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Arts Desk

Jazz Album of the Week: The Delightful Jazz-Pop Alchemy of Wayne Alpern’s 'Frankenstein'

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New York-based composer and arranger Wayne Alpern's 'Frankenstein' deconstructs familiar tunes and pieces them back together so that they may rise again anew, transformed.

Among the myriad small pleasures that make life worth coming back to day after day—a well-struck golf shot, a pull-through parking spot, bottomless chips and salsa—is an album that turns out to be way more enjoyable than you expected.

Composer and arranger Wayne Alpern’s latest, Frankenstein, is just that. A glance at the cover art had me thinking this was going to be unbearably corny. “Just what the world needs,” I thought with more than just a little sarcasm. “Yet another jazz musician’s take on the pop tunes from his childhood!” Maudlin nostalgia and hokey cover art usually make for spiking levels of cynicism and blood sugar, but, for the sake of covering an album titled Frankenstein this close to Halloween, I gave this one a chance.

I’m glad I did.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that the album’s title is more than just a clever marketing ploy for an album released close enough to Halloween; it’s suggestive of the musical alchemy Alpern’s employed to deconstruct familiar tunes and piece them back together so that they may rise again anew, transformed and, forgive me, alive!

Over 11 tracks, Alpern’s arrangements, which warrant being called reconstitutions, riff on sensitive singer-songwriter fare from Ed Sheeran and Carole King, Motown-flavored anthems from Martha and the Vandellas and Steve Winwood, Broadway ballads from Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and bouncy, swaggy soul from Marvin Gaye and Al Green. But, apart from retaining some of the originals’ essence, these are not facsimiles of past triumphs. Rather, the originals may be thought of as merely the canvas onto which Alpern interpolates his inspired alchemy, a process he calls the “redemptive act of…re-composition at a higher level of synthesis.”

What results is a new aural experience; tunes you thought had been covered to death are miraculously disinterred. The opener, King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” is reincarnated as a funk tune with an Earth, Wind, and Fire-sounding horn arrangement, propped up by trusses of the universe’s most bendy steel in the form of John Patitucci’s nasty lines on electric bass. Patitucci—whether on electric or acoustic bass—elevates this album from good to great. He is the indispensable element here, some funky, space-age, mad-scientisty kind of glue that allows this small orchestra to swing, stretch, sway and altogether sound much larger and fuller than its numbers.

For the most in-your-face evidence of that fullness, check out Alpern’s big band-inspired arrangement of Spiral Staircase’s “More Today Than Yesterday.” Tatum Greenblatt (trumpet), Mike Davis (trombone), and David Mann (alto saxophone) make for a formidable horn section that works with the finesse of a boxer with great feet and the power of one who can knock you out anytime they want.

This combo of brains and brawn in the orchestrations, courtesy of deftly orchestrated dynamics, shows up on all the tunes Alpern’s designed to make you get up and dance—see Alpern’s takes on “Dancing in the Street” and “Gimme Some Lovin’” for further illustration. After years of composing music he realized no one could dance to, Alpern, over his last couple albums, has shown himself to be a most sophisticated dance band maestro.

But most impressive to me is the combination of imagination and execution on tunes few other jazz groups would think to cover, namely Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” and the Phantom of the Opera showstopper “All I Ask of You.”

Sheeran’s a gifted songwriter, but anyone with a pair of ears can discern that he flew a little close to the pop lodestar that is Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On”—too close for his legal team’s comfort anyway. Alpern’s transformed the tune to such an extent that listeners won’t think about Gaye until…well, the very next song, where he covers “Ain’t That Peculiar.”

Seriously, though, the take on “Thinking” is special, probably the most impressive work here from a re-arrangement standpoint. It opens with the kind of acoustic guitar vamp from Kevin Ramessar that the late Tom Petty might have used to introduce a tune. Every note from Patitucci is enveloping and luxurious. Foundationally, he and Clint DeGanon (drums) are the springboard for Greenblatt, Davis, and Mann, who transform Sheeran’s first hit single into something surprisingly uplifting and life-affirming, an anthem for clucking down the street like the cock of the walk. You might be able to picture this one as the musical accompaniment to the best possible version of a Levitra ad. If that feeling lasts for more than four hours…well, you know what to do.

The foregoing, though, is all within the realm of what should be possible for Alpern’s band—but Phantom? You’d think Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber would be a bridge too far, even for these guys. But they don’t just pull it off, they kill it, with a whimsical interpretation that waltzes to the heavens on the ethereal notes issued from Mann’s soprano saxophone. There are so many ways to describe this, but, most of all, it’s just cool. Smart and cool. And, merciful, too. If Emmy Rossum’s turn as Christine in the 2004 film adaptation is your last experience with this one, Alpern’s take will be a welcome, less overwrought departure.

Now if only someone could help me to expunge the memories of Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe in Les Mis.