A venerable poem written 140 years ago by an unconquerably positive and invincibly sentimental Victorian scribe is the inspiration for a hip, 21st-century jazz drummer/composer's new CD, an irrepressibly soulful work that makes its Connecticut debut this weekend.
The oft-quoted, upbeat poem -- which has been cited by everybody from Hollywood screenwriters to such politician/rhetoricians as Winston Churchill and Barack Obama -- is entitled Invictus. It was written by William Ernest Henley (1849-1903), a once famous, one-legged literary figure believed to have been the inspiration for Long John Silver in Robert Louis Stevenson's classic, Treasure Island.
An influential poet, critic and editor in his time, Henley today is best remembered for Invictus, his short yet imperishable ode to his "unconquerable soul." Its most revered, wisdom-drenched poetic sound bites are: "Under the bludgeonings of chance/My head is bloody, but unbowed" (a favorite literary lick for sportswriters); and, perhaps most famously: "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul."
The hip drummer/composer and contemporary Henleyphile, who has boldly titled his second release, Invictus, is Reggie Quinerly, who, through his music, practices what the poem's maxims exalt. Quinerly demonstrates his captainship of his combo and his mastery of his music as he performs on Saturday, November 28, at 8:30 pm at Old Lyme's The Side Door jazz club. He's joined in his Invictus record tour and victory lap by trumpeter Antoine Drye, pianist Orrin Evans and bassist Ben Wolfe.
On his new disc, Quinerly, who's 35, surrounds his artistry as a drummer/composer and bandleader with a talented, young cadre of budding captains of their own fates: the phenomenal pianist Christian Sands, who grew up in New Haven; Warren Wolf, a rising star on vibes who plays with the luminous resonance and dramatic passion of the late mallet master, Milt Jackson; the Israeli-born guitarist Yotam Silberstein and bassist Alan Hampton.
The Henleyesque jazz captain of his ship and fate launches his voyage aboard his Invictus CD with a soulful salute to Horace Silver called "Tavares," one of ten originals on the disc's eleven tracks.
Other pieces reflect other sources of inspiration ranging from the melodically flowing "Variation 24," with its mellow, Ellingtonian feeling, to the uptempo "Light Work," with its evocation of Thelonious Monk's "Thelonious." With time signatures alternating between 4/4 and 3/4 in "Light Work," Quinerly experiments with using a single static note as the melody, while flowing harmonies underneath keep shifting, creating a whirlwind effect.
Even the CD's single standard, on which the band transforms "My Blue Heaven" into a bluesy bugaloo heaven dancing to a funky backbeat, is inspired, he says, by his recent discovery of the groundbreaking music of pianist/composer Mary Lou Williams.
A genius and feminist icon, Williams is another worthy addition to Quinerly's pantheon of inspiring demigods that includes Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. Ornette's and Cherry's passion for the sound of surprise illuminates his "Light Work." His piece "Nimzo Indian," named after a chess maneuver, is also marked with surprising, subtle moves, including jagged intervallic leaps.
A generous, simpatico leader, the drummer gives ample space to his collaborators. Sands, who excels throughout, even gets to display his solo piano mastery on an unaccompanied showcase number called "Kunst Uberlebt," which translates into "art survives," two words reflecting Quinerly's philosophy about "the transcendent power of all great art."
Quinerly, who got his first pair of drum sticks at age six, has studied at the Mannes School of Music at The New School with such masters as Jimmy Cobb, Lewis Nash and Kenny Washington, where he received his BA. Later, after honing his chops in the world outside the classroom, he returned to academia to earn his MA at Juilliard. Praised by the New York Times for his “swinging disposition,” he's drummed for an array of great musicians, including Von Freeman, Vincent Herring, Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Christian McBride and Greg Osby.
His 2012 debut album as a leader was Music Inspired by Freedmantown, a tribute to the historic African-American neighborhood in Houston, Tex, where he grew up. He attended Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts where his classmates included such future jazz worthies as Robert Glasper, Eric Harland, Jason Moran and his present bassist Alan Hampton.
His early, life-shaping discovery of the anthemic poem by Henley occurred when, as a preteen, he ran into a bit of trouble at school, an incident that led his mother to discipline him by sending him on a penitent mission to the local library to memorize the inspirational work.
With its plea for the transcendent power of independence and clarion call to overcome adversity, the verse preached the pragmatic qualities of adult character traits that would come in handy for him later when traversing the dark-and-stormy realities of the jazz world.
More than just punishing her son with a good purgative dose of Victorian poetry, Quinerly's mother wanted him to learn new, empowering mantras through the poet/sage's words of wisdom. Indelibly, Henley's homily impressed his mind with the central importance of personal responsibility, persistence and discipline needed to captain his career and such ventures as his ship-shape Invictus project.
Smooth-sailing, Quinerly's Invictus is graced with the sort of bona fide body and soul, self-reliance and success that Henley, who supported the careers of such masters of creativity as James McNeill Whistler and Auguste Rodin, might well have applauded, perhaps even granting his imprimatur to his 21st century disciple's jazz artistry
In his liner notes, Quinerly sounds a Henley-inspired, almost Churchillian note of triumphant defiance in the face of adversity:
"Many of today's artists face great uncertainty, and while critics, musicians and fans continue to debate the commercial sustainability of an entire industry, I firmly believe its sustainability rests solely within us creators... we must persevere, we must create and we must document, because only that which is documented lives on." Information: thesidedoorjazz.com and (860) 434-0886. The Side Door is at 85 Lyme Street in Old Lyme.
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