Saxophonist/composer Jim Gailloreto: The Pythiad - watch the interview
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Gailloreto’s refreshingly original jazz suite imagines gods and heroes getting their beads read by the Oracle of Delphi
Chicago-based composer and jazz saxophonist Jim Gailloreto hit on the idea for his latest CD during a gig at the Getty Villa in Santa Monica a few years back. The Villa is itself a replica of an ancient Roman country house. Statues of gods, emperors, statesmen and heroes haunt the place, conjuring a time of multiple deities with specific functionality.
The creative result of Gailloreto’s Getty Villa immersion is The Pythiad, a nine-movement paean to the Oracle of Delphi recorded in 2016 and released in 2017 by Origin Classical. The Pythiad is jazz chamber music of subtle structure and powerful intent. Gailloreto has found a compositional path that is equally at home in the rigors of contemporary string quintet composition and the freer, no less disciplined world of improvisation and harmonic stretch.
A pantheon of Chicago’s best musicians, this CD features vocalist Cheryl Wilson, whose instrument is a perfection of sound quality, coloration, precise execution, flawless intonation and diction captured with stunning clarity by the recording teams for this project. Double bassist Christian Dillingham’s intelligent chamber music aesthetic and agreeable ‘figured bass’ promenades and improvisations never stray from each movement’s structural purpose. His colleagues in the Jazz String Quintet - violinists Carmen Kassinger and Lisa Fako, violist Loretta Gillespie and cellist Jill Kaeding - are unique in their wide-ranging capabilities. At once comfortable as chamber music denizens, the four are also at ease in the world of improvisation and freer jazz forms.
A first-class jazz saxophonist in his own right, Gailloreto also plays standard orchestral woodwinds for Chicago Opera Theater, Chicago Chamber Musicians and a raft of other ensembles in the Windy City including his own Jazz String Quintet. The Pythiad is his sixth and most ambitious album to date and includes the title work for soprano saxophone, vocalist and string quintet together with three additional and consequential arrangements for the group by the composer’s mentor Cliff Colnot [tracks 10-12]; The Peacocks (Jimmy Rowles), Three Views of a Secret (Jaco Pastorius) and River (Joni Mitchell) which wind down the CD in a suave and stylish manner.
The Pythiad narrative is cleverly conceived to achieve an acute delicacy of message, thoughtfully organized and holistic, while also innovative and entertaining. The Oracle/narrator (Wilson) invites ten of Greek mythology’s lesser known gods and heroes to Delphi for a dose of pre-Freudian psychotropic psychoanalysis. Casting hypnotic spells over each of her subjects, the Pythia’s predictions and predications waft up from a dark place in the cave of human subconsciousness, spoken by the Oracle in the vernacular of our present moment. “Conjure to your minds images of mail-order divinators, psychics with neon storefronts, and ego-bloated cold-readers on late-night television. But know that in the days of old not a man, woman or god would look on a prophet without awe or fear!”
Lyrics for each of The Pythiad’s several movements including the cautionary introduction above, are the stunning, drop-dead gorgeous, coy and complicated literary achievement of Jim Gailloreto’s son Coleman, who imagines the Oracle reading the beads of each subject - speaking for god, hero and oracle alike in twenty-first century jargon. This hip oracular device works beautifully to ease listeners down a narrative rabbit hole of past, present and future consciousness.
The Pythiad’s first movement Oracle of Delphi [track one] is an invocation, setting the stage for the Pythia to seduce with her soothing, “Come inside take a seat,” and later, “Exhale your woes, when you’re ready we’ll begin.” Beautifully structured, Gailloreto’s string writing is marvelous, colorful and evocative. His soprano sax tone subtle in coloration and chamber music-worthy, creates a lovely, free improvisatory spirit for the rest of the ensemble to swirl and hover around. Hypnosis is suggested and obliged musically as the Pythia coaxes her charges to analytical submission. “Every muscle will relax, every worry fly away. Your memories won’t cut like bronze.”
