Arranger Wayne Alpern Integrates Popular & Jazz Idioms On Gripping Effort ‘Standard Deviation’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Open the inside jacket and there is an emblazoned quote from Frank Zappa that reads, “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” Just the use of Zappa’s name suggests that this is highly imaginative music. These are not songs one associate with sophisticated jazz arrangements rendered by configurations stretching form quartets to septets. They are songs from Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Journey, Temptations, Zombies, Four Seasons”, Bobbie Gentry, Katy Perry and Gotye. Some of these songs may seem dated but Alpern and the musicians make them fresh, even hip on Standard Deviation.

Consider the tracklist: “Thriller,” “Dear Landlord,” “As I Went Out One Morning.” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “My Girl,” “She’s Not There,” “Who Loves You Pretty Baby,” “Ode to Billy Joe,” “Teenage Dream” and “Somebody That I Used to Know” in the order of the original artists above. The only one this writer has heard in an instrumental context is “Ode to Billy Joe,” done by King Curtis and some others too.

Wayne Alpern is a New York City composer, arranger, and scholar who integrates popular and jazz idioms with classical techniques and repertoire to create a sophisticated contemporary style of cross-genre or even post-genre music. After years of composing complex new music, he embraced his personal history and indigenous musical culture and fused them with his classical background and training. His work includes numerous jazz arrangements, string quartets, woodwind and brass quintets, mixed ensembles, pieces for string orchestra, and several piano works. Alpern’s background is fascinating. His musical scholarship and theoretical expertise focus on Schenkerian analysis and 20th-century music. He holds a law degree from Yale Law School and practiced civil litigation for nearly twenty years. He is a renowned educator at several Ivy and other prestigious schools. Suffice to say his biography is jaw-dropping.

This is only his second album, building on the critical success of Skeleton, which followed a similar path, albeit with less commonly recognized popular songs. These are more in the nature of rearrangements than typical arrangements. They illustrate Alpern’s aesthetic credo of deviation from the norms of conventional musical categories and synthesizing them at a higher level of post-genre music.  Even the configurations sometimes deviate from the norm. While some of them are typical, one finds a violin added to the front line of alto sax and trombone in “Ode to Billy Joe,” and joining the line of trumpet, tenor sax and trombone on “Don’t Stop Believin’.” “My Girl” and “Somebody That I Used to Know” have clarinet and violin in the forefront.

After listening to Alpern’s dizzying arrangements of these songs, you’ll find the originals rather pedantic and they will never sound the same to you again. This is often the best way for non-jazz fans to get acquainted with jazz. Start with familiar songs.  What happens here, though, is that these arrangements breathe a new life into some that seem simple melodically, especially the two Dylan songs and “She’s Not There” from the Zombies. Without deviation, as Frank Zappa said, progress is impossible.



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