Metropolitan Jazz Octet, The Bowie Project Review
Metropolitan Jazz Octet and Paul Marinaro: The Bowie Project Reinvigorates the Starman’s Legacy
With a stroke of genius, the Metropolitan Jazz Octet (MJO) and Paul Marinaro embark on a journey through David Bowie’s illustrious canon, infusing it with jazz structures and tones in their album, The Bowie Project. This undertaking bridges both well-known and not so known musical works by Bowie, embarking on a path seldom trodden with the kind of care and intimacy that merits a profound investigation.
The album, born from the confluence of Marinaro’s vocal skills and the MJO’s instrumental dexterity, peels away the glam and glitter of Bowie’s pop sensibilities to uncover a jazz core that even the most ardent Bowie enthusiasts might have overlooked. Indeed, Bowie’s own flirtation with jazz in his final album, Blackstar, suggests a predestined harmony between his works and the genre, a prophecy that Marinaro and the MJO fulfill posthumously, weaving a postmodern tapestry of jazz that Bowie himself had subtly hinted at.
In examining The Bowie Project, one must first appreciate the delicate task of translating Bowie’s eclectic discography into jazz. The well-crafted arrangements move past transmutation of a cover or a simple arrangement; it is a total reinvention—songs are stripped down to their harmonic and melodic essences and re-clothed in jazz attire. Songs like “5:15 The Angels Have Gone” transition from a pop-rock medium to a vessel for Marinaro’s velvet baritone, maintaining their emotive core while adopting a new sonic identity.
The moments when the jazz influence is at its best is when improvisation and jazz’s robust rhythmic feels combine. Jim Gailloreto’s tenor saxophone solo on “Changes” is one of those moments, his ideas are solidly jazz, but he still maintains respect to the song’s theme. Mike Freeman’s solo and Bob Sutter’s piano solo and fills on “Let’s Dance” are short, but well executed. For a taste of the funky and deep groove of the ensemble, checkout “Stay.”
The arrangements by Gailloreto, alongside contributions from Chicago’s finest like Mike Allemana, John McLean, Fred Simon, and Ben Lewis keep Bowie’s complexity but also provide a new contextual foundation with the many sonic variations the MJO is able to achieve. Their collective work navigates the rich emotional landscapes of Bowie’s songwriting. These arrangements reveal the jazz always implicit in Bowie’s artistry.
Listening to the rendition of “Changes,” one is struck by the textured layering of reed and brass instruments, which set the stage for Marinaro’s vocal entrance. It is an exquisite example of how the MJO can envelop a listener in an atmosphere that feels at once familiar and entirely novel.
The ability of the octet is undeniable, each member a masterful voice contributing to a rich, auditory mosaic. Dubbed a “chamber big band,” their sonic footprint outpaces their numerical count. In “Letter to Hermione,” for instance, the shifting of sonic textures brings an simmering atmosphere with jazz structures demonstrates the octet’s capacity to recreate a song’s identity in multiple timbres.
The versatility of the rhythm section of Doug Bistrow on bass, Bob Rummage on drums, and either Bob Sutter or Ben Lewis in the piano chair is impressive. Furthermore, Mike Freeman’s vibraphone contributions across the album—especially noteworthy in “Space Oddity” and “Life on Mars?”—provide a shimmering counterpoint to the acoustic warmth of the ensemble, a spectral dance that enhances Bowie’s thematic focus on the alien and the otherworldly.
Marinaro’s role is pivotal in the project’s thematic flow and choice of songs in the narrative. With the inclusion of “Slow Burn” and “Conversation Piece,” on which he turns Bowie’s lyrics into a mirror reflecting our contemporary struggles, but also brings to the fore less popular melodies for those not familiar with Bowie’s work to digest and stimulate to dig dipper into both the MJO repertoire and Bowie’s vast discography.
In the final analysis, The Bowie Project brings a jazz perspective to Bowie’s timeless artistry, with Marinaro and the MJO offering not just a tribute but a profound reimagination that weaves across time and genres. This album triumphs in offering a fresh perspective, inviting listeners to re-experience these songs and establishing itself as a luminous gem within the ever-expanding universe of Bowie’s legacy and the jazz canon. That’s the short of it!
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The Bowie Project
January 20, 2023