The second movement, Caeneus - The Unbroken [track two] is particularly topical considering today’s profiles in gender angst. Born in a female body, but transformed by the gods into a man to match his inner self, the soprano sax as Caeneus opens the movement and sets a reflective mood; immediately serious, yet fragile and vulnerable. There’s nothing superfluous about Gailloreto’s apt and suggestive string underpinnings below Wilson’s loose and easy but consistently honest vocal stylings here. Shimmerous, the two match musical temperaments - voice to soprano sax - and together make vivid, the tale of Caeneus’s triumphs as a great warrior, “Is it pride that weighs you down? Or do you want to stand unbowed?”
Deucalion & Pyrrha - The Survivors [track three] is the Greek version of the Flood myth, its two human heroes repopulating and re-purposing their descendents with the gift of civilization. “Batten down the hatches, for the end will not come slow,” intones the lyric at the beginning of this darkly descriptive and restless movement. Moods change, tonality fluctuates, improvisation swirls as “Heaven’s eyes survey the scene.”
A poignant violin soliloquy and lovely solo lament on viola make clear these artists and the ensemble as a whole are at home together in a world of shared intuition and comfortable virtuosity. Wilson’s vocal authority is particularly moving and nuanced as she declaims, “Each shudder prompts a shiver, each groan offers dread.”
Menoeceus - The Ultimate Gift [track four] about the Theban prince who threw himself from the city’s gate to fulfill prophesy and save his people is beautifully composed and simply so, with a lovely tune and moving lyrics, “Let me not fall in despair. So that this curse is cut away.”
The next movement Autolycus - The Rogue and Rapscallion [track 5] highlights Gailloreto’s not inconsiderable compositional credentials in the idiom of contemporary art music. A delicious free form bass improvisation nobly cast by Dillingham gets things going rhythmically, matching Coleman Gailloreto’s wonderfully amusing lyrics, “Lovers steal the heart, actors steal the show. So only thieves can truly give.” Full of feist and mischief, Jim Gailloreto’s sweet and savory sax solos are punctuated by playful sideswipes from strings, while vocalist Wilson continues Autolycus’ nefarious banter about the art of burgling with tongue-in-cheek insouciance. Fun.
Asclepius - The Great Healer and Atalanta - The Swift [tracks 6 & 7] are each satisfying respites, suffused with original and imaginative chamber ensemble writing for all members of the quintet, filigreed stylishly by Gailloreto’s suave soprano sax pairing with vocalist Wilson’s fragile and poignant scat.
Opening with a mesmerizing solo vocal rumination, “I remember their love, like solid ground,” Philemon and Baucis - A Loving Couple [track 8] is particularly stunning. The opening bars mysterious, yield to high tones on soprano sax that provide emotional anchor to Coleman Gailloreto’s descriptive Delphic incantation, “I remember their love, never ran dry.” The gods blessed Philemon and Baucis with wealth and happiness unto death and decreed them, “oak and linden trees, forever intertwined.” A lovely, moving and sensitively achieved performance.
The Delphic leitmotif from The Pythiad’s opening bars prepare the listener for the last movement of the work, Diascuri - Inseparable Bros [track 9]. Strings and sax, often in unison, create an edgy color meld, the musical descriptions of the dynamic twins Castor and Pollux chockablock with jazzy slides and attitude. Soprano sax solos augment the composer’s inventive writing for strings. At the peak of her best storytelling, Wilson is also sonically and dramatically in synch with these two defiant bad boys, “Our fists will talk with cracking, each back will guard the other.”
The Pythiad is trans-generational art; multiple universes interacting in perfect harmony. Mythology, history, psychoanalysis, jazz, contemporary chamber music and literature impeccably realized. Gailloreto, his Jazz String Quintet, Cheryl Wilson’s vocal prowess and Coleman Gailloreto’s lyrics guarantee this CD will wake up minds.
Daniel Kepl | Performing Arts Review
Interview with saxophonist/composer Jim Gailloreto about his 2017 CD The Pythiad
Jazz String Quintet "The Pythiad" at Constellation ⤵︎
Vocalist Cheryl Wilson
Violinists Carmen Kassinger and Lisa Fako, Jim Gailloreto soprano saxophone, Loretta Gillespie viola, cellist Jill Kaeding and double bass Christian Dillingham
Composer Jim Gailloreto