Program music is an oft-maligned form, and often for good reason; at its most heavy-handed and literal, it can seem only a step or two more refined than Carl Stalling’s crazed cartoon scores that literally translate the onscreen action into music. However, third stream jazz has over the decades contributed a number of wonderful examples of program music, such as Duke Ellington’s masterpiece “Black, Brown and Beige” and the lesser-known but equally impressive “Such Sweet Thunder,” inspired by the works of Shakespeare. The Metta Quintet’s Subway Songs has a more prosaic inspiration: as the title implies, these nine songs are inspired by the adrenaline rush of the New York City subway system. (The album is also dedicated in part to the victims of the London Tube bombings of July 7, 2005.) However, these impressionistic pieces wisely avoid literalism of the chugga-chugga train rhythm variety. There is one clever leitmotif, however: each of the original pieces (contributed by members of the Metta Quintet and other composers associated with the educational JazzReach Foundation) contains the instantly familiar two-note pattern that signals the closing of a New York City subway car’s doors. Otherwise, the songs range from the antic “Morning Rush (Stand Clear of the Closing Doors)” to the mellow, clarinet-driven groove of “Ephemeral Muse,” each track subtly tied together with field recordings of subway platforms and train announcements. Musically, the album takes no risks, being straightforward, acoustic, small combo jazz of no particular subgenre, with a two-saxophone front line over a rhythm section led by pianist Helen Sung’s strong left-hand runs and H. Benjamin Schuman’s fluid drumming. Interesting ideas solidly executed, Subway Songs succeeds in its stated mission, and that’s more than enough. – Stewart Masonmore »
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