“The Last Sanctuary is the debut album recorded by a big band assembled especially to play the original compositions and arrangements of its director/leader, James Mustafa. The band’s personnel are among the finest players of their respective instruments that might currently be gathered in Melbourne.”
When James Mustafa told me about his plan to form a big band for the purpose of recording his own compositions/arrangements, I recall being a little less than spontaneous in my enthusiasm for the idea. He was, after all, still a student of the Monash jazz course at that point and might be expected to spend time earning his stripes in the big world before making a statement such as this album. The intervening years have erased those initial doubts. Careful listening to the material on this CD has laid it fondly in my memory and left me convinced of the worth of this venture. The recording also earned James the award for Young Australian Jazz Artist of 2015.
The compositions have strong visual/extra-musical associations. The title track Last Sanctuary is the result of the composer’s deliberate response to a wildlife sanctuary in the heart of New York. This is by far the longest number on the album and incorporates several substantial improvisations by James Macaulay (trombone), Eugene Ball (trumpet) and Tim Wilson (alto saxophone). Like several other works on the CD, it is a tone poem with links to natural world phenomena and reflects the composer’s abiding interest in these things.
An interesting aspect of the scoring is the extended timbral palette. The use of woodwind instruments such as clarinets, flutes and tuba in several of the arrangements stretches the traditional big band taking the range of sound into the area of symphonic scoring. It is not the only aspect of these works that point the way to Mustafa’s possible future direction. There are moments when it seems that the big band is not capable of providing sufficient expressive means – expression that might be possible if a symphony orchestra had been his chosen vehicle.
Soul Dust is a Latin rhythm piece with a very memorable melody. It features an extended alto saxophone solo by one of the best players of that instrument in Melbourne, the wonderful Lachlan Davidson. This track alone is worth the purchase price of the album.
Of all six pieces in the set, Rush Hour Blues is most truly a composition for jazz big band. It has a terrific saxophone ‘soli’ section, very good individual solos by Tony Hicks (tenor sax) and Ben Harrison (trumpet) and a period of freely improvised conversation between tenor and trumpet. This track was used wisely to open the band’s live concert at Monash’s Blackwood Hall at the beginning of March 2016. It is an exciting outing that really sets the mood of a jazz concert.
The remaining tracks contain improvised solos by Stephen Byth (tenor saxophone), Jordan Murray (trombone), Paul Williamson (trumpet), Darrin Archer (piano) and Adrian Sherriff (bass trombone). They all make splendid contributions in this respect. This is just another reason to recommend the music on this CD to Australian listeners. I cannot think of a single reason not to do so.
Statement of conflict of interest: James Mustafa.was once a student in the author’s improvisation classes.