Wil Swindler's Elevenet at Dazzle

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Wil Swindler's Elevenet
Sunday, November 30, 2008
Dazzle Restaurant & Lounge

Wil Swindler's weekend show at Dazzle helped me recover a lost memory. I must have been three years old at most. My mother was rifling through my parents' vinyl collection at our suburban home in Aurora, and the Beatles' "White Album" was playing on the turntable. I picked up the worn cardboard jacket bearing the images of the four band members, and asked innocently, "Which one of these guys was killed?"

How I knew that one band member had been assassinated, and how I associated the grim fact with the record, I don't recall. But Swindon's show, which reconfigured a set of Beatles standards into a jazz format, was powerful enough to pull that isolated memory from the obscurity of my subconscious.

Swindler and his 11-piece accompanying band took plenty of liberties with the material. The tweaked tempos, the extended solos, the absence of lyrics and, most obviously, the shift to the jazz idiom helped distinguish the songs from their original context. But, as the unexpected arrival of my own childhood memory proves, the performance retained enough of the spirit of the original tunes to summon their associated mental cues, their emotional baggage and their deep-seated responses.

The small-scale orchestra tackled some of the more obscure and challenging pieces from the Beatles catalogue, and the unexpected choice of songs helped to distinguish the set. As the ensemble played their lush, extended versions of songs like "Good Morning, Good Morning" from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, "For You Blue" from Let It Be and "Good Night" from The Beatles (aka The White Album) the vaguely familiar melodies seemed entirely appropriate for the venue. The single commercial concession seemed to be dual performances of the title track from Sgt. Pepper's at the beginning and end of the show.

Under Swindler's interpretive hand as an arranger and a bandleader, bright Beatles pop tunes transformed into brooding epics, and light melodies gained more weight with solos from the ensemble, which included two saxophones, a bass clarinet, flute, two trumpets, a trombone, a euphonium, a French horn, a piano, bass and drums.

On the band's cover of "Blue Jay Way," for example, the bright opening melody was transformed under Swindler's guidance into a brooding theme, a pensive and meandering line that recalled tonal contours from the Middle East. The George Harrison song from the Magical Mystery Tour album gained a completely different sound and texture during Sunday's performance.

With a set of meditative and dense solos from tenor saxophone player Peter Sommer, piano player Dana Landry and flugelhorn player Gabe Mervine, the main melody found several round of individualized expression. Mervine's solo, which crept from beginnings in the instruments low registers and ran up and down the scale, recalled the best moments of Clifford Brown, while Landry's sparse chords and thoughtful runs provided a counterpoint to some of the horn players' denser solos.

The band's cover of the Let It Be song "Across the Universe" introduced similar changes to the dynamic of the song, and featured extended solos from Swindler on the soprano saxophone. Bassist Erik Applegate's low tones and Swindler's airy intro spelled out the melody, and the rest of the band joined at a slow and purposeful pace. While the cadence remained slow and steady throughout the song, the multi-layered approach to the song's main melody helped establish a rich and complex cover of the song.

Similarly, the band's finale cover of "Helter Skelter" strayed far from the original recording on The Beatles. With an insistent, frenetic rhythm from drummer Matt Amundson as a frame, the band gave the song a taut feel, even as it managed to keep the original's chaotic and frenetic feel.

As a Beatles fan who found the quartet's music very early in life, and as a jazz fan who came to the idiom a bit later, the concert provided the ideal combination of the two strains. The music and the mythology buried deep in my musical subconscious found a new expression in the styles and solos I discovered at 18 in artists like Louis Armstrong, Gil Evans and Duke Ellington.
-- A.H. Goldstein

Critic's Notebook
Personal bias:
I grew up with the song "Good Night" from The Beatles played as a lullaby, so the song's new sound with the Elevenet grabbed my attention fairly quickly.
Random detail: The band's performance of "Helter Skelter" was the second time I'd heard the song covered in less than a month. I enjoyed Swindler's take more than Thrice's during the recent Rise Against show at the Fillmore, which took less creative liberties.

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