Praise for Hazel
Led by the young multi-reedist Drew Williams, the Wing Walker Orchestra is about to release a remarkable debut album, “Hazel.” The music stays tightly woven, even as Williams switches up the grooves and harmonic palettes constantly; there’s almost always a sharp, biting cadence coming from some part of the band (though not necessarily the rhythm section).
If airs of narrative design and ambiance buzz through Wing Walker Orchestra’s debut, consider the source: The seven-part “Hazelsuite” is a musical interpretation of graphic novelist Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga.
WWO’s de facto leader, multi-reedist Drew Williams, has created an enticingly fresh sound under the venerable big band umbrella - one not conventionally, swinging, excessively abstract or cerebral in spirit. Minimalist structures and musical cells combine with brassy sonic washes and melodic-rhythmic notions, which are concurrently vibrant, accessible and subtly sophisticated.
For the most part, Williams deploys the group as a texture factory, which occasional bursts of soloing, including the leader’s bass clarinet feature and Jeff McLaughlin’s edgy electric guitar swagger on “H I G H,” one of the three tracks not a part of the titular suite. “Hazelsuite” itself is a patchwork of shortish fragments, adding up to a lovely and complex musical statement.
File under music for unmade films, progressive big band sounds or jazz that dodges easy categorization.
Well, it’s definitely not empty talk when Drew Williams cites the graphic novel Saga as the inspiration for the Wing Walker Orchestra’s debut. Hazel reflects more story narrative than song structure; melodies embody the conflicting nature of characters, and tempos chart the unexpected plot twists. The sign of the album’s success, however, isn’t the music’s shadowing of a story, but the ensemble’s dexterity in bringing a cohesive presentation to an epic vision. It helps to have a crew of all-stars that include names like Marta Sánchez, Eric Trudel, Nathan Ellman-Bell, and John Blevins to pull it off. It’s a hell of a debut.
The more I listen to Wing Walker Orchestra’s ‘Hazel” album, the more amped I get for seeing some of this material unfold at Threes Brewing in Gowanus tonight. Seems that in the large, reed-player/boss Drew Williams has crafted his suite to eschew solos. As the jittery beats of the rhythm section clatter, a blend of reeds and brass float above, essaying curt themes and creating cagey juxtapositions that not only balance, but challenge each other. That’s where the music’s tension comes from, and that’s where the power of arrangement trumps the glee of improvisation. Echoes are in the air – how could they not be at this late date? So ground broken by Previte/Glass/Schneider/Horvitz is being re-tilled to a degree. The Ordinaires, too. Fine by me, because the 11-piece outfit’s lush action speaks in a present tense that gets nudged to the fore when the tUnE-yArDs and Attias charts finally grant the players some wiggle room.
“A riotous arrangement of Tune-Yards' "Look Around" reflects the inclusive intent of Hazel. “High” sounds as if Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is sitting in with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra at the Village Vanguard. A portion of “Lying (or the Will)” reflects the influence of the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. The most accessible moments are balanced by wooly solos that will resonate with aficionados of the Vijay Iyer Sextet. Williams grew up in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, the town that produced the jazz giant Pat Metheny. While Hazel isn’t likely to catapult Williams to Metheny’s level of acclaim, it’s a consequential step in that direction.”
“The album is loosely conceived as an imagined score for the first volume of Brian K. Vaughn's brilliant, industry-shaking comic book series, Saga. The gritty family drama dressed as high-concept space opera provides a backbone of inspiration for these dynamic, propulsive pieces. That's perhaps one of the most apparent commonalities between both works — each is so smoothly composed that the experience flies by.
The songs of Hazel suggest that the influence of Saga is more a catalyzing agent for the grand music of this band's collective soul than an attempt to represent the feeling or headspace of specific characters, though "Backbone (The Wings)" absolutely does feel like early, hope-filled, utterly badass Alana in its sharp grandiosity.”
“Composer, arranger, and reeds man Drew Williams’ Wing Walker Orchestra has been knocking around in New York and its surrounding environs for about six years, but Hazel marks their first recorded output. And what a recording it is, dripping with as much vitality and flexibility as anything else released this year. The biggest takeaway from the multiple listens I’ve already given Hazel is that the notion of genre is immaterial to these gifted musicians, and this is a great sign of hope for the future of large ensemble music being made in America.”
Hazel is undoubtedly the strongest debut of 2019 so far, and it is not at all surprising that it has been lovingly presented on Matthew Golombisky’s ears&eyes imprint. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Hazel, the exhilarating debut by the Wing Walker Orchestra, presents a challenge of sorts to Hollywood producers - one they'll almost certainly fail to meet. The 11-member ensemble, led by gifted bass clarinetist Drew Williams, kicks off the recording with the "Hazel Suite," seven linked segments envisioned as the soundtrack for Saga, a sci-fi comic-book series by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples that has all the elements of a future Netflix obsession.
If Saga actually goes before the cameras, the score will probably sound like faux-Hans Zimmer, unless the real Hans Zimmer is actually available. But the WWO's version would be a helluva lot better.
If that was all Hazel had to offer, it would be plenty. But the opening salvo is followed by "Look Around," an alternately quirky and rambunctious cover of a tune by the innovative indie band tUnE-yArDs, plus the adventurously free "We've Seen These Walls Crumble," the sinuously swinging "High" and "Marina," a bonus track with a Williams solo that's out of this world - just like the rest of Hazel.