The journey from adolescence to adulthood can be a harrowing one. For composer and saxophonist Joshua Kwassman, that was true in a very literal sense, as a three-day bike trip, in August 2010, with an idolized childhood friend collapsed into chaos and shattered his youthful illusions.
While that trek itself found Kwassman growing up in a hurry, his musical recounting of the experience marks the debut of a remarkably mature young composer. Songs of the Brother Spirit, which will be released March 12 on Truth Revolution Records, spins the tale of that friendship into a moving, richly-hued collection of music influenced by composers from Ravel and Rachmaninoff to Maria Schneider and Vince Mendoza. The disc climaxes in the three-part suite “The Nowhere Trail,” which follows Kwassman and his friend Justin through that ill-fated bike trip.
“I learned to be an adult through that experience,” Kwassman says of the journey. “The essence of this album is about going through our relationship and how that has translated to my life.”
Kwassman conveys this autobiographical account through lush, modernist arrangements that suggest an ensemble much larger and more varied than its six pieces. The group assembled for the project includes the composer himself on a variety of woodwinds, the ground-breaking guitarist Gilad Hekselman; guitarist Jeff Miles on “The Nowhere Trail Part I”; and the wordless vocals of Arielle Feinman, a classmate at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.
“She has this insane bel canto operatic training and an almost unlimited range,” Kwassman says of Feinman. “There’s a lot of depth in the kind of textures she can create with her voice. I think vocals bring a human quality to the music that no other instrument can.”
Feinman’s voice combines with Kwassman’s melodica to create the intoxicating melody of the opening track, “Our Land,” which examines the composer’s friendship with Justin at a more idyllic time. The piece is driven by the pulsing piano of Adam Kromelow (who shares keyboard duties on the album with Angelo Di Loreto) and the shimmering guitar tones of Hekselman.
The piece is set at a time when Kwassman still looked up to his friend, when the two bonded over listening to jazz records for hours at a time. “We grew up together through music, listening to Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter and Coltrane,” Kwassman recalls. “I bonded to him deeply through this music. So when I was writing the first piece on the album I was excited about sharing with him, thinking we’d be able to bond over something I had created in the same way we had with Miles.”
Those early listening experiences decided Kwassman on a path to jazz composition. He studied at NYU, where he earned his Masters in the jazz program. He has since received two ASCAP Young Jazz Composer awards and performed with artists like Badal Roy, Ingrid Jensen, Mark Turner, and Geoffrey Keezer. But his main focus is on his own music, which reflects a wide range of influences from the innovative big band work of Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue to forward-thinking composers like Pat Metheny and Brian Blade. Songs of the Brother Spirit evidences a gift for vivid communication and transporting emotional colors. As Kwassman succinctly says, “My goal is always to tell a story.”
Kwassman’s story began in Newington, Connecticut, a small suburban town outside of Hartford. He revisits that quiet childhood on “We Were Kids,” which begins on a note of wistful nostalgia before an extended Hekselman solo carries it into a more intense space as the responsibilities of adulthood begin to interfere, before resolving back into the same tenderness.
Another key aspect of growing up is the loss of a loved one, an experience encapsulated on “In Light There Is Song.” The piece is dedicated to George Stevens, a teacher of Kwassman’s in high school who became a mentor and hero and who succumbed to leukemia during the composer’s freshman year in college. “I’m not very religious,” Kwassman says, “but this piece represents his soul moving from the earth and the imprint his memory has left on my mind.” Bassist Craig Akin and drummer Rodrigo Recabarren buoy the fragile, weightless atmosphere of the piece.
“2/22″ showcases the flip side of death, named for the birthdate of Kwassman’s niece, his first experience with a new life born into his small family. The piece captures the delicate reverence that greets a newborn baby. It’s followed by “Meditation,” a rumination on mortality inspired by Kwassman’s realization, which struck him during a family vacation, that he would one day lose his parents.
“I remember sitting on the beach, looking at the water, and thinking about the fact that my parents won’t be there one day,” he recalls. “That hit me so hard; I really grappled with the idea. ‘Meditation’ takes you through that thought process, the surprise and the anticipation of sadness and the weirdness that you feel imaging life without your parents.”
The album closes with the aforementioned “The Nowhere Trail,” each of its three pieces corresponding to a day on his disastrous bike trek with Justin. The suite illustrates the chaotic, poorly planned sojourn like the soundtrack to an imaginary film of the events. It depicts their uncertainty and exhaustion, the unraveling of their friendship and the eventual relief of coming home. In the end, it becomes cathartic as the experience was in life, renewing their friendship on a more even ground.
“It ultimately was a positive thing,” Kwassman says, “because I could look at Justin on equal footing as opposed to someone I looked up to. I think it was really important for me to grow up and see the world through my own eyes as opposed to looking at it through somebody else’s.”
Songs of the Brother Spirit is the product of that experience, the document of an assured composer confidently allowing listeners to view the world through his own unique perspective.