Shawn Maxwell’s New Tomorrow has a new album set for release May 18, 2018. The album, “Music in My Mind,” seems to be highly anticipated by fans and critics on the basis of Maxwell’s previous work, including that of his other ensemble, Alliance.
“Music in My Mind” combines the members of both New Tomorrow and Alliance for a total of a dozen players (including Maxwell) that work to bring 10 original jazz compositions to life.
According to Downbeat magazine in 2016, “Shawn Maxwell’s New Tomorrow” is comprised of “…a marvelously collaborative spirit…the innovative impulse that motivates this colorful project is refreshing.”
Two years later, that “Innovative impulse” seems a perfect way to describe what is at work on “Music in My Mind.” With songs that range from the brief “Untitled Tune #1” that is less than two minutes long, to the moody and kind of experimental “Another Monday” that is almost seven minutes long, the songs on the recording seem the result of creative genius more than the determined output as demanded by theme.
“Music in My Mind” is the latest of several recordings by Maxwell to feature one of his ensembles. The recording has a lot going on, some of it musically complex, but none of it boring.
About Shawn Maxwell
Growing up, Maxwell benefitted from the plethora of school music programs found in Joliet, Illinois. According to the performer’s website, he began playing clarinet and saxophone before high school, and his skill with woodwinds continued to increase. Eventually, Maxwell earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Millikin University in 1999. After college, he toured the Mediterranean and Caribbean. By 2004, he had put together the Shawn Maxwell Quartet. Almost immediately it seems, he began developing a reputation for being one of the best players in the Chicago area. His first two albums, “Originals,” and “Originals II” were lauded for being a breath of fresh air in jazz. In other words, the music opened up the possibilities for jazz just when some thought the genre could have used a little refreshing.
Even though Maxwell keeps busy as a working musician, he still finds time to teach master classes to share his expertise and love of music with students that range in age from elementary school-aged to college-aged.
Critics from various media outlets note Maxwell’s innovation, how a song can go from borrowing phrasing and concepts of one genre in one instant and then going back to classic jazz traditions the next. On “Music in My Mind,” listeners can still hear this tendency for innovation.
“Music in My Mind” by Shawn Maxwell’s New Tomorrow
Basically, this album is a pop it in and see where it takes you kind of affair. There is so much to be said in only so much space. The 10 songs on the album despite their variances in length and approach, prompt repeat spins.
Also of note is the recording’s liner notes, written by Neil Tesser. Tesser, as some might recall, won a Grammy Award for “Best Album Notes” in 2013. He wrote the notes for “Afro Blue Impressions” by John Coltrane, a re-release. Tesser’s notes on Maxwell’s latest work are thorough and insightful. The information is appropriate both for those new to jazz and those who are veteran listeners. His notes are helpful, too. As Maxwell and his ensemble are likely to work in some improvisation that those relatively new to jazz might not understand. In particular, Tesser expounds on Maxwell and company’s use of the flatted fifth, and further details how it is at the center of the “triton chord” and “has serious jazz cred.” But Tesser also explains the use of the flatted fifth elsewhere, including heavy metal. Suddenly, everything from the music itself to the liner notes inspires audiences to take a music theory and history class.
But the music itself is worth writing about. “Our Princess is In Another Castle” starts the album and it is complete with the phrasing that Tesser and others have noted. Short phrases from different parts of the soundscape essentially introduce themselves. Included on this track is a trumpet phrase that opens the song, and that is replicated by a vocal line from Dee Alexander. According to Tesser, that phrase is a “signature” of Maxwell’s. Behind the trumpet phrase is the spirited drum motif. It doesn’t fade or change until Alexander’s vocals get more lush. Then, the drums fall out for just a moment. The entire soundscape sings “da-da-da,” although the human voice line is at a different rhythm. The result is a sound that just misses being “pretty,” but that is probably not the goal. But there is tension and movement that feels frenetic. And the song feels purposeful and clear, especially when audiences get used to the phrasing that grounds the piece.
“Snow Snow” is a pop jazz-sounding wonder. Its opening strains sound more like Steely Dan than classic jazz. It offers up the bluesy sound of after-hours, of big city ambiance, coupled with knowledge of that city’s jazz history. In this case, the city is Chicago. The slowed-down groove is just smooth enough for audiences to appreciate the sparkling keyboards and nimble bass.
“Music in My Mind” by Shawn Maxwell’s New Tomorrow is a masterful recording. It might take a while for audiences to unpack, but reading the notes and careful listening will pay big dividends on this one.