Mitch Haupers is hardly a Young Lion on the scene. A longstanding faculty member at the Berklee College of Music, the seasoned guitarist-composer-educator is only now seeing the release of his recording debut as a leader at age 55. A showcase of his thoughtful, affecting compositions – which reveal themselves gradually and gracefully – Haupers’ Invisible Cities (July 8, 2014 Release - Liquid Harmony Music) bears the stamp of a steady, veteran hand at the helm. It also boasts an all-star core group of pianist Alan Pasqua
, Invisible Cities stands as Haupers’ long-overdue triumph as a player-composer.
Initially conceived as an intimate duets project, Invisible Cities evolved over time into something far more ambitious, the centerpiece of which is a four-movement chamber work for ten-piece ensemble that casts an enchanting spell on listeners. Elsewhere on Haupers’ stunning debut, the burnished tones of his Klein guitar ring out with clarity and warmth, blending beautifully with the nuanced expression of his all-world ensemble.
The collection opens with the lyrical and beguiling “Veronica’s Lake,” a buoyant 6/4 number underscored by Erskine’s gently swinging touch and featuring a potent tenor sax solo by Mintzer. Oles’ melodic bass solo kicks off “Downtime,” which has Mintzer’s soprano sax intertwining with Haupers’ warm guitar lines on the theme. Pasqua’s gentle, searching piano solo sets the tone for Mintzer’s soaring soprano solo on this evocative number.
Mintzer’s tenor work on the slow, achingly beautiful ballad “Isla Mujeres” is so relaxed and transcendent that it recalls Ben Webster’s masterful playing on Billy Strayhorn’s timeless “Chelsea Bridge.” Erskine underscores this film noir-ish number with some alluring brushwork that sets the fragile tone. “I don’t think I’ve ever played at a slower tempo, and Peter can really pull that off,” says Haupers. “He makes it sound great in that particular pocket.”
The title track carries a Brazilian baiao feel and showcases Mike Miller on nylon string acoustic. And through the miracle of overdubbing, Mintzer becomes a one-man woodwind section, playing flute, alto flute, B-flat, and bass clarinets while also contributing a potent bass clarinet solo on this delightfully buoyant number. “Leoa” opens with a dramatic piano-soprano sax duet before the full band enters at the 1:53 mark. From there it travels through a myriad of changes with Pasqua and Mintzer offering some stirring solos along the way.
The album’s centerpiece, “Four Minor Love Songs Suite,” opens with the moving chamber-like “Take Comfort (In Rose’s Garden).” Haupers provides the solo piano intro here before a combination of Berklee faculty and Boston Pops orchestra players enters with lush orchestral strains to open the four-movement work. Haupers switches back to guitar for the poignant second movement of the suite, “The Farmer and the Monarch,” inspired by King George III, who lost the American colonies during his watch but was also passionately interested in agriculture and instrumental in bringing English gardening into proper British homes. Haupers’ solo fingerstyle guitar intro sets up the theme, which is then repeated and expanded upon by the strings and woodwinds. The third segment of the suite, the hauntingly beautiful “(In Came) Love, So Silent,” features harpist Isabelle Olivier
and soprano vocalist Brooke deRosa. A chamber work conceived and orchestrated from a free improvisation, which also happens to be the gist of a yearlong course that Haupers teaches at Berklee, this stirring piece stands as a compositional tour de force on Invisible Cities. The final piece of the four-movement suite, the dynamic “Beacon Street,” features a six-piece horn section made up of saxophonists Mintzer, Jay Mason and Brandon Fields, with brassmen Dan Fornero, John Daversa
and Bob McChesney, plus a killer rhythm section of pianist Ferrante, electric bassist Haslip and drummer Erskine. Says the composer, “I have to give a lot of credit on both ‘Invisible Cities’ and ‘Beacon Street,’ the two larger ensemble pieces, as well as the whole suite, to the arranging and orchestration skills of The Ayn Inserto Jazz Orchestra
. She opened up those charts a lot and really made them work. Sometimes when you write, it comes out like a vitamin…completely compressed ideas. Then the question becomes how do you smooth out the transitions, how do you flesh out the ideas. And Ayn is brilliant at that. I learned a lot from working with her.”
The gently swinging “Waltz for Bill,” underscored by the hookup between Erskine’s deft brushwork and Oles’ consummate touch on bass, is another tune that carries a double meaning. While most would immediately identify this delicate quartet number as an homage to Bill Evans, perhaps a variation on “Waltz for Debby,” Haupers explains that the affecting tune was actually written for his father Bill. “It was the first waltz I had ever written. The challenge of writing this tune was attempting to go through as many keys as possible while trying to take the edge off the direct modulations and not make it so angular.” Oles, Pasqua and Haupers offer passionate and sensitive solos on “Waltz for Bill” while skillfully weaving through the constantly shifting changes in the harmonic landscape.
The collection closes on an intimate note with Haupers’ delicate guitar duet with Mike Miller on “P.S. Vita (Reprise),” an impromptu dedicated to his mother Vita. In retrospect, the composer reflects on how this duet came about, “I was searching for a way to gently end the recording and Mike had just warmed up by playing the changes from ‘Invisible Cities’ prior to his soloing. I thought that a duet over a reprise of these changes would be a nice postscript.”
Rather than being a showcase of chops grandstanding, the guitarist-composer seeks a different approach on his auspicious debut. “In the world of guitar, as in all things, there’s the yin and the yang. I think my teaching style and my whole approach to playing is more yin. I like quietude and calmness. When it comes down to speaking my mind creatively, I tend to go with the more relaxed, calm, reflective approach.”
Haupers succeeds in drawing in listeners with his warm, inviting style on his long-overdue debut.