Leigh Pilzer, Beatin’ the Odds Review

Jazz From The Heart: A Narrative of Resilience and Triumph


Leigh Pilzer’s Seven Pointed Star, Beatin’ the Odds Review

Jazz From The Heart: A Narrative of Resilience and Triumph

by Nolan DeBuke

Leigh-Pilzer-The-Jazz-Word-cdIn Beatin’ the Odds, Leigh Pilzer crafts a narrative of resilience and triumph, deftly intertwining her personal journey with the broader human experience through the language of jazz. This album, her debut with Strange Woman Records, reveals Pilzer’s multifaceted talents as a baritone saxophonist, composer, arranger, and bandleader. Featuring a septet of outstanding musicians from the DC, Baltimore, and Philadelphia areas.

The album is structured into two thematic suites: the “cancer suite” and the “COVID suite,” each reflecting significant periods in Pilzer’s life. The “cancer suite” opens the album, chronicling her diagnosis and treatment at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center. The first track, “SKCC,” is a melodic homage to Billy Strayhorn’s “Upper Manhattan Medical Group,” encapsulating the initial shock and subsequent acceptance of her diagnosis. The interplay between Mercedes Beckman’s alto saxophone and Amy K. Bormet’s piano brings a poignant depth to the piece, while Pilzer’s baritone saxophone grounds it with a resonant warmth, inviting the audience to share in her emotional journey.

“Lin,” named after her surgeon, Dr. Jeffrey Yen Lin, captures the delicate balance between clarity and gentleness that defined her diagnosis experience. The composition’s soft-spoken yet dramatic quality is a musical reflection of the complex emotions involved. “Waterkress,” dedicated to her oncologist Dr. Bruce Kressel, is an unexpectedly jaunty tune, embodying his optimistic and mischievous demeanor. Pilzer’s bass clarinet adds a playful edge, juxtaposing the serious subject matter with a light-hearted rhythm.

“The Platinum Taxi” stands out with its innovative structure, representing the disorienting effects of a Benadryl drip. The uneven distribution of beats over a repeated bass line, combined with Pilzer’s floating baritone saxophone, creates a sense of surreal disorientation. This track, with its unusual meter and ethereal quality, is a testament to Pilzer’s compositional prowess.

The title track, “Beatin’ the Odds,” composed by bassist Amy Shook, celebrates Pilzer’s triumph over cancer. Shook’s composition, coupled with Pilzer’s arrangement, is both prescient and uplifting, embodying the spirit of resilience. The ensemble’s performance here is particularly spirited, with each musician contributing to the collective energy of the piece.

The “COVID suite” reflects the uncertainty and isolation of the pandemic era. “And Then It Stopped” captures the abrupt cessation of everyday life in March 2020, with a funky broken bass line that mirrors the sudden halt. The interplay between Allyn Johnson’s piano and Frank Russo’s drums underscores the disquieting stillness that followed. “Last Year, Lost Year” delves into the monotony and anxiety of lockdown life, with floating harmonies and intertwining melodies that evoke a sense of drifting through time. This suite, despite its somber tones, ultimately celebrates the resilience and triumph over adversity, inspiring hope and resilience in the audience.

“How Much Longer” is both a question and a statement, reflecting the prolonged uncertainty of the pandemic. The piece opens with a distant percussion, gradually building in intensity, and fading out with an unresolved question, leaving the listener in contemplation. The album concludes with “Where Will We Go?,” a driving, rhythmically propulsive track that propels the listener into an uncertain future, symbolizing hope and the forward momentum despite challenges.

Pilzer’s compositions throughout the album are pleasing in balancing individual expression with collective harmony. Each musician shines within the exquisitely crafted frameworks, allowing for moments of personal expression without overshadowing the ensemble’s cohesion. Ally Hany Albrecht’s trumpet and Tim Green’s alto saxophone add vibrant colors to the sonic palette, while Jen Krupa’s trombone and Amy K. Bormet’s piano provide a solid harmonic foundation. Sherrie Maricle and Frank Russo’s drumming, along with Greg Holloway’s percussion, drive the rhythmic complexity that underpins the album, creating a sense of unity and cohesion that resonates with the audience.

Beatin’ the Odds is a collection of nine compositions that explore adversity, healing, and hope. Leigh Pilzer’s ability to transform personal experiences into a universally resonant musical narrative is at the heart of the project’s success. This album showcases Pilzer’s exceptional skills as a composer, arranger, and performer.

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