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Owen Broder offers vision of American folks, bluegrass, spirituals and blues through modern jazz lens in album

Owen Broder

With his American Roots Project, saxophonist/composer Owen Broder offers his vision of American folks, bluegrass, spirituals and blues through a modern jazz lens.

Heritage, out March 1, 2018, features new compositions inspired by the American musical tradition, with pieces by Ryan Truesdell, Jim McNeely, Bill Holman and other composers.

The band includes Broder on woodwinds; Sara Caswell, a violinist; trumpeter Scott Wendholt; trombonist Nick Finzer; vibraphonist and percussionist James Shipp; pianist Frank Kimbrough; bassist Jay Anderson; and drummer Matt Wilson. On three tracks the band is joined by the vocal trio of Wendy Gilles, Kate McGarry and Vuyo Sotashe.

Broder received a 2018 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award from the ASCAP Foundation. He will perform a concert on Wednesday, March 14 at The Jazz Standard in NYC.

Heritage calls on the talents of a roster of composer/arrangers. They offer twists on familiar American folk tunes as well as their own pieces.

Broder, whose two originals open and close the album. There are contributions from Ryan Truesdell, founder of the Gil Evans Project, who also produced the album; Grammy-winning pianist/arranger Jim McNeely, known for his tenure with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra; composer/arranger Bill Holman, associated with the Stan Kenton Orchestra; trumpeter/composer Alphonso Horne; and Tokyo-born bandleader/pianist Miho Hazama, whose ensemble melds big band jazz and classical chamber music.

Broder’s American Roots Project interprets these pieces through the voices of an eight-piece ensemble:

“It’s an amazing group of people who all have great relationships with each other,” Broder says. “All of these composers really brought the musicians’ personalities into their writing. I think we all prefer to write for the people that are going to be playing rather than just the instruments.”

Broder’s “Goin’ Up Home” begins the album as an introduction to the ensemble and the concept. Sparked by the work of contemporary Americana innovators like Chris Thile, Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss, the song dawns slowly, with Caswell and Finzer intoning the melody over Shipp’s tick-tock pulse. As it proceeds, the song builds in complexity, layering in jazz harmonies and infectious swing rhythms.

Broder earned a 2018 Herb Albert Young Jazz Composer Award for the piece.

Hazama’s first contribution, the original “Wherever the Road Leads,” is a meld of perspectives, coming from the sole composer who doesn’t share the others’ American background. Taking on the role of the inspired outsider, Hazama borrows rhythmic and melodic themes from Appalachian tunes and reimagines them via a twelve-tone harmonic progression, leading to a kaleidoscopic collage of folk idioms. For her second piece, Hazama gives Gillian Welch’s “I’m Not Afraid To Die” an impressionistic gloss pierced by the melody sung by Wendholt’s flugelhorn.

Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya,” is transposed from the Crescent City to a urban jazz environment in Bill Holman’s rendition – as Broder writes, “this swinging re-imagination of the Cajun tune has closer ties to Birth of the Cool than the streets of New Orleans.”

McNeely drew upon his love of bluegrass music for his remake of the folk song “Cripple Creek,” taking a narrative approach that leads the tune on an adventure through an ever-changing landscape.

Frank Kimbrough’s piano sets the tone for Truesdell’s take on “Wayfaring Stranger,” which introduces the vocal harmonies of Gilles, McGarry and Sotashe. The “Brodeo” is Truesdell’s version of a bluegrass tune, setting the scene for an abstract rodeo.

Broder, who has worked with the composer’s Gil Evans Project, praises Truesdell as a bandleader, composer, and as Heritage’s producer. “Ryan’s a leader on a level that few others are,” he says. “He’s such a perfectionist and so detail-oriented, with incredibly fine-tuned ears. As a producer he was invaluable.”

Horne’s “The People Could Fly” looks at a different side of the American odyssey, taking a piece of Bantu folk music from South Africa through the travails of slavery as it survives to find a place in the African-American church.

Broder returns to conclude the album with “A Wiser Man Than Me,” a piece that reflects the improvisational storytelling tradition through a wistful group improvisation on a simple, gospel-tinged melody.

The American Roots Project scans the history of American music and, through the inspiration that Broder finds there, discovers a path into personal contemporary vision. Heritage is an apt name for this collection, at once an inheritance and a new link in a continually growing chain.

“The strains of American musical tradition are as deep and diverse as the lands of our forebears,” Broder writes in his liner notes. “Heritage celebrates that diversity and the different backgrounds that combined to shape an American cultural identity.”

Based in New York City, saxophonist/composer Owen Broder runs in a variety of musical circles as both bandleader and sideman. Broder’s jazz quintet, Cowboys & Frenchmen, received acclaim for its 2015 release, Rodeo, and its 2017 follow-up Bluer Than You Think.

Broder is a member of the Anat Cohen Tentet and has performed with jazz artists including Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project and Trio Globo; he has traveled with The Temptations and The Four Tops, and opened for Grammy Award-winner John Legend with his own soul band, Bitchin’ Kitchen; in musical theater, he was a member of the pit orchestras for the German tour of Grease and the off-Broadway production For the Last Time, appeared with the band in David Bowie’s Lazarus, and originated the woodwind chair in the U.S. Premier tour of The Bodyguard: The Musical.

Broder holds a bachelor’s degree from the Eastman School of Music and a master’s from the Manhattan School of Music.