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Album review: 're: manhattan project'


Denin Koch and beta particle

‘re: manhattan project’


If the debut album by guitarist Denin Koch starts with ominous chords and a foreboding melody, consider the subject matter. The album’s title is "re: manhattan project," and Koch is not just exploring an abstract concept. He grew up in Richland, Washington, a few miles from the Hanford site of the B Reactor, a key component of the United States nuclear weapons program.

Koch toured the B Reactor four years ago, and the experience left an indelible impression on him. That tour, and the implications of the world-changing atomic bomb, have now become the subject of his first major musical statement, a 10-movement piece for jazz quintet. The album’s release date, August 6, will mark the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

A recent graduate of the Eastman School of Music, Koch has performed with Arturo Sandoval, Pat Metheny, Branford Marsalis, and many others. His excellent band includes Jonathan Bumpus on trombone, pianist Seiji Yamashita, Robert MacPartland on bass, drummer Stephen Morris, as well as James Marshall, who plays viola on the final track. All of them studied at Eastman.

Stylistically, the album covers a wide swath of musical territory. While tracks like “the einstein-szilard letter” showcase Koch’s straight-ahead jazz chops, “trinity” is firmly in the realm of rock fusion. There is a distinct flamenco vibe to “rest assured,” which Koch describes as a meditation on the concept of mutually assured destruction. The album’s final cut, “the fields, the river, the sky,” with beautiful interplay between Koch’s guitar and Marshall’s viola, is borderline classical.

Bumpus’s trombone is a major voice throughout the album, often providing counterpoint to Koch’s guitar. Yamashita is especially strong on “j. robert oppenheimer,” a tune about the man called the “father of the bomb,” who later regretted his role. The most vivid, evocative composition on the album is “forty-five,” which refers to the number of seconds it took for the bomb, dropped from the Enola Gay, to hit and devastate its target. The track begins subtly but ends in apocalyptic chaos.

Because the subject matter is complex and important, Koch has put together a website briefly discussing each of the compositions. The website also contains videos about the band and record, as well as stories from residents of Richland, the town that inspired the work.