Guitarist/composer Justin Morell has collaborated with Dizzy Gillespie, Bob Mintzer, and Peter Erskine, all leading figures in the jazz world. But he’s also worked with chamber orchestras and string ensembles. So it’s not surprising that his excellent new album, “Subjects and Complements,” straddles both genres. The word “subjects” in the CD’s title refers to the melodic ideas featured in the album’s five fugues. Each of these subjects is transposed and played by a second voice and, in many cases, the original melody is inverted and transformed in a variety of ways as the piece progresses. This sets up some wonderful counterpoint throughout the album with an added ingredient that takes this classical form into the realm of jazz: improvisation.
But all of this theoretical structure would come to nothing if the harmonic ideas were lacking in interest. Not only are these pieces consistently original, they are arranged by Morell with gorgeous, fresh voicings throughout the album. This is made possible through the use of an unusual ten-piece group, a dectet (which actually adds up to 11 musicians when Morell is added). The ensemble boasts a full complement of saxophones, played by Bob Sheppard, Matt Otto, Ben Wendel (who also plays bassoon), and Phil O’Connor (who also plays bass clarinet). Also featured are John Daversa on trumpet and flugelhorn; Alan Ferber, trombone; George Thatcher, bass trombone; Leonard Thompson, piano; Damian Erskine, bass, and Mark Ferber, drums. All of them are superb.
Where does this imaginative approach come from? Morell’s father, John, is also a jazz guitarist who worked with Miles Davis and Shelly Manne among others. And his grandfather, Carl Fischer wrote jazz standards like “You’ve Changed” and “We’ll Be Together Again.” Morell combines the best of both worlds with a guitar style as technically proficient as it is beautiful and an admirable flair for composition. In addition to the album’s five innovative fugues, there are seven other compositions ranging from the elegiac “Sang” to the exhilarating “Sun Subtle.”