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Alice In Wonderland by Ezra Weiss

You will have a blast with this album. Jazz pianist/ composer/ lyricist/ Ezra Weiss adapted Lewis Carroll’s iconic book, Alice In Wonderland into a musical that beings Carroll’s characters to life. Commissioned by the Northwest Children’s Theater and School for its 2008-2009 Season, the production’s intent is to entertain and educate both children and adults about the insightful musings of classic literature, and the potential of chamber-jazz ensembles to give these stories a lyrical dimension. The orchestra features Farnell Newton on trumpet, Noah Bernstein on saxophones, Lars Campbell on trombone, Bill Athens on bass, Tim Paxton on drums, and Ezra Weiss on piano with an accompaniment of very gifted vocalists including Shirley Nanette and Marilyn Keller who sing the parts of the "Queen Of Hearts" and "Dormouse," and Annabel Cantor who sings the part of "Alice." The script for the adaptation is written by Sarah Jane Hardy, and the music is inspired by such legendary jazz artists as Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, B.B. King, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Bessie Smith, and Charles Mingus.

"Overture" starts off the album with a blend of swing-jazz hyper-jets and dreamy jazz vapors creating a mood for Alice to begin to fall asleep listening to her father’s collection of jazz records. When she awakens, she finds herself in the mists of Wonderland in "Look At The Time" covered in dazzling beads of swing-jazz horns in the style of Charlie Parker’s "Blues For Alice" while Alice converses with the White Rabbit, performed by Sophie Rogers. Alice finds herself in a conversation with the Mouse, played by Sophie Mackay, in "A Long And Sad Tail" showing hints of the traditional jazz idioms of Ellington and Strayhorn. The next scene has Alice encountering the wicked Caterpillar, performed by Matt Loehrke, in "Who Are You?" Farnell Newton’s trumpet creates the swirling fumes of the Caterpillar’s hookah in the story, moving to a cool Miles Davis-synchronization. Alice then comes across the Frog and Fish Fishmen, played by Alyssa Haning and Michael Chaffee in "An Invitation To Play Croquet" utilizing the chord progressions of John Coltrane’s "Giant Steps."

Alice’s adventure continues with "The Duchess’ Blues" sung by Athena Patterson who plays the charming Duchess and delivers a lounging rhapsody made in the traditional blues style of B.B. King. Alice is then left alone with the Cheshire Cat, played by Emily Bryan in "The Craziest Cat In Town" providing an Afro-Cuban inspired rhythm with quotes of Dizzy Gillespie’s "Manteca," "Salt Peanuts," and "A Night In Tunisia" closing Act One. Act Two begins with Alice joining a mad tea party involving the Mad Hatter, The March Hare, and Dormouse, starting off with "The Time Song" tasseled in Thelonious Monk-like trimmings followed by "It’s Always Time For Tea" paying homage to Ornette Coleman’s "Congeniality," and "Three Little Sisters" influenced by the smooth ballad style of Shirley Horn. Alice leaves the tea party and comes across the Cards in "Five Plus Seven Equals Two" using, once again, Coltrane’s chord progressions for "Giant Steps." The Queen Of Hearts then enters, performed by Marilyn Keller and Shirley Nanette in "Off With His Head" done in the style of swing-jazz songstress, Bessie Smith and showcases Weiss’ humorous lyrics.

After a croquet match, the Queen puts the Knave Of Hearts on trial for stealing her tarts. At the trial, the White Rabbit presents a nonsensical letter as evidence against the Knave, and hence, "The Knave’s Letter" begins with Carroll’s verses set to swift rhythm changes reminiscent of Charlie Parker as the entire cast sing in unison. The Queen then calls for the Knave to be sentenced before the jury has reached a verdict. Alice boldly stands up to the Queen’s absurdity in the "Finale" played in the minor blues style of Charles Mingus. The piece climaxes as Marilyn Keller and Shirley Nanette scat over the ensemble’s swing-jazz riffs, and then everything fades away, all except for Alice who is left alone on the stage. She walks over to the piano and plays a few notes on the keyboards, pondering over her dream and wandering if it was all fiction, or was it indeed real?

Ezra Weiss’ Alice In Wonderland is not only an impressive piece that utilizes the works of legendary jazz artists, but it also shows that swing-jazz chord progressions and blues-inspired arias can give flesh to an iconic piece of classic literature. The play arouses the visual senses while the music excites the aural senses, and together, they work as one.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Ezra Weiss
  • CD Title: Alice In Wonderland
  • Genre: Straight-Ahead / Classic
  • Year Released: 2009
  • Record Label: Northwest Children’s Theater And School
  • Tracks: Overture, Look At The Time, A Long And Sad Tail, Who Are You, An Invitation To Play Croquet, The Duchess Blues, The Craziest Cat In Town, The Time Song, It’s Always Time For Tea, Three Little Sisters, Five Plus Seven Equals Two, Off With His Head, The Knave’s Letter, Finale, Three Little Sisters, Off With His Head, Finale
  • Musicians: Ezra Weiss - composer, lyricist, music director, and pianist, Farnell Newton - trumpet, Noah Bernstein - saxophones, Lars Campbell - trombone, Bill Athens - bass, Tim Paxton - drums; Vocals - Annabel Cantor (Alice), Marilyn Keller (Dormouse and Queen Of Hearts), Shirley Nanette (Dormouse and Queen Of Hearts), Emily Bryan (Cheshire Cat), Sophie Rogers (White Rabbit), Jason Means (March Hare and Card), John Ellingson (Mad Hatter), Sophie Mackay (Mouse), Rafe Larsen (Dodo, Cook, and Seven), Michael Chaffe (Duck, Fish Footman, and Two), Joellen Sweeney (Eaglet), Alyssa Haning (Lory, Frog Footman, and Five), Matt Loehrke (Caterpillar and King Of Hearts), and Athena Patterson - (Duchess and Card)
  • Rating: Four Stars
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