Chelsea McBride's Socialist Night School: The Twilight Fall
Browntasauras Records

Words like prodigious and wunderkind naturally come to mind when listening to The Twilight Fall, the debut full-length album from Chelsea McBride's Socialist Night School. Though it's an exceptional recording by any measure, the accomplishment is rendered even more impressive by the fact that the twenty-four-year-old composer, arranger, conductor, saxophonist, and band leader graduated less than three years ago from the Humber Bachelor of Music program in Toronto. A quick review of her background helps explain how she's managed to come so far so fast: born and raised in Vancouver, McBride played piano as a pre-schooler and saxophone in elementary school; so strong was her development that by the end of high school she'd already performed in provincial and national competitions, and in 2014 she not only graduated from Humber but also received the Toronto Arts Foundation's Emerging Jazz Artist award. Studies with David Occhipinti, Darcy James Argue, and Mike Allen have helped facilitate her remarkable growth, evidence of which is on full display on this hour-long recording.

The Twilight Fall isn't, incidentally, the first release of which she's been a part nor is it the only project with which she's involved: McBride's released albums with her pop-fusion outfit Chelsea and the Cityscape and plays in a jazz trio (Chelsea McBride Group), Latin-soul nonet (The Achromatics), and video game cover band (Koopa Troop). It's a recording to be savoured for many things, including its attention to detail (the three-note figure, for example, with which “Intransitory” begins replicates the bell-tones heard by Toronto's subway riders), its sumptuous arrangements (see the singing sectional lines in “Foot In Mouth” for a lovely sampling of her writing for woodwinds and horns), and stylistic breadth. Concerning the latter, there's big band jazz of the classic sort, of course, but she also weaves into the set-list R&B, Latin, funk, rock, balladry, and even smatterings of bossa nova (the title track) and drum'n'bass (the Battlestar Galactica-inspired “Arrival of the Pegasus”). What holds such disparate styles together is a life-cycle narrative that extends from youth to old age, and a thematic thread that emphasizes constant motion. The composer herself characterizes the album as “the soundtrack to your traveling daydreams, the story of your life.”

McBride's Socialist Night School distances itself from other outfits of its ilk by including a vocalist, in this case Alex Samaras, whose croon graces six of the ten pieces (one a reprise), and her cause is thoroughly abetted by a band that invests the playing of her charts with genuine excitement. All rise to the occasion, but the contributions made by pianist Chris Bruder, bassist Steven Falk (upright and electric), alto saxist Colleen Allen, trombonist William Carn, and trumpet/flugelhorn player Brownman Ali (on whose Browntasauras Records The Twilight Falls appears) warrant special mention. There are moments when sub-units briefly extricate themselves from the whole, such as when a piano trio segment emerges halfway through “Arrival of the Pegasus”), and the smoothness with which the musicians alternate between subdued and exuberant passages is noteworthy, too.

The choices McBride makes are constantly inspiring. Rather than open the album on a fortissimo note, for example, she eases the listener in with the gentle “Ambleside,” her smoky tenor sax and Samaras's voice central to the romantic scene-setter's blossom. Dramatically shifting gears, “Intransitory” leaps from the gate, its forward thrust bolstered by the ensemble's rhythmic charge and its dynamic tone amplified by some serious shredding by guitarist David Riddel and drummer Geoff Bruce. Midway through the title track, the band ventures into Weill territory with a cryptic waltz treatment, one augmented no less than by wordless vocalizing.

Among the greatest pleasures the recording affords are hearing how organically the solo spots evolve out of the ensemble playing plus McBride's orchestration, which is so richly polyphonic one might think she'd been writing charts for decades. Any number of examples could be cited to illustrate the latter, but the beautiful arrangement crafted for “In Dreams” should suffice. After a delicate intro by the woodwinds and horns, Samaras's vocal appears accompanied by guitar for the opening verse's first two lines until more instruments emerge for the third, their rise punctuated after the verse's last word “these” by, in order, flutes, a piano sprinkle, and the loveliest of horn chorales—and all such richness present in only the song's first minute.

There are, naturally, areas where improvement is possible. While McBride's lyrics are certainly serviceable, there's room for greater sophistication, and a slightly more rousing solo from the leader during the uplifting closer “Something Simple” (lyrically and tonally reminiscent of Stevie Wonder's “Always”) also might have been considered. But truth be told there's not a whole lot to criticize when McBride's overall accomplishment is so remarkable. Not only does this preternaturally mature release mark her as an artist to watch within Canada, it also suggests that success and recognition beyond its borders is a very real possibility—or at least should be if there's any justice in this world.

February 2017