By Jeff Cebulski
Like so many others, I was bummed when the artistically mercurial David Bowie died seven years ago. While I was not too familiar with his expansive oeuvre, I had been attracted to many performances, especially from the 1980’s on. His theatricality and attention to production were so professional that I could tolerate his varying personae in appreciation of the Artist.
But much of his music escaped me. That’s why I was inspired to learn more about it courtesy of a new local release, The Bowie Project, from the Metropolitan Jazz Octet with the respected vocalist Paul Marinaro, who will perform a sold out album release concert at the Studio5 Performing Arts Center in Evanston on Feb. 10.
(Not to fear: a second concert will be held at Studio5 on April 21. Tickets can be purchased at Studio5.dance)
The Project’s instigator Marinaro, who has become one of Chicago’s singular voices, was in his second career stage when COVID hit in early 2020. Following a noted debut in 2013 with his album Without a Song, Marinaro was rising when a first crisis occurred, a serious illness late in 2017 that sidelined him off-and-on through 2018 (still, though, emerging to sing with Sheila Jordan and in a heralded performance of Sinatra songs with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra). 2019 was a true comeback year, with appearances in Europe included, before the fated 2020 came.
Part of Marinaro’s allure, perhaps, is the personal nature of his craft. Without a Song was dedicated to his father, who had an unfulfilled dream to be a professional singer. Last year’s well-received Mike Allemana-arranged recording Not Quite Yet emanated from his ‘down time’ during his illness and the pandemic, which provided the contemplation leading to the inclusion of two Bowie songs, “5:15 The Angels Have Gone” and “No Plan.”
Recorded at approximately the same time, The Bowie Project is an obvious extension of Marinaro’s sentiments germinated during his own “limbo” between career periods that led to those first Bowie selections. On the new record, “5:15” is presented again, but this time with the Metropolitan Octet, led by the estimable horn player Jim Gailloreto, who also co-produced Not Quite Yet. That song and 10 others feature Marinaro’s exquisite voice and emotional interpretations within sumptuous arrangements (by a number of people including Gailloreto, fellow Octeter John Kornegay, Allemana, Fred Simon, and John McLean) that lift Bowie’s music out of its historical context and offer new ways to understand its relevance. Not Quite Yet featured a combo, some strings, and back-up singers; The Bowie Project is enhanced by the production that gives the Octet an even fuller presence, almost orchestra-like.
Marinaro himself is truly a postmodern crooner, one who worships Sinatra’s performances but expresses songs in ways that suggest Broadway skills if given the chance. One can understand his attraction to Bowie’s works; he has his own theatric style and production sensibilities, finding ways to create moments and personify lyrics. Whereas Sinatra could be insular and Bowie often dualistic, Marinaro reaches out to his audience with earned integrity.
(Still, it would be instructive for interested listeners to check out Bowie’s recordings of these songs ahead of time, as well as do some research on sites like Bowie Bible.)
The album itself does re-create a few of the Brit’s more widely popular tunes: “Changes,” “Space Oddity,” and “Let’s Dance.” The challenge for the artists, I’d say, is to see if their approach can transcend the easily-conceived notion of a Vegas singer trying to be cool. (Imagine Vic Damone doing “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Okay, stop.) While the recognizable “Changes” and “Oddity” melodies are represented fairly straight up, the lyrical nuances embellished by Marinaro’s stylistic breadth (here’s where some research helps) and the jazzy interludes from the band make for stimulating listening. Here, “Let’s Dance,” shorn of its ‘80s post-disco ambiance, becomes a cozy, softly swinging request for a masks-off recovery.
Given that, the other, not-as-familiar material shines brightly as all involved are freer to experiment with the originals in a way that meets Marinaro’s emotional intent to recognize and recover the human distance, relationship and professional, created by the pandemic. On both his albums, “5:15” is lifted by Marinaro’s Bowie-informed diction, but on this album there is a stronger thrust to it and the sentiment therein, perhaps enhanced by the arrangement that lifts the Octet into a crescendo that drives the singer. That thrust also pushes a funked-up “Stay,” featuring some of Marinaro’s jazzier delivery amongst rounds of syncopation.
A couple of Bowie’s more personal works get sensitive, poignant interpretations. “Letter to Hermione,” based on an unsent communique to a former lover, is delivered with sincere but conflicted thoughts representative of a youthful break-up; “I Would Be Your Slave,” a proto-theological musing, becomes something more earthily compelling in Marinaro’s treatment.
The album’s closer “Life on Mars,” a staple of Bowie’s latter touring years, is arranged to emphasize the author’s often-underlying dramatic impulses, beginning with a chamber piece involving vibraphone and flute, leading to Marinaro’s increasingly intense storytelling driven by rising horns. Like on another song here, “Quicksand,” this song’s references are a bit dated, but not its sentimental impact.
The Bowie Project, ambitious in scope, would be potentially hazardous in less capable hands. But given Marinaro’s dedication to dignified, timely art and Gailoretto’s impeccable leadership, this land breaking effort could very well be one of the post-pandemic’s finer achievements. If you can, hear this live and buy the album as a keepsake. If not, buy it anyway, and support this grand effort to memorialize one of the 20th Century’s important artists.
The Bowie Project - Metropolitan Jazz Octet featuring Paul Marinaro. Origin Records (2022)
Produced By: Jim Gailloreto, John Kornegay & John McCortney
Paul Marinaro, vocals
John Kornegay, alto sax/clarinet/alto flute
Jim Gailloreto, tenor sax/soprano sax/flute
Peter Brusen, baritone sax/bass clarinet/bassoon
Doug Scharf, trumpet/flugelhorn
Russ Phillips, trombone
Bob Sutter - piano (1-3,5-7,10-11)
Ben Lewis - piano (4,8,9)
Mike Freeman - vibes (1,3,5-7,9-11), marimba (11)
Doug Bistrow, acoustic bass
Bob Rummage, drums and percussion
About Jeff Cebulski
Jeff Cebulski, who lives in Chicago, is a retired English educator (both secondary and collegiate) and longtime jazz aficionado. His career in jazz includes radio programs at two stations in southeast Wisconsin, an online show on Kennesaw State’s (GA) Owl Radio from 2007 until 2015, and review/feature writing for Chicago Jazz Magazine since 2016, including his column "Jazz With Mr. C". He has interviewed many jazz artists, including Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, John Beasley, and Chris Brubeck, as well as several Chicago-based players. Jeff is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association.