The album Joy by Ernesto Cervini may be the most ambitious work conceived of and executed by the drummer [multi-instrumentalist, if you consider that he is also a more than proficient bass clarinetist]. What adds to the amazing nature of this feat is the fact that Mr Cervini has managed to find the time to compose a breathtaking cycle of songs based on the series of Gamache books set in the fictional little town of Three Pines by the celebrated author Louise Penny. This album is certainly worthy of its JUNO nomination for Jazz Album of the Year [Solo], for the year 20203.
Remarkably, he has done so, while supporting his various instrumental ensembles [at least three different ones], travel to promote all his releases and create busy PR campaigns for other artists in North America. To add to that Mr Cervini now runs his own record label [named after his favourite fictional world, created by Miss Penny] through which he is building an enviable portfolio of releases in quite a short span of time. If that sounds like quite a mouthful, consider what a handful it must have been for Mr Cervini to navigate on one album.
Miss Penny has so far written 17 books in the Gamache crime series, which centre around the lives of siblings, Armand Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir who suffered the loss of their mother at a young age. Deep into the series, Gamache is now an adult in the Sûreté du Québec. In the current novel, a letter written 160 years ago by a stone mason re-surfaces and begins to haunt him. In it “the writer describes his terror when bricking up an attic room somewhere in the village.”
Saying anything more will not only create a spoiler alert for new converts to Louise Penny’s series, but may also distract from the music that Mr Cervini has written to celebrate a series of novels that has enthralled him enough to create this song-cycle. Setting out to write a song-cycle to accompany a literary work is no mean achievement. Word-painting [or tone painting] without the full scope of symphonic instruments – a full complement of strings, brass, woodwinds and so on.
And so the composer has resorted to the difficult art of word-painting with a modern “jazz” ensemble. Moreover, what took Miss Penny several pages – even chapters – to create visual settings, Mr Cervini has had to collapse into a matter of minutes – in the case of painting portraits of two characters [in] Olivier and Gabri, in less than a minute and a half. Clearly Mr Cervini has a firm grasp of the narrative as well as the dramatic.
The album opens by creating the salubrious climes in the eponymously named Three Pines. The album then wends its way – song after song – alternating between dramatic narrative [often employing word-painting] and introducing the dramatis personae. Through a series of ingenious arrangements Mr Cervini has managed create a telescopic [for want of a better word to describe how, in an hour or so, we can be brought up to speed on a 17-book] narrative.
The joyous opener, Three Pines, which is followed by the dancing piece Surprised by Joy, belie the dramatic shifts in the narrative cycle. We encounter many characters and sub-plots until both beauty and mystery come together in the frenetic [where else] The Beautiful Mystery. The drama of disturbance comes to a head in the penultimate, Beauvoir, but matters are put to be in the album’s dénouement which is entitled – appropriately so – I’m FINE.
Mr Cervini’s arrangements – superbly and idiomatically interpreted a complement of vocalists who pour considerable drama and emotion into wordless vocalising and into designated lyric. These fine artists include Emilie-Claire Barlow, Amy Cervini, and the amazing Felicity Williams and Alex Samaras. Instrumentalists include several familiar names [from other ensembles led or co-led by Mr Cervini]. However, the brilliant clarinettist Virginia MacDonald certainly deserves special mention.
Mr Cervini, of course, leads from the front, and continues to ring in the changes of mood, structure and tempo, adding exponentially – from his drum chair – to an already interesting programme. The considerable degree of balance and integration of melody, harmony and rhythm, of composition and improvisation, of exploration, individuality and tradition is impressively maintained throughout this absorbing recording that does immense justice to Louise Penny’s extraordinary series of books.
Ernesto Cervini must also be celebrated in this feature for another recording by another celebrated trio. That recording is Entering Utopia by the trio Tunetown. It bears mention that Tunetown is one of the more adventurous – one of many ensembles co-led by Ernesto Cervini – with bassist Artie Roth and saxophonist Kelly Jefferson. Adventurous compositions – like equally adventurous improvisations – are largely shared by members of the trio. Occasionally one or more musicians may contribute an individually written work. Experimentality is not confined to form or solo flights. However, there may be a preponderance of one or the other as is in the case of Entering Utopia, which – as the title suggests – is a metaphor, with both abstract and concrete connotations of imagery.
No effort is spared when it comes to experimenting with improvisations. But even more remarkable is that compositions are remarkably buttressed. There some compositions are absorbingly creative; such as the programmatic music [of Hello Today and Memories Remain]; others are painterly in an impressionistic manner [such as Entering Utopia]. Elsewhere, however, as in the case of Cheryl, from the classic oeuvre of the legendary Charlie Parker [or the standard, Blue Gardenia], which in their classic original form were played by a quartet [or larger ensemble] that included a pianist, are now cast in a completely different setting, such as without a chordal instrument in the arrangement.
At any rate what is most impressive is the seemingly expansive palette of colours and of tone textures that this trio is able to achieve with just a saxophone, bass and drums [with percussion colouring]. Best of all [and one cannot say this often enough] Mr Cervini has unpacked his bass clarinet once again and this adds a rich – and not entirely predictable – harmonic foundation to the music in which he plays with uncommon style and taste, and not without considerable virtuosity. This sophomore recording is a great leap forward from There from Here, the remarkable debut from a trio of wonderfully inspired musicians.
Ernesto Cervini: Joy
Tracks –1: Three Pines; 2: Surprised by Joy; 3: Myrna; 4: Sandalwood and Rosewater; 5: Clara; 6: Roar and Havoc; 7: Ruth’s Rosa; 8: The Moth; 9: Olivier & Gabri; 10: Bella Bella; 11: Peter Morrow; 12: The Beautiful Mystery; 13: Lacoste; 14: Beauvoir; 15: I’m FINE
Musicians – Ernesto Cervini: drums and compositions; Felicity Williams: vocals ; Emilie-Claire Barlow: vocals ; Amy Cervini: vocals ; Alex Samaras: vocals [8, 12]; Jim Lewis: trumpet ; Virginia MacDonald: clarinet ; Tara Davidson: alto saxophone [2, 5, 9, 10, 12, 15]; Luis Deniz: alto saxophone ; Kelly Jefferson: tenor and soprano saxophones [2, 3, 8, 10, 12, 13, 15]; William Carn: trombone [2, 9, 10, 12, 15]; Adrean Farrugia: piano [2, 4, 10 – 12, 15]; Don Scott: guitar ; Dan Fortin: contrabass [1, 2, 4, 7, 10, 12, 15]; Artie Roth: contrabass 3, 13]; Rich Brown: electric bass [6, 14]
Released – 2022
Label – TPR Records [TPR 010]
Runtime – 57:23
Myrna by Ernesto Cervini – Music inspired by Three Pines – Studio Music Video
Tunetown: Entering Utopia
Tracks – 1: Hello, Today; 2: Entering Utopia; 3: Layla Tov; 4: Billyish; 5: Flood, Deluge; 6: Look Down; 7: Sycamore; 8: Cheryl; 9: Sgraffito; 10: Memories Remain; 11: Looking Glass; 12: Blue Gardenia
Musicians – Kelly Jefferson: tenor and soprano saxophones; Artie Roth: contrabass; Ernesto Cervini: drums, percussion, and bass clarinet
Released – 2021
Label – TPR Records [TPR 001]
Runtime – 47:03
TuneTown LIVE – Billyish (Ernesto Cervini)