Mark Masters Ensemble | Blue Skylight

by Jeff Becker

Mark Masters is certainly not a new name in the jazz idiom, but one that seems to simmer below the surface, for what reason, is beyond my grasp of reasoning.  Mark began his formal studies at Riverside City College in California studying under Roger Rickson, and California State University in Los Angeles. Masters recorded his first two offerings as a combo leader for the West Coast based Sea Breeze label, Early Start (1984) and Silver Threads Among the Blues (1985).  A highly regarding outing for Masters was his collaboration with Stan Kenton’s Creative World company, working on alumni reunions, the compositions of Bob Graettinger, Ken Hanna, Don Piestrup, or Hank Levy, and the recording Back to Balboa (1995) for MAMA records.

A dedicated educator working daily as a professor of jazz education at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, CA. certainly his plate was full, but not by Master’s standards.  In 1997 he founded the non-profit American Jazz Institute and Big Band, concentrating on interpreting the music of Bill Holman, Lee Konitz, and Sam Rivers, among others. The initial recording a tribute to jazz greats was The Jimmy Knepper Songbook (1994) on Focus Records, featuring Knepper. A Clifford Brown Project, working with Benny Golson and Jack Montrose, recorded for the Capri label in 2003.  Post-Gil Evans era, Masters assembled groups of all stars and local musicians to record his arrangements in concept tribute albums, including the Capri CDs Priestess (1990), One Day with Lee (2003), Porgy and Bess: Redefined (2005), Wish Me Well: Reflections on Gary McFarland (2006), and Farewell Walter Dewey Redman (2008).

Obviously, I have been aware of the name of Mark Masters, who couldn’t with a resume like this and a discography as long as the arm can hold.   His latest offering continues the tradition by focusing on the work of Charlie Mingus and Gerry Mulligan. At first glance, one might feel these are a big polar-opposite in their appeal, but that is what makes this release even more appealing. The selections include tunes like “Peggy’s Blue Skylight” and “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” by Mingus and “Apple Core” and classics like “Birds of A Feather” by Mulligan.  But it is in the lesser known gems like “Monk, Bunk and Visa Versa,” or “Out Back of the Barn,” or “So Long Eric,” the listener is especially treated to a sound that shines and Master’s creative ability of crafting arrangements comes into view.

Another highlight of this release is of course the personnel who round out the sound and make Master’s arrangements come to life.  The release sports a seven-piece group featuring: Gary Foster on alto saxophone who has a warm, yet supple sound, Gene Cipriano on tenor sax, who has a strong command of the bebop language and uses it wisely. Adam Schroeder on baritone sax who digs deep into the low note tones with great result.  On some of the Mingus tunes the lead instruments are traded out by trumpeter Ron Stout and trombonist Les Benedict, adding to the further breadth of ideas within Master’s arranging arsenal.  What must be noted most of all, are the core trio of Ed Czach on piano, Southern Californian luminary Putter Smith on bass, and drummer Kendall Kay, who I seem to be coming across quite often in the drum chair on countless recordings, and for good reason, he swings with fervor.

A standout ensemble given tasty arrangements is at hand on Master’s long awaited latest release Blue Skylight (Capri), a welcomed wait, and an ever-greater testament to his continued skills with the pen.  This is not a regurgitation of a standards album, but a well thought out and crafted piece that takes the listener down a path of reminiscent and respect, yet offering something quite special with its ideals and ideas.  A treat to listen to from start to finish.  One I will continue to enjoy for many years to come, more please!!