New York trumpeter, composer and arranger Justin Mullens has stirred up awareness in the current big band jazz scene without so much as a warning. But his first CD, Fresh Sound New Talent’s Justin Mullens & The Delphian Jazz Orchestra,
reveals that he’s an innovative musician who not only has established a style of his own one of narrative layers and unpredictable metrical shifts but also has on this first project produced perhaps his epic creation. For the discovery awaiting listeners of Mullen’s DJO is that of a band expressing Mullen’s changeable ideas, his compositions consisting more of segments (or chapters) than of straight-through exposition of a single theme. Obviously, Mullens has more than a passing knowledge of literary classics, for he bases some of his compositions on works of literature, no more formidable a challenge than the medieval poem, Beowulf.
As the content and the mood of events change throughout the poem, so do the musical descriptions his 16-piece band create as they cover Mullens three-part "Beowulf" suite based upon the saga’s events.
While the listener may never know Mullens full intentions as he wrote the music, and whether sections of his tracks are meant to parallel literary events or describe objects of interest, such as "The Icecream Man," the point is the enjoyment of Mullens’ skill in imagining and bringing to life his own musical visions, executed through an integration of influences as wide-ranging as Ellington and Stravinsky. Aligned with the impressionism of modern jazz big bands like Maria Schneider’s, Mullens’ concentrates on swelling dynamics, contrasting understatement with climactic drama, rhythmic dynamism, lots of space for individual members’ improvisation, technical facility and unrestricted imagination. Even though Mullens’ DJO is relatively conventional in its instrumentation, the album is awash with dissonance, leaping intervals, long cresendoes leading to a final exclamation point before another theme entails, extended improvisational segments in which some of the DJO’s outstanding instrumentalists are featured and rhythmic propulsion throughout.
Much of the intriguing work on the CD belongs to the soloists, such as Mullens himself when he in effect narrates musically the story of "Grendel" or alto saxophonist Chris Cheek’s interplay with drummer Danny Weiss on "The Apple And The Box." The unconventional elements of the DJO include the use of guitar rather than piano for laying down the chords, freeing the horns to explore the harmonic possibilities more freely while creating a supportive but not overpowering presence. In addition, Mullens adds vocalist Judith Berkson to sing wordlessly, in effect as another instrument, on "Pietro The Gouty" or on "The Trifler" to present Mullens original lyrics along the lines of the broad intervals the he has written. It must be said, however, that the hardest-working member of the orchestra is Weiss, who not only plays throughout most of the CD, even when other musicians dropout, but also who injects a high degree of energy and character to each of the tracks.
Justin Mullens and The Delphian Jazz Orchestra, all of a sudden, have appeared with a CD that establishes him as a unique composer unafraid to take chances or to tackle themes that may be obscure. Plus, the Orchestra itself has helped Mullens realize his vision through shared understanding of his goals and technical excellence.