Big band and jazz guitar take bold journey to “Dark Side of the Moon”

It is, as notes from the top, a “bold concept”: A big band and a jazz/fusion guitarist reinterpreting (“covering” isn’t it at all, not by a long shot) Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”—that modest little 1973 album that sold a bazillion copies and cemented Waters, Gilmour, and Co. as rock legends. The chances of such an audacious project going sideways, celebratingdarksideupside down, or simply “splat” are fairly high. Most Floyd purists, I suspect, would dismiss it immediately, and most jazz purists would be right behind them. (I hope I’m wrong, but I think that’s a fair guess.) That would be unfortunate, because “Celebrating the Dark Side of the Moon” is a stunning album, a splendid example of what can happen when exceptional jazz musicians take on exceptional rock/prog material with an equal measure of respect and experimental energy.

The album is the brain child of ACT-director Siggi Loch (ACT is a German label focused on contemporary jazz), and Stefan Gerdes and Axel Dürr, producers for the NDR Big Band; they enlisted legendary composer and arranger Michael Gibbs and the wildly eclectic, always surprising guitarist Nguyên Lê. The sleeve notes read, in part:

Nguyên Lê enlightens the Floyd’s repertoire – pure happiness – and enchants it with the collusion of the NDR Bigband and its brilliant soloists, deploying new sound-textures created by the uplifting orchestrations of Michael Gibbs. The arrangements here – Gibbs wrote three, Nguyên Lê wrote the others – provide choice settings for inspired improvisations and also reveal other compositions which appear as natural extensions of the original opus. The guitarist’s playing sparkles with those fiery, oriental accents we’ve learned to love, sustained by guests he can trust: Jürgen Attig, Gary Husband, or Youn Sun Nah, whose chalice is brimming with magnetic grace. “Celebrating The Dark Side Of The Moon” is no simple tribute to a record which made history. It fervently expresses the re-creation – exempt from all imitation – of a score which you can hear in filigree. This is a palimpsest. The writing can still be (re)read, with warm hues forged by respect for the original matrix and the multiple expressions of its identity. Like a principle of Life.

The playing throughout, no surprise, is top of the line; but what really jumps out is the muscular, bold, and detailed quality of the arrangements, as well as the propulsive fluidity of the solos and ensemble playing. Yes, you know you are hearing Pink Floyd songs, but you hear them in a new and invigorating way. Lê is especially dynamic; he plays the vocal parts in several songs, and his tone is as rich and expressive as any vocal, bringing out melodic qualities deep in the original material. Listen, for example, to “Money,” with the solo starting at the 1:00 mark:

The other stunner is South Korean singer Youn Sun Nah, whose solo work has always demonstrated a willingness to push—and sometimes simply flatten, by virtue of her power and precision—musical boundaries, moving from sweetness and light to primal, raging darkness at a moments notice (check out her rather harrowing version of “Enter Sandman”). Here she is singing “Breathe”:

The Telegraph gave the album a begrudging decent review, stating, “The remarkable thing is that eventually, the album persuaded me to forget the original. It does this very cleverly, by confirming and subverting our expectations at the same time.” Meanwhile, concludes its far more positive review by saying, “Nguyên Lê’s CTDSOTM is an ambitious, uplifting and frequently exhilarating project whose textural layers and conceptual riches are gradually revealed upon repeated listening. It should appeal to Floyd freaks, progressive big-band addicts and the musically curious alike.” I hope so!

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