Mr. Chair, Better Days Review

An Exploration of Genre-Defying Brilliance


Mr. Chair, Better Days Review

An Exploration of Genre-Defying Brilliance

by Ferell Aubre

Mr-Chair-CD-the-jazz-wordWhen you delve into the multi-layered universe of Madison-based ensemble Mr. Chair, you find yourself suspended between multiple genres, where jazz is just the beginning of a sprawling soundscape that melds classical elements with prog-rock, world music, and even electronic bursts. With their highly anticipated 2023 album, Better Days, Mr. Chair elevates this sonic storytelling to new heights.

Following the sprawling narrative of their 2019 double-disc opus NebulebulaBetter Days offers a more focused yet equally complex musical sojourn. The nine-track album impeccably builds upon the foundational themes and collaborative dynamics that garnered Mr. Chair the 2021 Wisconsin Area Music Industry Award for Best Jazz Artist.

“Better Days,” the title track, a composition by Mark Hetzler, begins with a tantalizing rubato intro, setting an ethereal stage that cascades into a funky jazz ensemble. Jason Kutz’s keyboard solo—embellished with diverse tones from synth to piano—is a revelatory moment that exemplifies the album’s complex rhythmic motifs and diverse harmonic textures. Hetzler’s trombone tone, a central figure in the tapestry, is warm and inviting. Optimism permeates the musicality, making “Better Days” an anthem for hope.

The piece “Elegy” is a luminous showcase for saxophonist Eddie Barbash, with Ben Ferris’s subtly bowed bass setting the tone in the opening theme. Far more than a mere collaboration, the work unfolds as a nuanced dialogue between Barbash’s alto sax and Hetzler’s trombone, articulated through their exquisite counterpoint. Barbash’s solo is a masterful display of dynamics and articulation, each phrase infused with a level of excitement that is nothing short of palpable. Following this riveting solo, the ensemble segues into an elegantly arranged section. Here, each musician adds their unique voice to a unified sonic tapestry that builds toward a deeply affecting climax. Overall, the emotional terrain of “Elegy” is one of serene beauty—a heartfelt ballad that allows listeners a poignant moment of respite.

Jason Kutz’s composition, “Britten’s Written Rhythm,” is a labyrinthine piece, oscillating between classical, Island, and jazz fusion tones. The mastery here lies in the seamless blending of these varied elements, culminating in an ensemble section that contrasts 20th-century European classical sounds with a rich Island groove. It’s an intricate journey, invoking a sense of worldly intrigue.

One might wonder how an album of such variety maintains coherence. The seamless transitions, textural modulations, and compositional complexities help Better Days offer an expansive musical journey without ever losing its core identity. Guest appearances like Barbash’s saxophone on “Elegy” and Buzz Kemper’s spoken word on “Fuchsia” offer additional layers without overshadowing the ensemble’s artistic voice.

Mixed by Mark Whitcomb and Mike Zirkel, and mastered by Roger Lian, the album’s production ensures that the musical complexities are presented with clarity and balance. Furthermore, the emotional resonance of Better Days seems perfectly attuned to our times; it offers both an escape from and a reflection on a complex world yearning for better days.

In a musical climate where jazz fusion is experiencing a resurgence, Mr. Chair’s Better Days is a standout within the genre with its progressive and interdisciplinary approach; the album is a compelling listening experience through the limitless possibilities of musical expression. It not only fulfills but exceeds expectations, ensuring that Mr. Chair’s reputation as innovative artists and educators is irrevocably solidified.

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