burt Bacharach-style piano chords.
Roberts’ arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Something” is pretty but minor, though its use of cellist Geoff Manyin as a soloist is a nice touch. His take on Sara Serpa’s “Praia,” barely altered from Serpa’s 2008 recording, is even more minor. But the suite and “Lullaby,” the moving coda of a piece, do enough heavy lifting to make November Suite a sublime experience.