Madison composer-arranger Paul Dietrich’s music looks backward and forward, like sonic cinema

Paul Dietrich Jazz Ensemble – Forward *

In essence, Maria Schneider brought native Minnesota landscape and beyond to the Gil Evans orchestral impression. To stunning effect, Madison’s Paul Dietrich has done as much for Wisconsin vistas. Akin to Schneider, hear sumptuous orchestral shapes draped over ostinatos or vamps, or elegantly unfolding chord changes. Brilliant accordionist Gary Versace offers Grammy-winning Schneider slightly richer textures. By contrast, Dietrich employs a wordless female soprano voice, perhaps imported from Pat Metheny’s ensemble concept. 

Composer-arranger-trumpeter Paul Dietrich (left) conducts his jazz ensemble in the recording session for the album “Forward.” Courtesy youtube.com

Forward ranks a mere notch below Schneider’s best album or two. Yep, it’s that good, bolstered by ace soloists among its Chicago-area and Southern Wisconsin musicians. On opener “Rush,” Milwaukee trumpeter Russ Johnson’s warm, stately lyricism rides swelling backdrops and kicking boosts from Clarence Penn, Schneider’s own band drummer. It takes it’s time, building with Tony Barba’s climbing-to-climax tenor sax, but the tune is a rush.

“Settle” suggests history, a homestead, putting down roots, embracing the future with quiet courage. Altoist Greg Ward intimates a family-like vibe of circling tenderness.

The closing “Forward” suite (titled for the state’s motto) first evokes, in playful horn counterpoint, Dietrich’s vibrant hometown of Ripon. 1

“I can return to my hometown..and feel right at home even as life experiences change my perception of the things around me,” Dietrich comments in the album liner notes.  Then “Snow,” a tone poem of enveloping majesty, glows in contours of shade and light. Ward’s ardent soloing melts the snow closer to “Like Water” (a previous tune’s title).

“Roads” unfolds through more nifty crisscross writing, then sequencing of the same phrases among ensemble sections, and Dustin Lorenzi’s burnished, Stan Getz-like tenor peals.

Milwaukee trumpeter Russ Johnson (foreground, left) is among the strong soloists amid Dietrich’s deftly interactive ensemble, in this recording session scene. Courtesy Isthmus.

The suite closes with the poignantly anthemic “Green Fields,” written for the late Fred Sturm, a brilliant Appleton composer and trombonist (with the acclaimed jazz-fusion group Matrix) and mentor to Dietrich and many musicians. His protege’s own trumpet here sounds like cherished memory.

“The former department chair at Lawrence University, my alma mater, remains the most important teacher I ever had,” Dietrich notes. “He was unfairly taken too young by cancer in 2014…his love of music and his radiant (and mischievous) personality left an indelible mark on all who knew him.” Here, the Schneider connection echoes again, as Sturm edited the published scores for Schneider’s album Evanesence.

For all the album’s backwards-glancing reflection and sense of place, the theme of “forward” keeps the listener attuned to Dietrich’s long, winding road over the horizon.

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This review was first published in slightly shorter form in The Shepherd Express: https://shepherdexpress.com/music/album-reviews/forward-by-paul-dietrich-jazz-ensemble-with-clarence-penn/

  • photo of Forward album cover courtesy Jazz Trails

1 The Greater Madison Jazz Consortium commissioned Dietrich to write the Forward suite. The organization supports a wide range of jazz activities and ventures in the Capitol city. “The idea was to write music in a modern big band jazz style that represented my personal images and perceptions of my home state, Wisconsin,” Dietrich writes.  

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