Long in the gestation but immediate in its impact, Wing Walker Orchestra's debut album, Hazel is a great introduction to one of the East Coast's liveliest ensembles. The recording, produced by Alan Ferber, will be released on February 8th, 2019 on ears&eyes Records.
Hazel boasts serial surprises, including an adventurous suite written and arranged by leader Drew Williams that is based on the popular graphic novel, Saga, and an intoxicating cover of Tune-Yards' "Look Around."
This isn't your mom or dad's big band music, but a work of airy futurism with its layered effects, electronic touches and "inside" debt to such bands as Radiohead, Guillermo Klein's Los Guachos and the Bad Plus.
By turns tender and tumultuous, the "Hazel Suite" is loosely based on the first six full issues of Saga, a Star Wars-influenced adventure by Brian K. Vaughan in which two young star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of a galactic war struggle to care for their newborn daughter, Hazel. Most of the movements represent a specific character.
"The graphic novel is an intensely creative art form," said the 30-year-old Williams, a Kansas City native who plays bass clarinet on the recording and saxophone in other settings. "Being that Saga is one of the greatest things ever and I've always wanted to be a film composer, I couldn't resist composing this work."
Most of the "Hazel Suite" is through-composed, its fresh textures enlivened by overdubbed drums and hand claps. On the rest of the album, the orchestra gets to show off its improvisational wiles, matching Tune-Yards mastermind Merrill Garbus' melodic genius with its own crazy-smart solos.
"When I cover stuff, I'd rather blow it up and try it from a different angle," said Williams. "On 'Look Around,' the melodies are so incredible and difficult to notate, they're hard to mimic, but we locked into the groove and kept it dirty and loose. It builds to a kind of Mingus free for all."
The 11-member ensemble, including pianist Marta Sanchez (who "can make a melody out of one note and the right rhythm," said NPR critic Kevin Whitehead), also rises to the challenge of Michael Attias' "Marina," one in a series of lo-fi electronic pieces by that saxophonist. The composer himself regarded it as too difficult to play. But after performing "Marina" live over the course of two years, the orchestra adopted the song as one of their favorites. It is here included as a bonus track.
A Kansas City native, Williams played rock music in high school, got an undergraduate degree in classical music from Truman State University and acquired a Master's in jazz composition from New York University, where he studied with Alan Ferber (who produced the album), Rich Perry and Ralph Alessi.
"I'd like to think that my compositions reflect all the musical experiences I've had in my life," said Williams, whose collaborators have included trumpeters Johnathan Finlayson, Shane Endsley and Jamie Branch. "I'm all about music that fits between the lines."