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In the liner notes for Shawn Maxwell's Alliance, the Chicago-based multi-reedist is transparent as can be. He makes note of the fact that this project was born out of a conscious desire to do something different and pull away from the commonplace quartet and quintet formats that are so prevalent today. He also notes that he initially had no intention of recording this group, and that some of these numbers are "sketches," not fully fleshed out compositions.
While the information cited above is admittedly cherry-picked from the liner notes to make a point, it's a point worth making: Maxwell sounds like a bit of an apologist for this music. It's just hard to understand why he's apologizing. Yes, this is a very different project for Maxwell, but it's one that shows great creative growth on his part.
It only takes a few minutes to realize that Maxwell's muses for this project are textural variety and juxtaposition-based experimentation. When somebody puts together a dectet that includes two basses, two French horns, a soprano saxophonist, a multi-reedist, guitar, wordless vocals, vibraphone and drums, they're bound to go with a tie-them-together or play-them-against-each-other philosophy. Maxwell works both angles a bit, but primarily leans on the latter idea.
While including eighteen tracks on an album may seem like overkill, it turns out to be a good thing for Maxwell. He's able to use his creative moxie in short bursts, trying different things and then abandoning them for others. With thirteen of the eighteen tracks in the one-to-four minute range, Maxwell is able to appeal to the ever-growing short-attention-span crowd and stave off potential boredom that could be brought on by run-on songs.
Minimalism, riff-based counterpoint, high-low sonic pairings and a touch of humor are the four tools that are used most frequently on this album. Horns are pitched against basses before guitar and drums work beneath flute ("Lynes Crayons"), instruments are layered one-by-one ("EGOT"), and nightmarish scenes come and go quickly ("Quartan"). The music can be hypnotic ("From Parts Unknown"), but it doesn't always go that way. Maxwell is just as likely to poke fun at those waiting for a "jazz" song ("Here's Your Swing Tune") or create a clarinet-fronted faux folk piece ("Shadowbox") as he is to stack things up. Some of these numbers never really grow legs, but it doesn't matter too much since they're gone in a flash; that's another advantage of the small portion method of creation and programming.
While this is the fifth album from Maxwell, it's the first one to feature such a unique combination of instruments. Ultimately, it's a step in a good direction. This band has a lot of potential and it'll be nice to see how it develops if Maxwell keeps it in play.
Track Listing: Fun Five Funk; Lynes Crayons; EGOT; From Parts Unknown; Song For Something Else; Plaza; Waiting Food; Pistols N' Tulips; Bitty Bitty Beep; Quartan; Radio Hit Number Four; Here's Your Swing Tune; Little Ninja Groove; Perpetual Day One; Looking For Alex; Full Count; Shadowbox; You Alright? I Learned It By Watching You.
Personnel: Shawn Maxwell: alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet; Chris Greene: soprano saxophone; Keri Johnsrud: voice; Stephen Lynerd: vibraphone, percussion; Mitch Corso:guitar; Rachel Maxwell: french horn; Meghan Fulton: french horn; Stacy McMichael: bass; Marc Piane: bass; Paul Townsend: drums.